Photo: PES students add new lettuce seedlings to the Lettuce Grow hydroponic planter.

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Phippsburg, ME (December 6, 2021) - As Phippsburg residents drive by their elementary school in the evening, curiosity is building around a classroom glowing with LED lights. The lights are part of a new addition to the school; a self-watering, self-fertilizing hydroponic planter that began supplying the cafeteria with fresh greens at the beginning of November.

Phippsburg Elementary School (PES) received the planter thanks to a partnership with the Kennebec Estuary Land Trust (KELT). KELT and PES submitted a joint application to the Whole Kids Foundation – an “edible education” grant program by Whole Foods – for support of KELT’s community garden in Bath and PES’s school garden.

“The opportunity to get a planter was a bonus for organizations that received a grant,” explained KELT Acting Executive Director Becky Kolak. “I applied and we were chosen – the planter comes from a company called Lettuce Grow.”

The space age-looking planter, called “The Farmstand,” stands nearly five feet tall and is shaped like a vase; it can grow 24 plants at a time. Rings of LED glow lights (funded through KELT’s Whole Kids Foundation grant) promote 24/7 growth.

“The students are intrigued by it as many have never seen plants growing hydroponically,” said Mary McCauley, PES physical education teacher, who is overseeing care of the planter. “Right now, we’re growing cherry tomatoes, edible flowers, kale, spinach, and an enormous variety of lettuce. We tried to pick plants that we can add to the student lunch menu.”

McCauley said students are curious how the plants grow without soil; she explains that the water is given a weekly infusion of nutrients that replace what their roots would usually take from the ground.

Kolak said this is KELT’s first time working with a school on a gardening grant.

“We were happy for a chance to help support our local schools and educators in a way that allows students to interact with the natural environment. There’s a lot of focus on the coast and forests in Maine, but farmland and agriculture are also a part of our landscape,” she said. “Being able to provide a tool for kids to actively engage with that type of learning is important.”

McCauley said she is excited to connect the planter with PES’s Outdoor Education and Science curriculums; students will begin formally learning about plants and photosynthesis in the spring.

“[The planter] allows the students to observe the plant's development from seedlings to salads. We get to eat what we grow, and the students know it is a healthy choice as we link it to the 5-2-1-0 nutrition program that our school participates in.”

RSU1 Superintendent Patrick Manuel said he is impressed with the planter and the hands-on learning it provides. “We hope to work with KELT to pursue additional grant funding that will place a hydroponic planter in all of our elementary schools. They are a unique and engaging learning tool.”

Photo: PES students add new lettuce seedlings to the Lettuce Grow hydroponic planter.