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Durango students harvest 10 pounds of hydroponic lettuce as part of greenhouse class

Bounty will be used in Needham Elementary, Escalante Middle School cafeterias
Escalante Middle School Greenhouse teacher Lu Boren inspects the lettuce grown in her hydroponic greenhouse classroom. Students harvested 10 pounds of lettuce Thursday that will be distributed to Needham Elementary School and Escalante’s own cafeteria. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

Students in teacher Lu Boren’s greenhouse class at Escalante Middle School harvested 10 pounds of lettuce on Thursday that will contribute to feeding students at other 9-R schools. The students have been growing lettuce since late August in the classroom’s hydroponic system.

The 10 pounds of lettuce will be put to use at Needham Elementary School and Escalante’s own cafeteria. Sometimes lettuce harvests are also given to Durango High School. Boren works with Manna soup kitchen as well, which helps her class by providing supplies and stock.

The Escalante hydroponics greenhouse is the only garden within Durango School District 9-R that is used year-round as a result of it being indoors, although other schools, such as Needham and Riverview elementary, tend to their own community gardens in the spring through fall.

Boren said her greenhouse class teaches students about safe food preparation as well as aspects of hydroponic growing – growing without the use of soil – such as balancing pH levels to grow the ideal cultivar.

“They know about the pH in the tank,” Boren said. “They know where the pH needs to be so that the lettuce grows well. The electrical conductivity, they know that that has to do with the fertilizer and how it affects the pH.”

Boren said the hydroponic area contains 360 quarts of lettuce and that the 10 pounds of the lettuce harvested Thursday amounts to about a quarter of the stock.

Escalante Middle School students harvested 10 pounds of lettuce grown in the school hydroponic greenhouse on Thursday. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

“I’ve got two or three kids that are kind of taking the lead on making sure the tank is in the range that it needs to be in to grow the lettuce well,” Boren said.

When pH is lower than 6.0, such as on Wednesday, students increase the pH. When pH is above 6.5, as it was Thursday morning at 7.1, students add fertilizer to the hydroponics system to decrease the pH levels.

“The more lettuce that is growing, the more (fertilizer) we want in the tank,” Boren said. “And the more we seem to have those bouncing back and forth between those highs and lows, it’s hard to get it just right when we’ve got that much lettuce in it and it’s that big.”

Eighth grade student Joey Rohde, 14, said the lettuce project started with her class learning about how to properly plant and water the seeds, including how to use the right solutions in the water to help the plants grow in a healthy way.

Eighth grader Kara O'Donnell, 13, said part of the project involves monitoring pH levels to make sure the lettuce is absorbing nutrients so that it can grow.

Rohde and O’Donnell agreed that maintaining the right pH levels – between 6.0 and 6.5 – and electrical conductivity of the water has been the most challenging part of the project.

Students also learn how to prepare food and make items such as jam in Boren’s class. Boren brings basil and parsley grown in her home garden that students dehydrate and freeze for future meals.

Three hundred and sixty quarts of lettuce grow in the hydroponic greenhouse at Escalante Middle School, said greenhouse teacher Lu Boren. (Christian Burney/Durango Herald)

“I’m very passionate about local foods, in-season foods, and so it’s nice for them to learn that you take that in-season stuff and you preserve it for later in the year,” Boren said.

Students also prepared pasta sauce they froze for later use during a spaghetti dinner their parents will get to enjoy. The dinner caps off the greenhouse class during the end of year Celebration of Learning. During the day of the dinner, the students will spend all day cooking before the feast that evening.

The end of the year Celebration of Learning is an open house for students to invite parents to see the final presentations in some of their classes.

“My tomatoes went bad too fast to can them,” Boren said. “So we actually cooked tomato sauce down and just froze it. We’ll use that tomato sauce and we’ll use the parsley and the basil and all of that for spaghetti sauce.”

Boren described the content of her greenhouse class as fun, hands-on learning for students. This year, her class has 23 kids in it, which she said is her largest greenhouse class ever. She usually has about 18 students.

“Just so many of these kids have never cooked before at all,” Boren said.

Students tried making zucchini bread, which didn’t turn out so great, but that was their first cooking experience, Boren said.

On Wednesday, Boren said, students used Manna-supplied items to make 200 turkey sandwiches in about 30 minutes. The students prepare sandwiches weekly and provide them to Manna for the kitchen’s food distribution services.

Good Food Collective also supplied produce for Boren’s class, although they were low on stock.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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