Tag Archives: gardening

The Flower Lady of Leavenworth

September 12, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If you live in or frequent the Elmwood Park area, chances are you’ve seen her. A petite, mysterious figure frequently and fastidiously tending her impressive garden at 57th and Leavenworth streets—her face obscured by a wide-brimmed, straw hat reinforced with duct tape, her skin fully cloaked to protect from the sun. Within her well-tended landscape, sturdy sunflowers jockey for vertical position alongside fragrant, alabaster tuberose, while bright daylilies and zinnias stretch from the devil’s strip like nimble yogis to meet the street and the sidewalk.

“Many people don’t know me or my name, but they know that I grow flowers and I wear this duct tape hat,” says Maureen Borden, whose bountiful, 35-year gardening streak began with a single packet of zinnia seeds from Earl May.

A low-key local celebrity of sorts, many of her admirers know her as some variation of “The Lady of Leavenworth” or “The Flower Lady,” but Borden’s much more than just your garden-variety gardener. Though the zinnias will be late to the curbside this year, due to a sidelining springtime shoulder injury, Borden’s literary career is coming up roses since she published her first novel, Hear I Go, in fall 2016 at age 72.

Her debut work tells the story of “Malka,” who’s grieving the loss of her partner alongside the painful fact that she wasn’t by his side in his final moments. As a means to heal, Malka volunteers at a hospice facility, hoping to assuage her guilt and offer a “good death” to her charges.

“Malka wasn’t there when her beloved died and she’s determined to give someone a proper send-off, so she answers an ad to read to the dying, because hearing is the last sense to go before death,” Borden says.

Malka’s journey features Heddy, a dynamic hospice nurse, her zany neighbor, Lily, and Tomas, a kindhearted pawnshop proprietor. Hear I Go also introduces several colorful patients and their families, and Borden’s at her best when drawing these rich, compelling characters. Scott Morrill, who designed the book cover, added the description “A Tale of Life, Death, Bar-B-Que & The Tango,” succinctly expressing the blend of bittersweet and whimsy within.

Hear I Go is heavily inspired by Borden’s own experience of losing her “beloved” Micky Metz.

“We were together five years, from 1983 to 1988, when he had the audacity to drop dead of a heart attack,” Borden says with witty panache. “The book is mainly fiction, but there’s a considerable amount of truth in terms of myself and the character of my beloved. To get past my grief, I started writing about Micky about a year after he died.”

Like Malka, Borden wasn’t there at the moment Micky passed, after 12 days in the hospital.

“He died, I wasn’t there, and dammit, I had to be there for someone, so that was the impetus for the book,” she says. “I’m very much a believer in the afterlife, but Malka is still coming to terms with the question of ‘Is there really something beyond?’ She desperately wants to believe there is, and she comes closer, but there’s still some doubt.”

Borden has a degree in theater and a teaching certificate from UNO, though she spent much of her career in copy-editing and secretarial roles. Despite her varied career and love of gardening, Borden’s lifelong passion is writing. She’s penned a bevy of poems, short stories, even three screenplays, and says she lives for plucky, impactful passages.

“I think even a single, perfect flower is just as wonderful as a bouquet. Sometimes I’ll just put one flower in a vase and when I walk past and it catches my eye for a moment, it’s sort of like breathing properly,” she says. “It’s the exact same feeling when I read or write a really good line. It’s like an arrow to your intellect, and it makes you come alive.”

Borden says that while it’s a great joy to know one’s purpose early in life, it’s never too late to realize your passion and pursue that which satisfies your soul.

“I think doing right work is the most important thing in life—probably even more important than having a great love. Loves can end. People die. But if you have something that’s just so deliciously your own, then that’s a great gift,” she says. “I’m a geezer chick at 73, so I say to all the sassy seniors out there: Live your dreams. Go for it.”

And Borden’s still going for it. In fact, she’s currently conceiving her next book, Slipped a Micky.

Hear I Go was an introduction to Micky’s rascality, which I hope to explore more in the next book,” she says. “Everyone should be lucky enough to have a Micky in their life. He was quite a rascal, and I’m the keeper of his many stories.”

Borden does a lot of thinking in the garden. She says the time spent outside “weeding and pulling hoses around like a retired fireman singing ‘Born Free’ to keep my blood pressure down” can also be fertile ground for contemplating characters and dialogue.

“Gardeners have long lives, purportedly because they stick around to see what will happen the next year, if there are successes,” Borden says. “So, I hope readers have long lives waiting for books to come out.”

