4-H goes hydro

Published 8:30 pm Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Students participating in a 4-H program at Booker T. Washington Recreation Center have been learning a bit about gardening lately, but that’s hardly unusual for 4-H students.

What’s different about the tomatoes, peppers and cilantro 4-Hers are growing in a room inside the rec center is that those crops are growing without soil, in a hydroponic garden.

“We’re going to create salsa,” said Danielle Smith Jones of the Virginia Cooperative Extension Service’s 4-H program.

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During the recent installation of the water-based garden at Booker T. Washington, Smith Jones and Extension Agent Marcus Williams taught the participating youth how to program the machines involved with the garden and allowed them to “plant” the seeds in the growth medium.

“There’s a disconnect between children and agriculture,” Williams said, even among kids who might be expected to know more about it because of where they live. Williams said he has heard children answer, “Food Lion” or “Walmart” when asked where their food comes from.

The new garden provides the opportunity for children growing up in less rural areas to learn about agriculture.

“I’m from Suffolk,” Williams said. “People fostered agriculture in me.” Now he gets to share that interest with the children of the community.

The program also teaches leadership, said Smith Jones. Participants have been separated into teams, and each team is responsible for a different task in maintaining the garden, members of the organization said. A computer keeps track of the garden and its needs and operates lights and pumps, while a screen signals when the garden is in need of something, Williams said. One of the teams has been assigned the task of notifying someone when and if an alert comes on the screen, he said.

As the plants grow, Extension officials will visit the students twice a month to engage them in different gardening activities, Williams said. Once the plants have matured, they will harvest the vegetables and herbs and make salsa, Smith Jones said.

A previous gardening project at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary School ended up costing a lot of money, particularly due to the raised beds the garden occupied, Williams said. The agents sought this time to do something on a smaller scale. The hydroponics garden cost about $320, according to Williams.

Another positive aspect of this particular type of hydroponic garden is that it requires little space and little maintenance, Williams said. It also provides a way for even youth who prefer not to get dirt under their fingernails to learn about gardening, he added.