Celebrating Educators: Tower Garden’s Important Role in the Classroom
For years, Tower Garden has served as a classroom learning model teaching students about the basics, like science, technology, engineering, and mathematics -- to even more tactile things, like cooking and garden maintenance. Currently, Tower Garden is used in over 7,500 classrooms in 49 states across the country -- and that number just keeps on growing as Tower Garden expands its global footprint.
We recently had the opportunity to sit down with three women whose personal life mission is dedicated to empowering students to grow and harvest their own food and eat healthier. You’ll hear from Ally Staab with Food Corps in Norwalk, Conn.; Maryssa Schlough, farm-to-school coordinator at Sidney Central in New York; and Becky Black, who has helped to place more than 80 Towers into schools in Ottawa, Canada, over the last several years.
Read more as Ally, Maryssa, and Becky discuss the power of growing food in the classroom, the importance of students seeing where their food comes from, and what hopes they have for the future of Tower Garden and their students.
Ally Staab - Food Corps, AmeriCorps Service Member
Q. Tell us a little bit about your work at Food Corps?
Staab: At Food Corps we love to do any kind of gardening, food, and nutrition lessons, as well as educate students on where their food comes from. Since 2017, the Tower Garden has been at Brookside Elementary. Last year I kind of experimented a little with it. This year was Tower Garden’s time to shine, and I’ve been invested in making it work.
There is a huge chunk of time here where it is too cold to be growing outside, so having a Tower Garden has been really helpful. In a Connecticut climate, I’m still able to grow a bunch of different stuff indoors. Every grade level has had some type of experience or interaction with Tower Garden.
Q. What is the role of Tower Garden in the classroom?
Staab: I started off with the older kids. I’m really interested in urban farming, hydroponics, and aeroponics. I didn’t know if it was too advanced for them, but I just kind of went for it. We read a book called “Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table,” which is about urban farming. I did a whole unit on urban farming and taught students about growing things indoors. They had to understand how growing indoors can be beneficial, and how you can produce your own food during the colder months indoors. We also discussed how you can still grow indoors even if you have an apartment and live in the city and didn’t have the space for a traditional garden.
Q. Why do you recommend Tower Garden to other teachers as a part of the classroom learning experience?
Staab: I think it’s important to have students see where their food is coming from, and to have those lessons in the classroom. I think the Tower Garden is a great tool for doing that. First off, you can start off with seeds and go all the way to being harvested. Mine has wheels on it, and it’s been amazing to be able to take it into different classrooms and show it to different students.
The speed of growth is so great that the kids can see it before their eyes. They can measure and observe. We’ve done taste tests where we’ve done a salad with romaine lettuce, and then we added in cucumbers and tomatoes and salad dressing from the store. We had a bunch of herbs growing and made salsa with the cilantro. They are able to see the full system, from planting to harvesting, and taste the fresh food.
Q. How important is it that students receive early education on the source of their food?
Staab: A lot of the students at our school may not have access to fresh, healthy foods all the time, and if we can give them access, I think it’s super important. If students are more invested in watching a plant grow, the more likely they are to try it. They usually really like it, even if they are nervous to try it at first. Sometimes we hold up our piece of lettuce together and thank it, and then eat it all at once. I try to make it as fun and engaging as possible. Even if they are scared to try it, if all of their friends are trying it, they are more likely to do so.
Q. Tell us one way you keep students engaged with growing?
Staab: In each class I select a harvester, and they get to put on gloves and harvest the herbs or lettuce. They get a sense of pride that they were the ones who got to harvest it and wash it in the sink and get it ready for their classmates to eat. I think getting them engaged and giving them leadership roles allows for them to feel like they are one of the farmers, too.
Maryssa Schlough - Farm to School Coordinator, Sidney Central in New York
Q. Tell us a little bit about your role as farm to school coordinator.
Schlough: I was hired by the school directly to be the farm to school coordinator, with dual purpose to procure local food by farmers into the school for lunches and breakfasts, and educate students by bringing classes out to the garden.
Q. How did you get connected and decide to start growing with Tower Garden?
Schlough: The farm to school program at Sidney was well established and has been around for 5 to 6 years. We have three Tower Gardens in the school. They were already here when I got here, but just needed updates like being cleaned or needing a new pump. The Tower Garden for Sidney has acted as a special incentive for the 6th graders. During their study hall or free work period, if some of the students have finished their work, they can come to my room to help set up and plan and plant the Tower Garden. It’s an incentive to be on top of your work and get your work done.
Q. What kind of lesson plans have you used the Tower Garden for so far?
Schlough: We’ve mainly just discussed crop planting and seeing how plants grow together, as well as thinking about when plants are fully mature -- what do they look like, like making sure you don’t plant a cucumber plant on the top row because a cucumber needs a space to rest as it grows and it will get heavy. We’ve done a lot of cooking. We’ve made pesto with the basil that we’ve grown, and we’ve also made kale chips and let the students add the seasoning. We’ve put kale into a smoothie, and the kids were surprisingly receptive.
Q. Is it hard to get students to try fresh veggies straight off the Tower?
Schlough: We’ve been doing monthly taste tests. With the younger kids it’s harder to get them to try new things. The 4th and 5th graders are more open. I have found that when the kids are involved in the process of planting, harvesting, cooking, serving, and seasoning their own food, they are way more receptive to trying it.
Becky Black, urban farmer who’s placed more than 80 Towers to schools in Canada
Q. How did you first take an interest in gardening?
Black: I grew up on a dairy and horse farm in Southern Ontario and always knew where my food was coming from. Food was always important. Then I entered the hospitality industry and wanted to travel, so I was always around food. In places of education, learning, and healing, I believe with my whole heart and soul that we have to start focusing more on the food.
The last 10 years of my career were spent at a university where I managed three cafeterias on campus. I would always get into arguments with the marketing department because they would partner with Coke and Monster drinks during exam time. I wanted them to focus on nutrition and how we can power the brain during exam time.
When the Towers came along, I was able to get three in the main dining hall at the university. That was my training. Nobody in Ottawa was really growing with Tower Garden. We were able to say that all of the basil that came off of our towers was in our pasta station. We did over 2,000 meals a day. The kids loved it, and they loved to see what we were growing.
Q. How were you able to get 80 Towers into schools in the area?
Black: I went to every trade show, every farmer, every tiny artisan. People just kind of heard about me. Fast forward to when a gentleman approached me at the university, and his first order was 16 Tower Gardens. This was with a private donor through the Ottawa Network for Education. Little did I know it would be a project funded for four years. The year after they ordered 20, they then ordered 24. The towers are about so much more than food.
Q. How important is it that students have access to seeing where their food comes from, from planting to harvesting?
Black: We have to get back to the basics of the power of food and healing our bodies again. We have to get them into the mindset of the power of the plant and what food can do. We have to get back to the earth; education needs to be more outdoors. Get away from the desk.
Q. Where do you feel that the future of food is headed?
Black: I think people are waking up. Tower Garden in Canada sold out twice when the pandemic started. This is about people finally waking up; we need a solution. We will run out of food if we don’t find more ways to grow food. I have a vision that the rooftops are filled with gardens. That we have access to gardens within a 100-mile radius of communities. Why not? Children’s hospitals will be my next focus. Why can’t we get gardens into nursing homes and retirement homes? Imagine the joy it would bring them.
We want to thank Ally, Maryssa, and Becky for sharing their stories and advice for others within the world of education with us! Have a story you’d like to share? Reach out to us via our official Facebook page. Happy growing!
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