Visit facebook.com/maureenbordenomaha for more information.

This article appears in the September/October 2017 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Maureen Borden

The Next Generation 
of Family Farming

June 21, 2017 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

Surrounded by tomato seedlings, purple carrots, and strange-looking peppers—whatever’s freshest at Theilen Produce Gardens—Kristy Theilen is a blonde-dreadlocked ambassador for a farm that has been in her family since the 1800s.

The cheerful 36-year-old and her veggies can be found at summertime farmers markets in the Omaha area, including Saturday in the Old Market and Sundays at the Florence Mill.

From left: Kristy Theilen, Fernando Castrorena, Brennen Settles, Jacquie Theilen, Linda Theilen, and Eldon Theilen

Back in Schuyler, Nebraska, an old farmhouse anchors Theilen Produce Gardens’ home base. Kristy’s great-grandfather built the farmhouse in 1910, but it has been renovated and remodeled several times over the years.

Kristy and her mother both grew up in the home. After returning to Nebraska from Arizona in 2013, the two generations are back under one roof on the family’s 1,200-acre farm.

“When I was living in Phoenix, I came across a mask-maker who had mask-making traditions in their family for thousands of years,” Kristy says. “I thought about that—and how people in the city were surprised to hear I grew up on a farm—and got to thinking how important it is not to break that occupational chain. Farming has been on both sides of my family since forever.”

Her parents, Linda and Eldon, moved into the farmhouse in the late 1980s after they were married. “It used to be white wood panel siding,” says Linda, whose grandfather (John Bailey) built the home. Asbestos siding replaced the wood during her childhood; Eldon added the olive-green vinyl siding when they overhauled the structure.

Kristy’s older brother, his wife, and their children live on the other side of a creek, in a residence that previously housed their grandparents (near the original Bailey family homestead, which burned down and was rebuilt in the early 1900s).

The Theilen family’s ancestors by the (burned-down) farmhouse.

Her maternal ancestors in the Bailey family passed through Nebraska during a cross-country cattle drive to California in 1853. “We have a journal written by someone on the trip,” Linda says. “When they passed along the Platte River, they thought it was heaven, so they came back.”

After Linda’s father, Tom Bailey, assumed leadership of the family farm, he raised four kids in the old house. Linda was one of them. They farmed corn and alfalfa, and they sold eggs from Rhode Island red hens.

Eldon grew up on a farm north of Columbus. For the 33-some years since he and Linda took charge of the farm, they have continued the family’s agricultural tradition under their married name of Theilen.

At peak pork production, Eldon raised 3,000 hogs. Then, the market fell out just prior to the turn of the millennium. “There were so many hogs that packing houses couldn’t process them all,” Eldon says.

Today, they focus on corn and soybeans (but “mostly corn,” Eldon says). Kristy’s brother, Jeremy, helps manage the crops. Meanwhile, Kristy takes care of their smaller quantities of diversified livestock: chickens, goats, sheep, pigs, rabbits, and more. She is also in charge of the garden-fresh produce, starting seedlings in outdoor greenhouses (built by her father), and caring for the plant nursery. (The nursery was an addition to the home, also built by her father.)

After a 10-month stint with the Peace Corps in Macedonia, three semesters studying abroad in Austria, and several years working as a community organizer in Phoenix and Tucson—including gardening in a vacant lot next to a Phoenix artist commune—Kristy returned to the family farm with the goal of implementing the latest sustainable agriculture trends.

Kristy and her fiancé, Fernando Castorena, have helped Theilen Produce Gardens expand into community-supported agriculture. Their CSA sells shares that entitle customers to receive weekly supplies of fresh produce and eggs, which are delivered in the Schuyler area and to farmers market pick-up points in Omaha.

“We were planning to be the world’s youngest snowbirds, but I didn’t want to leave my chores to my brother,” Kristy says, adding that 2017 was (almost) her first full year back in Nebraska, minus two months when they traveled to Arizona.

 

“These new things are all Kristy’s doing. I think they’re great,” Linda says. “I think we need to be diversified in future years with grain prices the way they are.”

Other new initiatives that Kristy has developed include programs for kids and eco-tourism: Easter egg hunts, a Halloween pumpkin patch, hosting campers from the website Hipcamp, and welcoming boarders with the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (volunteers who work in exchange for room and board, also known as “WOOFers”).

