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“We expanded our garden into a sensory-rich playground where nature became a teacher, where hands-on learning was the norm instead of the exception, where active learning took place and multiple learning styles were engaged, and where teamwork, cooperation, respect, and responsibility naturally occurred among students,” shares Bethel Elementary School Library Media Coordinator Melissa Buchanan about their Midland, North Carolina, school’s award-winning 2017 Carton 2 Garden Contest project.

Inspired by a visit to neighboring school garden, Melissa’s students decided to use the Carton 2 Garden challenge to dive into the world of hydroponics.  They built three innovative, floating raft beds using collected milk cartons, a few pieces of lumber, plastic liners, insulation boards, and an air pump. The 4th graders researched and then designed the beds, creating their own blueprints and generating a supply list. They then got to watch their plans come to life by helping with the construction of the beds, which were built on top of concrete in a courtyard, Students drilled pilot holes and screws, laid the plastic liner, hammered in the supports, mixed the hydroponic growing solution and filled the beds.  Melissa noted that for most of her students, this was the first time that they had ever used construction tools. They named their project ‘Bethelponics.’

The young gardeners grew lettuce plants for their garden project. They started seeds in peat pots under Jiffy greenhouses and placed them in windows.  Some of the windows received morning sun while others received afternoon sun, which provided an opportunity for the students to observe how light availability impacts plant growth. (The plants receiving afternoon sun grew twice the size of the ones receiving the less-intense morning light.) After a few weeks, the lettuce was replanted in milk cartons with the corners removed to accommodate the roots and then planted in their hydroponic raft.

As their plants grew, they compared their hydroponic crops to those grown in soil in traditional garden beds.  “When we planted lettuce in our raised beds in the garden, we had to water them daily. To deeply saturate the roots, we had to overwater which meant that water ran deeper into the soil and some of it evaporated or was lost to runoff. With hydroponics, the water is held in a basin where the plant’s roots only use as much water as it needs. Because it is covered, evaporation loss is no longer a problem. No water is wasted. This same water can be used on multiple crops for multiple seasons. Ironically, hydroponics saves water.” They estimated that their hydroponic garden used 2/3 less water than their traditional garden.

Additional benefits of the hydroponic garden that Melissa noted include that it was completely organic, had fewer pests, no weeds, and they could recycle the water and nutrients multiple times.

What makes their garden project even more special? Students donated the lettuce they harvested to the local food bank. “The families who come to the food bank do not typically get fresh food, so the church was thrilled when we asked them if we could donate fresh lettuce from possibly 100 or more lettuce plants.”

Participating in the Carton 2 Garden Contest provided a wide array of connections to the curriculum. As they planned their garden and cared for their plants, they engaged in hands-on science experiments, solved real world mathematical equations and were introduced to many different engineering concepts. Students also increased their knowledge about recycling and the impact of conservation efforts on our environment.  The impact of the project exceeded their expectations. Melissa shares, “Students who struggle in the traditional classroom with focusing and with behavioral issues thrived while working on this project. The hands-on learning helped them feel successful, some for the first time ever. While taking care of plants, nurturing them as they grew, students learned empathy and felt passionate about nature and helping others.”

To learn more about the annual Carton 2 Garden Contest visit: http://carton2garden.com/.