When Hurricane Laura passed through Louisiana in 2020, it caused extensive damage to Rosepine Elementary. As they rebuilt, Enrichment Lab teacher Beth Thomas suggested building a STEM lab on campus. The lab had a perfect outdoor space for gardening, but Thomas had no gardening supplies. She used creative thinking and came up with a plan to gather donations and upcycle materials from the school and surrounding area.
Students work together to turn a mineral tub into a self-wicking planter, first marking drainage holes.
Transforming Tubs Into Planters
“My son had made several wicking containers at his house. I saw how well his containers worked and liked the fact that the containers didn’t have to be watered every day,” says Thomas. “He showed me the process of making a wicking tub and we talked about making tubs with my students. I loved the idea, and my students were excited when I discussed it with them! We decided it would be a great idea for each class to make a tub. I have thirty classes so I knew I needed at least thirty tubs.” Thomas thought about the large tubs farmers use to provide minerals or protein to their livestock. “I looked in the Market Bulletin and found a farmer who had some for sale. I drove two hours and paid $5 for each of the tubs.”
Classes worked together to measure and drill drainage holes for the tubs. Thomas sourced gallon cans for free from the school cafeteria and students placed about six in the bottom of each tub to create a reservoir. Then they added some purchased landscaping fabric, soil, and a PVC pipe for refilling the reservoir to complete each setup. “We saved a lot of tubs from going to the landfill and it was cheaper for us. These tubs are great because they don’t need a dedicated garden area to grow. They can be placed on a patio or anywhere that receives sun during the day, and they only need to be watered about once a week, depending on how big the roots are.”
Each K-6th Rosepine Elementary classroom tends to the crops growing in the self-wicking tubs and fields.
Deciding What to Plant Where
With the tubs prepared for planting, Thomas asked students what they’d like to grow in the garden space. It was agreed upon that the classes would plant potatoes in the ground and lettuce, cucumbers, peppers, and other edibles in their wicking tubs. Some of the seedlings were purchased from a local gardening center, and the rest were donated from the Louisiana State University Ag Center, Good Food Project, and a local farmer (Thomas’ brother). Everyone agreed that when it came time to harvest, all the classes would come together for a big potato party!
Celebrating the First Harvest
That first year of planting in 2021, Rosepine experienced excessive rains. Crops in the wicking tubs fared well because they drain excess water by design, but due to poor drainage in one part of the garden the potatoes struggled. In the end their potato yield wasn’t large enough for the grand potato party everyone envisioned, yet Thomas and her family rallied once again and brought potatoes from their home gardens to make up for the small crop. Thomas’ brother and husband boiled the potatoes in crawfish boil seasoning and plain water, and the students brought toppings – butter, cheese, sour cream, bacon bits, and ranch dressing. They chopped chives fresh from the garden, and harvested their cucumbers and banana peppers for munching on the side. All in all it was a great success, but their second year turned out to be even better!
Year 2: The Garden, and the Potato Party, Grows!
Clearly seeing the impact the program was making, Rosepine Elementary decided to add another garden the following year. The school’s new garden is about a quarter of an acre and provides even more space for school programming and – everyone’s favorites – potatoes.
Thomas and her students planted 100 lbs. of seed potatoes and a variety of veggies, this time adding flowers for pollinators and raised beds with kale. Keeping in line with her STEM curriculum, Thomas also added an experimental element to the program. Classes planted about ten self-wicking tubs with potatoes this year and tracked growth and yield data to see whether the tubs or in-ground farming would produce a better crop. “The tubs won! Potatoes in the tubs were larger and had more tubers on the plants. Students concluded that the reason the tubs won was because the amount of water was controlled. They received the perfect amount of water in the wicking tubs.”
When it came time to harvest for their second annual potato party, no outsourcing of potatoes was needed! The gardens produced 712 pounds of potatoes, enough to invite the entire school to the party. Word of the bumper crop spread and a local news team came to interview Thomas and film the students preparing for the party. The potatoes were again piled high with tasty toppings and eaten along with lots of fresh produce from the gardens including lettuce and kale.
The community continues to support the garden with upcycled supplies. “Now, I have a surplus of tubs, as I have local farmers who gladly give them to me for free just to get them out of their way,” says Thomas, who has big plans lined up for the upcoming school year. She hopes to start a no-till garden using mounded rows, and to grow their composting program. Students will hear from visiting speakers about nutrition, engineering careers, and pollinators, and a “pollinator day” is in the works.
How to Make a Rosepine Elementary Self-Wicking Tub
- Mineral tubs – heavy-duty, food-grade tubs; check with local farms, ranches, stables, or gifting groups. Also available at most hardware stores.
- Gallon cans – 5 to 7 for each tub, depending on the size of the tub; check with school cafeterias or restaurants.
- Landscape fabric – purchase a roll of commercial-grade material from any store that sells gardening products and cut a piece 3 feet x 4 feet for each tub. Commercial-grade is especially sturdy; however, any landscape fabric can be used.
- 1” diameter PVC pipe cut into a 20-22” long piece; cut one end at a 45 degree angle (one piece for each tub).
- Potting soil
- Plants or seeds
Tub: Drill a hole 5” up from the bottom using a ½ inch drill bit.
Gallon cans: Drill 3 holes around the top and 3 holes around/near the bottom of each can to create the reservoir for the bottom of the tub; place cans upside down in the tub, using as many as will fit into the bottom of the tub.
Spread the piece of landscape fabric on top of the cans, tucking some around the cans; pull the edges up around the inside walls of the tub, creating a holding place for the soil.
Carefully scoop the potting soil into the tub on top of the fabric, try to prevent as much soil as possible from spilling underneath the fabric. Fill the tub to within 2-3” of the top (if planting seeds) or 4-6” from the top (if planting transplants).
Slide the piece of PVC pipe, angled-end down, between the wall of the tub and the fabric. Make sure the pipe reaches all the way to the bottom of the tub.
Plant seeds or plants in the potting soil.
Fill the reservoir by placing a garden hose inside the PVC pipe and adding water until you see water coming out of the hole in the side of the tub.
Water the soil daily or as needed to keep it moist until the plants start sending roots deep down into the soil. (Once the roots are large enough, they will begin to wick up their water from the bottom.)
Once the plants are established and growing well, you should only need to fill the reservoir via the PVC pipe, usually about once a week depending on how thirsty your plants are.
Beth Thomas checks out the kale beds with a student.