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Tower Gardens provide lessons and lunches

District given six aeroponic garden systems by 1964 graduate

East Grand RapidsTower Gardens in six East schools this year have provided important lessons in science and the foundation for a few healthy lunches.

The gardens, billed by the manufacturer as “vertical, aeroponic garden systems,” are used to grow plants without soil using liquid nutrients, with grow lights to simulate the sun.

At Wealthy Elementary, science teacher Megan Miller and her fifth-graders have had lessons and lunches in equal numbers. And while the lunches have been healthy, some lessons have been hard, said Miller and her charges.

She and her 27 students worked to get the combination of water and lights right last fall, including after Thanksgiving when almost everything they had been growing died. It was disappointing, but ultimately led to tweaks that resulted in good harvests later in the year.

“Instilling a growth-mindset mentality when digging deep into science is one of the biggest and most important skills to learn,” Miller said. “Science is about attempting to answer a question, experimenting, researching, learning, failing, tweaking and then trying again, applying what we learn to new ideas. By learning from our mistakes – too little sunlight, an accidental drought, what plants flourish best (in a Tower Garden) – we changed our methods and were able to create great growing success.”

‘We Figured It Out’

Students were sanguine about the early mistakes.

Of the Thanksgiving die-off, Lincoln Russell said simply: “That wasn’t so good.” He added with a smile: “But we figured it out.”

And Arya Pai said when she first saw the Tower Garden, she thought “How is this thing going to grow a plant?”

“But it works,” she said. “Once we learned we had to use more light and more water, we learned it works.”

During a recent science class, Arya and Miller looked at Arya’s strawberries and tried to figure out if tweaks were needed for the crop to develop faster. 

Arya said she really likes strawberries but didn’t realize how fussy they are.

“It was an easy choice to grow strawberries,” she said. “Or try to grow strawberries I should say. They are kind of hard to grow, I think.”

Fellow classmates were growing a variety of other produce.

Rory Bigler said: “I really like plants, so this has been great. Especially cactus plants. I have a bunch of plants in my bedroom, so it’s nice to have the garden here.”

And Cole Saunders was impressed by the way the Tower Garden “simulates growth of plants in real life,” calling it “kind of cool.”

Megan Miller’s fifth-graders at Wealthy Elementary prepare for a spring harvest

A Donation from 1964 Graduate

Students liked the lunches the Garden has provided.

In fact, Della Avendt picked basil to grow because no one else was, and she thought “it would be nice to have a variety of plants when we eat stuff.” She added: “It’s cool to eat the stuff that you grow. We grow cucumbers at home. That’s my favorite.”

‘It was an easy choice to grow strawberries. Or try to grow strawberries I should say. They are kind of hard to grow, I think.’

– Arya Pai

Tower Gardens run between $1,700 and $2,000 each and were donated to the district from 1964 East graduate EGR alum Cynthia Daverman Gompers, part of the first class to graduate from Lakeside and the first to graduate from what was then the new high school.

Miller appreciated the generous gift.

“I was incredibly excited that I was a recipient of a Tower Garden,” she said. “To be able to have plants growing in our fifth-grade room all year has been amazing. Of course, I think the most exciting days have been our three harvest days where we get to eat these healthy lettuces and herbs we grew.”

Della’s basil has been the biggest winner, Miller said, but students have also enjoyed a variety of lettuces and even found they really like kale and chard.

“It’s been so fun to watch the excitement and ownership that our fifth-graders have for growing plants,” Miller said. “They have a better appreciation for growing their own food and many have talked about starting gardens this summer or helping out with their family gardens even more.”

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Phil de Haan
Phil de Haan covers East Grand Rapids and Kelloggsville and is the lead reporter for Grand Rapids. He hails from Exeter, Ontario (but has called Grand Rapids home since 1985) and is the son of a longtime public school teacher who taught both English and machine shop. Phil took both classes at South Huron District High School, but English stuck, and at Calvin College, where he met his wife, Sue, he majored in English and minored in journalism. His background includes both journalism and public relations, including teaching an advertising and PR course at the college level for almost a decade. In the summer of 2019, he began his own writing and communications business, de Haan Communications. In his spare time, Phil plays pick-up hockey and pickleball and tries to keep tabs on his two adult children. Read Phil's full bio

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