DeSoto school plants outdoor garden, aquaponics system for hands-on learning – Dallas Morning News

Students at The Meadows Elementary School in DeSoto are getting their hands dirty — literally.

A once grassy space on the northwest corner of the DeSoto ISD campus was transformed this year into a raised-bed teaching garden.

Inside the school, an old girls locker room — a junk room for the last four years — was made over to house an aquaponics system, a fish-powered garden that converts fish waste to fertilize plants grown hydroponically.

The garden and the aquaponics system opened in early March.

“We basically do most of our learning outside now, weather permitting,” said second-grade teacher Linda Nunley, chairwoman of the aquaponics and teaching garden. “The kids have really made this their own. They’re being more inquisitive and asking more questions about how things run.”

A class visits both areas each day to maintain the garden and aquaponics system. On a recent Monday morning, Nunley’s students visited the garden to rake leaves and overturn dirt around the growing strawberry plants with a small hand rake.

Eight-year-old Patrick Hightower was one of the first to race to his garden bed. He scooped a rake from the bucket and pushed up his gardening gloves.

“Dig. Dig. Dig. You have to start digging. Dig for gold,” said Patrick, who often helps his dad weed his family’s garden at home.

Inside the old locker room, the students fed the tilapia that powers the indoor garden and measured the growth of herbs such as lavender, chocolate mint and sweet mint growing in a neighboring container.

“See, this is what it’s all about — getting them involved,” said Danny Johnson, master gardener and operations coordinator for the city of DeSoto’s parks department. He said the city also has joined the school district in maintaining the indoor and outdoor gardens as part of an effort to establish more gardens throughout the city.

Besides the city and school, residents also volunteer to work in the beds. On Saturday, members of the Kohl’s Associates Go Green Team are scheduled to work in the garden.

The teaching garden is part of a partnership with the American Heart Association, which has planted similar gardens for selected schools across the country to educate students on nutrition and combat obesity.

Work began last August to plan for the garden’s opening just before this spring and incorporate it into the school’s curriculum, The Meadows Principal Teresa Angeles said.

“If we can do hands-on learning, [the students] are going to learn better then if we give them a worksheet about gardens. Anything I can do in any area that’s hands-on for the kids, I’ll do,” Angeles said.

The garden was funded by a $25,000 donation from MetLife, which helped pay for rakes and shovels and lumber to construct the raised beds. Students then helped piece the boards together and placed the first plants. Angeles also contributed about $600 from the school’s budget to supply the plant seeds, fish and fish food.

For the aquaponics system, the district spent a $3,500 American Heart Association teaching garden grant with DeSoto-based nonprofit Aquaponics and Earth — a decade-old organization charged with establishing these systems at orphanages as a sustainable food source.

The Meadows is the first school to test the system, but the organization hopes to spread the method to other local schools, said Jonathan Musser, a representative for the nonprofit.

“This is our hometown. It’s where we live. There was a need here for sustainable food solutions, and that’s what we provide. We want to empower these kids with the knowledge that they can grow their own food, and that’s an empowerment no one can take away,” said Musser, whose father, John Musser, co-founded the organization.

The Meadows isn’t the first school in DeSoto to establish a community garden. Rena Thomas, communications specialist for the district, counts at least two others. Ruby Young Elementary was the first to establish its raised bed vegetable and ornamental green space, along with a pond, through the help of the city.

Nunley said the school drew much of its inspiration from Moss Haven Elementary’s Outdoor Learning Garden in Dallas, a fellow American Heart Association teaching garden.

“I hope to have a green thumb by the time all this is over,” Nunley said.

Neighborsgo reporter Nanette Light can be reached at 214-977-8039.


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