During the Halloween pumpkin patch, Linda tells real-life horror stories of the criminals hanged at the old Colfax County courthouse. Her father (Tom Bailey) bought the old jail cell at an auction to protect irrigation pumps. Now, the jail cell is a historical relic tucked away in the back of their property.

Brennen Settles

On the edge of bountiful cornfields, a tall signpost points to the farm’s various attractions: Shell Creek Path, corn maze, pumpkin patch, horses, animal barn, Bunnyville, and Coffee Quonset.

In Linda’s childhood, the “Coffee Quonset” was a storage barn for corn and machinery. She remembers playing on the piles of corn. Later, her husband built a new barn for the modern combine and larger machinery. The old barn was going under-utilized when Kristy suggested making a little shop for coffee and tea.

“These new things are all Kristy’s doing. I think they’re great,” Linda says. “I think we need to be diversified in future years with grain prices the way they are.”

Linda and Eldon tell the story of their land and farmhouse from a dining table, with a spread of fresh vegetables and hard-boiled eggs.

When they moved in, Eldon personally replaced all of the walls, installed new electrical wiring, added central air conditioning, and made subsequent upgrades to the home over the years.

Eldon has always encouraged his daughter to think outside of the box, because that’s how he looks at the world. He designed and constructed a “chicken tractor” that allows him to move chickens over cropland while replenishing nitrogen in the soil with their manure. Last year, he also hand-built their chicken “gypsy wagon,” a mobile hen house trailer.

Inside the house, he rearranged the floor plan of the traditional farmhouse. It’s now a four-bedroom home, with three bathrooms. The old master bedroom on the main floor became an office with the latest computer tech.

“In the ’80s, I had the first computer in Colfax County,” Eldon says. “I always try to stay on top of technological developments.”

Kristy’s fiancé has meanwhile brought crucial Latin cultural perspective and Spanish language skills to the family farm business.

Fernando grows vegetables common in traditional Mexican dishes—huitlacoche (a corn fungus that was a delicacy in Aztec cuisine), squash blossoms, and tomatillos—and he helps sell goats and other animals to local Spanish-speaking residents.

Before moving to the area, he didn’t know what to expect. But he was surprised by the large Hispanic population working in local agricultural industries and living in Schuyler and Fremont. He quickly found himself perfectly at ease in the rural Nebraskan setting, he says: “About 40 percent of our customers [who come to the farm] are Guatemalan or Mexican.”

Fernando’s dream is to launch a farm-to-table restaurant and/or food truck that could service the Schuyler area. His family works in the food industry in Phoenix, so he is confident that he could make it work.

The future is ripe with potential on the Theilen family farm. Who knows? Nebraska’s first farm-to-table Mexican restaurant might just sprout 75-minutes northwest of Omaha.

Kristy also has several other ideas for the future of the farm: expanding into wine production, hosting weddings, and growing their goat herd. “Wine, weddings, and goats, that’s my dream,” Kristy says with a laugh.

Visit theilenproduce.com for more information.

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.

Earth Children

June 24, 2015 by

Article originally published in June 2015 Her Family.

With summer vacation and a welcome reprieve from the classroom under way, spring is a great time to teach kids lessons in greener pastures. Spending time in the garden with mom and dad not only helps get kids outside, but can also unearth some hidden interests.

Scott Evans, the Horticulture Program Coordinator for UNL’s Extension office in Douglas and Sarpy counties, got his start in plants as a kid, and his passion never faded. He grew up around nurseries with garden-loving parents, and despite a childhood obsession with dinosaurs, springtime visits to greenhouses in Council Bluffs made him into a plant guy.

“The smell of earth and that dampness is still something that, to this day when I walk into a gardening center, just brings back very fond memories,” says Evans.

Even if your kids aren’t crazy about plants, Evans believes that working hands-on with flowers, vegetables, and shrubs can teach kids important lessons about sustainability, especially if they’re not around plants all that much in the first place.

“When kids grow up in urban settings, they don’t realize where their food comes from. They’re missing that connection from where food actually comes from,” says Evans.

To make the experience more fun for parents and children alike, be sure to tailor your gardening routine to whatever your kid is interested in. Parents can get their creativity budding by browsing Pinterest or other websites for gardening project ideas.

Have a child who has a craving for homemade pizza? Grow the necessary ingredients together—tomatoes, onions, peppers, etc. If your kids love fairy tales, plant vegetables and flowers with whimsical names—there’s the Snow White carrot and the Purple Dragon carrot, for starters. Or try planting flowers with a variety of fun colors, smells, and textures for those still exploring their interests, like Gardenias or Woolly Lamb’s Ear.

