FREEPORT

F reeport Intermediate School students kind of consider themselves high-performing underdogs, Principal Ian White said. Their successes could remove that tag, however, with programs such as the implementation of an aquaponics garden right on campus showing what the sixth- and seventh-graders can accomplish.

The garden, which the global webcast WE Day Connect recently featured, will be part of a larger courtyard area that is already set up for students to have lunch or for teachers to hold class. There are picnic tables, paid for with a donation from the Brevard Co. in Brazoria and built by the school’s shop class, and a dry-erase board.

The patio and garden are shaded by an overhang, while the grassy area of the courtyard is fenced to protect the students. The shop class has built a water feature for the centerpiece, and the school is looking for sponsorships to implement some gravel walkways, White said.

“We haven’t used any school money,” White said. “It’s all been through donations and grants.”

The same is true of the garden.

The project was made possible through a We Are Innovators grant from Dow Chemical, which purchased the initial system last March. It started with just the fish tank and two plant beds, White said.

“We wanted to find a sustainable gardening method,” White said.

The garden combines aquaculture, which is the raising of protein sources aquatically, with hydroponics, which is the growing of plants. Aquaculture always involves heavy byproduct from fish, including ammonia, while byproducts in plant-growing often come from the added fertilizer.

But by combining the two processes with bad byproducts, the plants cleanse the water for the fish by feeding off that byproduct.

“So they kind of feed each other and take care of each other but you have to keep both at an equal balance,” White said.

Outside fertilizers cannot be used; it must be natural implementation, he said.

The next step is to go fully green with the implementation of a wind turbine and two solar panels. Between rainwater collection and solar wind power, the garden can become fully self-sustaining; the only thing they would have to contribute would be more food for the fish, he said.

The fish are Egyptian Nile tilapia, chosen because they are hardy, reproduce rapidly and grow quickly. The fish tank currently holds several generations, and some have grown to 3 pounds, White said.

The water from the fish tank goes through a cycle that removes the solids, and the water is pumped into a couple of different media beds in which plants are growing, he said.

As waste from the fish cycles through the system, it’s broken down naturally into nitrates that help the plants grow, he said.

In the media beds, herbs including lavender, sweet basil, parsley, mint and sage are grown. Other plants include tomatoes, collard greens, broccoli and jalapeño peppers, which have “a good kick,” White said.

“I like the basil and parsley because they both go on a lot of different foods, so they make my foods taste even better,” eighth-grader Debbie Miller said. “I also like the lettuce and kale because they’re what I was eating the whole time for WE Day.”

One of the things she’s already learned from the garden is how most plants actually don’t need to be cooked before eating, she said.

In the deepwater culture beds, growing on rafts that float on top of the water in which the crustaceans live, are strawberries, spinach, kale, Swiss chard and even a pineapple clipping that’s been growing for nearly a year.

“It’s just cool how it flows with each other, and once it starts going, it can do it by itself,” eighth-grader Joshua Diaz said of how the different components work together.

Diaz was one of the students who helped assemble the initial system last school year, White said.

The garden also houses some house plants, including an English pea plant and English ivy. The school has plans to plant English ivy where it will climb up their gazebo.

“If we’re gonna spend money, we’re gonna spend it on our kids — not decorations and all that — so sometimes we make our own decor,” White said.

The courtyard houses a few other plants, which might have been brought in by teachers or families. They’re welcome to bring in a house plant that’s not doing well and the school will take care of it, and then it can stay at the school or be taken home, White said.

“We wanted it to be a very open, community-type situation where everyone feels welcome to learn about it, because you don’t get to see this type of system in everyday life,” White said.

Some teachers have contributed money or other things to the gardening system, some out of a curiosity to see what will work and what won’t, he said. One teacher bought clams and mussels to see how that would work, he said.

Clams help purify the water and are expected to eventually become large enough to be a meal.

Rather than put money toward repopulating the animals, the school bought a lot of things that will be able to sustain themselves, White said. In addition to the clams, those include worms to help with decomposition, and crawfish and freshwater prawns, among other organisms.

“A lot of crustaceans and decomposers,” White said. “It’s exceptionally rich in nutrients. The more we break it down to a natural cycle, the healthier the system.”

The school’s current set up is designed to feed a family of four one meal per day for one year. The ultimate goal is to show that a family can survive off a self-sustaining garden such as this one, and to teach the students to look at other options for food sourcing, healthy living, and building a sustainable lifestyle, White said.

“As the school year goes we’ll let it keep growing and eat what we want off of it, and share what we can,” White said.

Corinna Richardson is the features writer for The Facts. Contact her at 979-237-0150.

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