By Emily Landseidel, AmeriCorps Farm to School Coordinator, Greenbrier County, WV
When I ask my students what plants need to grow and thrive, invariably, one of the first responses is water. Indeed, plants need water. For in-school gardening programs, water can be a persistent issue or challenge. Fortunately, for this growing season, my students, faculty and I have water faucets available for use in our greenhouses. The availability of water is a necessary starting point. Once the challenge of water availability is overcome, the challenge evolves into setting up a system to ensure seeds and plants are watered on a regular basis.
Teachers, faculty, and students may volunteer to help water but what happens over long weekends and vacations? Although class is not in session, plants will still need water. I have decided not to ask volunteers to drive in to school on their days off during the school year. (I think that would be a really great way to lose support and a volunteer.)
In October, in my excitement to move students from the classroom into the greenhouse for a planting lesson, I forgot about the watering challenge. By late-October, I was singly focused on planting before Thanksgiving break. There were a multitude of reasons for this: I wanted to get seeds into soil but also thought it would be a great way to break up their in-class routine; an opportunity to use the students’ anxious pre-vacation energy to my advantage. I calculated that planting in early November would create more in-greenhouse time for transplanting during the two weeks before Christmas break. I also planned two after school activity days for the weeks leading up to Christmas break; to ensure enough help to transplant all of our sprouts. Additionally, the sooner my gardeners harvest, the sooner the program will be able to fund itself through sales to the school’s cafeteria. (A definite plus!)
The watering panic: One greenhouse available for my students and me to use does not have a sprinkler system in it. At this school, I taught the students a planting lesson two weeks before Thanksgiving break. The school was going to be closed for the entire week of Thanksgiving. To my knowledge, no one was planning to stop by on a regular basis and I was set to be out of town. After nearly two weeks of growing, there were eight trays of sprouts in the greenhouse; they would not survive an entire week without water. I panicked but a level head prevailed. I advocate for my students to think scientifically when possible in the greenhouse; so here was the perfect space for me to follow my lead. To do so, I followed a format my students use in science class: The Scientific Method.
Question: How can I ensure the students’ plants get watered every day?
Background Research: Here, I did a few web searches and consulted with a few gardeners to brainstorm potential solutions to this challenge. I found that most greenhouses are setup with a sprinkler system (our is not; so this was not encouraging). But I discovered that many gardeners had success using a soaker hose to water their gardens, instead of spraying their gardens daily. The soaker hose is made with a water-permeable material that allows water to seep out of the hose; whatever is near the hose receives a gentle watering. Gardeners had success using soaker hoses throughout their gardens, with sizeable plants. Would this work with seeds and tiny sprouts, and if so, how? I feared that if the soaker hose sat directly on the containers of seeds the hose would prevent the seeds from emerging from under the soil.
The Hypothesis: If I can rig a soaker hose above the trays of containers, then with a timer, I can ensure the seeds receive water each day.
Materials: a soaker hose, faucet, timer, batteries, and patience.
Step 1: Setup timer system. Connect it to the faucet and setup times for daily watering. (This step was relatively easy. I ended up purchasing a plug to completely close off one of the timer hose outlets; to ensure minimal leakage from the timer system. Additionally, be conscious of what time the system is scheduled to water each day. I tested the length of time after I finished setting up the entire system but wanted the timer to water in the mornings, before students arrived, so there was little chance of a surprise rain shower with students present.)
Step 2: Design a plan for how to setup the soaker hose. (Brainstorm with students if possible!)
Step 3: Rig up soaker hose, leaving plenty slack in the hose to connect it to the timer faucet. (Here is where I inadvertently challenged myself. I did not purchase any zip ties to secure the soaker hose to the shelf above the trays of containers. At the hardware store I debated on this and decided against purchasing them, to save a small bit of my grant money; container gardening is expensive to start because soil is not cheap. But a few dollars can purchase one cubic foot of soil.) I used straightened paper clips to secure the hose to the shelf. (If I had to do this again, I would purchase the zip ties or use thinner wire. By the end of the day my fingers were pretty useless from constantly bending the paper clips to wrap around the hose and shelf.)
Step 4: Connect the soaker hose to the timer faucet.
Step 5: Test the timer and entire system to ensure the timer works properly and the soaker hose is evenly watering.
(After step 5, I had to go back to the drawing board a few times and was able to consult with my students about different ways for connecting the soaker hose because the hose was pretty hard to maneuver right out of its coil I secured it in coils. This created a disparity in watering. One of the students suggested working the hose in lines back and forth. We talked about this, the fear here being the water takes a bit of time to work itself to the end of the hose, plants at the end of the line would receive less water. We also feared that the hose would kink which would stop water flow. Another student suggested concentric squares (with rounded corners) with a few inches between one square and the next. After a bit of discussion this is what we chose to do because of limited class time I took on taking down the initial experiment and securing the hose in squares.)
Analysis: After monitoring a few timed “rainfalls”, I noticed that with the concentric squares, each cell in the trays of containers looked to be receiving a good soaking. There were a few cells that received less water, some receiving more but each cell received some water. This would give the seeds a chance to sprout and begin to emerge from the soil.
Results: Success! Water crisis averted! After three weeks of using the timer and soaker watering system, the greenhouse now holds sprouts of each seed my gardeners planted. They are emerging from the soil on time and looking healthy!
Although I think that tasking someone with watering can be a great way to create involvement and foster a sense of ownership, in a school environment, as I mentioned before, this can be difficult because of school vacations and snow days. I also worry that assigning one person to water over months could have a negative effect: watering each day, depending on the amount of plants involved and what tools are available could take a half hour, plus commute time when school is not in session; that’s a lot of work! For these reasons, I thought it would be easier, in the beginning to rely on a timer system but hopefully, as more teachers and students become more actively involved in the greenhouse there will be a greater pool of volunteers to draw from and maybe, I can ask one person to water one day of the week rather than five days each week.
As I move forward, all of this may change but what I know now, is that it’s working. So what are your thoughts? What are the potential impacts of having an automated watering system (and taking an easier route) versus volunteers to water on a daily basis?