For children who are too young to start taking care of plants on their own, pulling weeds and watering plants alongside adults are good tasks. Many gardening stores even have smaller, easy-to-carry watering cans or trowels designed just for the budding young gardeners. While adult supervision is key, Evans says to not be afraid of letting kids get their hands dirty. The more involved they are in the project, the more likely they are to stay interested.

Evans also recommends teaching kids simple biology principles that will help them understand how plants grow. Explain to them how plants aren’t like animals in that they make their own food, and thus need to have a proper amount of sunlight and water to flourish.

Finally, remember to start small. Remind children that even with tender loving care, not every plant will bloom, and don’t try to grow an entire greenhouse overnight. Even just starting with a few pots or another container garden can teach kids valuable horticulture lessons, and help their creativity bloom.

“It’s like when we go to dinner—our eyes are bigger than our plate,” says Evans. “Just starting small allows for a greater success, and then when you have that success, you can continue to build upon it.”

LessonsLearned

Your Garden Glory

April 9, 2015 by

Originally published in March/April OmahaHome.

Mother nature is warming things up outside, which means it’s time to dig out those boots and gloves and get to work preparing your garden and outdoor living spaces for those heady, bountiful days to come. Don’t forget the sunscreen!

Indoor Prep Work

To kick-start your spring color, cut branches of forsythia, crabapple, and spirea to place in a bucket of cool water inside. Leave in a cool area of no more than 60 degrees until buds show color. Snip and display in your favorite vase for an instant, preseason pick-me-up.

Grab some paper cups and your kids or nearest tiny relative and show them the wonder of starting seeds. Their eyes will delight in the wonder of the bursting of that first tiny sprout. Ideal veggies for home germination include basil, broccoli, brussel sprouts, chives, leeks, peppers, and tomatoes. Make your own seed-starting mix with a blend of equal parts perlite, vermiculite and peat. To neutralize the acidity of the peat, add ¼ teaspoon of lime to each gallon of the mix.

Clean up the Clutter 

Around the third week of March, clean your lawn of any debris like rocks and sticks (or annoying blow-away garbage from your neighbors, as is all-too-often the case here in the big O). Prep the beds by removing winter mulch. Prune fruit trees, shrubs and ornamental trees before buds begin to break. Later, prune spring flowering shrubs as soon as they finish flowering.

Early Spring Planting

Cool season veggies, like peas, onions, potatoes, artichokes, and some lettuces can be planted now. Just make sure not to work the soil when wet. Raspberries should also be planted in early spring as soon as the soil is dry and workable.

Survey the Scene

Check conifers and broadleaf evergreens for signs of winter injury. To control aphids, apply a soil drench treatment of imidacloprid on deciduous and evergreen trees. A March application will be effective against insects and will last all year.

Spread the Love, Garden-Style 

Share with your friends by dividing perennials before spring growth has begun. Who doesn’t
love the gift of greenery?

Keep a Record

Pick out an adorable journal that expresses your inner gardening diva and keep a record of all of your gardening information. Make a list of each item you have planted in the garden, and create a schematic to remember where everything is. Make sure to include seed companies, plant name, variety, planting date, and harvest date. Maintain a record of how well each plant does during the growing season. If any variety is prone to disease, record what was used to treat the problem. You will thank yourself next gardening season for keeping these handy records at your fingertips.

Thank you Berry Much 

Give established strawberry plants a dose of fertilizer before new spring growth starts.

Make Your Beds

Mama told you that if you make your bed you’ll have a great day. Transfer that wisdom to your garden by picking out flats of your favorite bedding plants such as begonias, geraniums, lobelia, busy lizzie, petunias, rudbeckia, California poppy, antirrhinum, and cosmos.

Revive Bulbs

Soak any bulb-like plants that are starting to shrivel. Put them in water for a short time to allow for plumping. Weed out dead blossoms from spring-flowering bulbs. Discard any rotted bulbs among your dahlias, gladiolas, elephant ear, caladium, tuberous begonias, and cannas.

Fixer-Upper 

Check your deck and lawn furniture for needed repairs or re-painting to make sure that your outdoor living space is ready for all of that entertaining you resolve to do this year. Search for the perfect
outdoor party treats on Pinterest. Bring on the guests!

For the Birds

Birds will now start looking for places to nest, so set those birdhouses out and keep an eye out for your newest fine-feathered friends to come calling.

