Community and students get involved at aeroponic greenhouse

Members of the Shoals community work at the East Campus aeroponics greenhouse. Aeroponic gardening classes were taught this summer and participants were able to grow plants without using soil.

Students and community members can now grow plants without soil at East Campus.

The Department of Human Environmental Sciences opened an aeroponic greenhouse in May where a variety of vegetables were grown.

“In the summer we taught classes over there for the community,” said Jill Englett, instructor of Human Environmental Sciences. “We did a five-week class so they could plant, watch it, and harvest.”

At East Campus there are 10 industry-sized towers with bases that hold 20 gallons of nutrient-infused water. The towers hold a total of 44 plants and are equipped with a pump on a scheduled timer that propels water to the top to drip over the suspended roots, Englett said.

She said the classes grew eggplants, basil, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, okra and peppers.

“In the summer we actually planted cucumbers from seeds,” she said. “We put some in the tower and some in the ground. We were picking huge cucumbers off the tower when they were just starting to flower in the ground.”

Englett said growing plants this way takes up less space, the growth time is shorter, and they can recycle water.

Senior Emily Wood helped with the greenhouse over the summer.

“I enjoy working with it because it is so different from conventional gardening,” Wood said.

She said she helped assemble the tower, choose the plants, plant the seeds and reap the harvest.

The vegetables and herbs they harvested provided food for the campus culinary center, and extras were donated to local soup kitchens or local restaurants, Englett said.

“We had so much, and we didn’t want it to go to waste,” she said.

Since this style of gardening is relatively new, most of what they do is “trial and error,” Wood said.

“Several times we have checked the gardens only to find the entire collection of towers wilted and dying because the power switch will be cut off that keeps the water running over the plant roots,” she said. “However, we have also learned that the plants are amazingly hearty and will perk right back up with a day or two of continuous watering.”

Wood said she enjoyed the community education classes at the greenhouse and believes more students should be involved for the learning experience.

“Even with frustrations and setbacks in our plans, we had such a great time together,” she said. “Working at the garden continues to be a learning experience for me, and it will be interesting to learn about the towers as we transition from summer gardening to fall and winter growing in the greenhouse.”