Mid-Spring Mulching

Applying mulch now will cut down on your summer weeding time. The best mulches are compost and rotted wood chips. Buy only what you need. A yard of mulch will cover 300 square feet when spread an inch thick.

iStock_000014713033_Large

Walk of Life

September 19, 2014 by and
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

We all have that one special relative in our lives whose powerful influence forever alters our being. Whether it’s an eclectic taste in music or a fondness for French Impressionism, that enthusiasm is contagious and makes us all unique in our proclivities.

In the case of Terry Price, whose decadent Fairacres garden was one of six featured in the 2014 Munroe-Meyer Garden Walk, that one person was her Great Aunt Ruby Hall.

“She was an old maid, as they say, school teacher in Boone, Iowa,” Price says. “We always loved her gardens.”

So when Aunt Ruby reached the ripe age of 82 back in 1987, she gifted her famous gardens, plant-by-plant, to Terry and her husband, Tom. “We were ecstatic beyond words. We took the two cars we had, a station wagon and a Honda Accord, and the two kids. There was barely enough room for us to sit in the cars to get back,” Terry says.

She describes an old photo of her Aunt Ruby. “She’s standing at the back of the station wagon. You can see it’s just loaded with plants. And she’s kind of waving. It’s cute.”

To prepare for the transfer, Aunt Ruby helped Terry and Tom compile a chart describing each plant. “We sat for the longest time one afternoon. You know, here’s a Phlox. It likes sun. They get tall. There’s pink and purple and white.”

They also received some plants from other relatives, as well. “I think the fact that there are family plants in here make it really special,” says Tom.

Nebraska’s clay-like soil posed a problem at first. So they took a tip from one of their horticulturist friends by adding playground sand on top of the garden.

 Nearly 30 years later, and thanks to the sand and decaying mulch, their soil is win good shape.

“It’s amazing,” Terry says, “how a grain of sand can work its way down through clay.”

Their garden features an intoxicating array of peonies, hostas, phlox, coral bells, sedum and daisies. Let’s not forget lady’s mantle, astilbe, hydrangeas and several ornamental trees. The list of species is endless, and those who are lucky to visit are treated to a gardener’s delight.

The Prices add their own surprising touches, like an old gate from a bank purchased at an antique store. A piece of a broken clay pot planted on its side peeks out from the soil like a Roman ruin. Their walkway features a bit of Omaha history with cobblestones and pavers from the Jobber’s Canyon historic district in the Old Market.

The Garden Walk is hosted annually by the Munroe-Meyer Guild, a group whose mission is to improve the quality of life for persons with disabilities through fundraising for the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s Munroe-Meyer Institute.

The Price’s passion for gardening is simple.

“It’s just nice to be outside and dig in the dirt,” Terry says. “The old commune-with-mother-nature-thing.” 

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Pumpkinpalooza in May?

June 11, 2014 by

Time to start planning for Halloween. No, really. I mean it.

Pumpkin seeds in these climes should be in the ground by late May, which means that it is now decision time on the subject of “to pumpkin” or “not to pumpkin.”

My wife, Julie, and I had never planted pumpkins until just last year. The idea was that our preschool grandsons, Easton and Barrett, would help with the planting and nurturing of their favorite orbs. It would all culminate in a pumpkin decorating party of epic proportions. But I was more than a little reluctant. My hesitation was related to the fact that pumpkins are, as you know, a vining plant.

The widest bed in our back yard is only about eight feet across. That’s not a lot of breathing room. Taking the pumpkin plunge, I knew right from the start, had the potential to get a little hairy.

I had no idea.

Long before harvest time our backyard already looked like a scene from The Day of the Triffids, the classic British sci-fi flick where post-apocalyptic, man-eating vegetable matter threatened to devour the planet. Mowing became almost impossible because octopus-like tendrils reached into every nook and cranny of the yard. Vine vagabonds even went calling on the neighbors when they found their way through knotholes and other imperfections in our fence.

But that wasn’t the least of my worries.

Almost overnight our precious—if not precocious—crop became covered in a white fungus that I soon came to know as something called powdery mildew. The interwebs told me that the only solution was to amputate with gusto. Any and all hint of the offending disease had to be removed. Rapunzel’s tresses needed a serious trim.

A post-op appraisal of my surgical handiwork revealed that only two softball-sized pumpkins remained, and now it was our duty to baby those things along so that each grandson would have their own personal share of the bounty.

The grandkids have a season pass to Vala’s Pumpkin Patch and go totally gaga exploring every square inch of that sprawling wonderland. It’s not like they are in danger of suffering from any kind of pumpkin deficit disorder. The problems of two little pumpkins don’t amount to a hill of beans in Easton and Barrett’s gourd-crazed world, so why couldn’t that powdery mildew have gone two vines more and just put me out of my misery?

It was then that Julie reminded me of The Plan. The plantings were nothing but a vehicle to set up a pumpkin decorating party. None of those store-bought pretenders in our home. It was to be the most Rockwellian of scenes—the four of us laboring to schlep gargantuan, potentially record-breaking behemoths into the house as an array of googly-eyed craft supplies stood at the ready. We were to create the most breathtaking…

Check that. Instead, we ended up with a pair of rather anemic, lopsided nuggets no larger than an average cantaloupe.

But Julie was right. Our little pumpkin-decorating party was a blast and the results were perfect, in a Charlie Brown Christmas tree kind of way. The simple had triumphed over the sophisticated.
And that is why, despite all reason, we are dedicated once again to executing The Plan. Pumpkinpalooza awaits.

 

Aquaponics

November 22, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Colton Allen, a seventh grader at King Science and Technology Magnet Center, counts the tilapia swimming circles in the horse trough. “Eleven?” he guesses. “Twelve?” It’s difficult to say, since the “tank” of his class’ aquaponics system is solid black.

“The system can take more,” explains magnet facilitator Kristine Denton, “but this is our let’s-make-sure-they-survive phase. Later today, we’re actually getting perch.”

“What?” Allen says. “I gotta be here for that.”

Is there a benefit to having perch versus tilapia in an aquaponics system?

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Raising seedlings, monitoring pH levels, and designing tanks that will keep the fish from ending up on the classroom floor are all responsibilities of the seventh-grade service-learning class at King Science Center.

“I don’t know yet,” Denton admits, laughing. “We’re going to find out.” Which is appropriate. The theme of King Center, one of Omaha Public Schools’ 19 magnet schools, is, after all, inquiry.

The food-growing system that holds pride of place in her seventh-grade service-learning class is the result of Denton’s desire to find “a really cool project that would get my students tied with the community.” In 2011, she attended the UNO Service Learning Academy, a weeklong program connecting public school teachers, professors, and the community, and discovered the aquaponics systems of Whispering Roots. She partnered with Greg Fripp, founder of the food education nonprofit, to bring the concept to her school, “and it’s been great ever since.”

Three years later, Fripp still supplies the fish and helps troubleshoot a system that’s not complex but is all about balance. “These kids are engaging with next-generation technology,” says Fripp. “You try to teach pH levels at the board, and their eyes glaze over. But if you point out that it’s a life or death issue for the fish, then, yeah, they’re engaged.”

DeAjai Philmon, an eighth grader, describes the concept of aquaponics with ease.

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The wastewater from the tilapia, she explains, is laced with ammonia, goes up a PVC pipe and dumps into a shallow wooden box of untreated 2x4s lined with plastic. Bacteria growing on the marble-sized clay balls that cover the plant roots in the box convert nitrites from the fish waste into nitrates, a fertilizer for the plants. About twice an hour, the box—essentially a gigantic biofilter—drains cleaned water back down to the fish, completing a cycle that encompasses water filtration, fish farming, and vegetable production. The most expensive parts of the system, Denton says, are the UV lighting that hang just above the plants and the heater that keeps the 100 or so gallons of water at 78 degrees for the tilapia.

“The plants are getting all their nutrients from the fish water,” Denton says. “You don’t need soil, you need the nutrients that come from the soil. Or in this case, the nutrients that come from the fish.”

The iceberg lettuce in this box is about two weeks old. “We harvested recently so we replanted seedlings,” Denton says, pointing to a set of six trays under grow lights. “We have some radishes, and we’re going to try peppers. We’re also going to try peas.” They’re climbing peas, so the kids will have to figure out how to give them proper support. “That’s like 90 percent of it,” she says, “figuring things out.”

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“Excuse me, Ms. Denton,” says Armani Price, also an eighth grader. “Is this basil?” She points to a tiny seedling with only a couple true leaves. Price says she’s getting better at identifying plants. She also assists with the school’s urban farm where she’s helped grow collard greens, jalapeños, bell peppers, tomatoes, watermelons, “and we did have a peach tree.” She’s discovering that fruit trees aren’t very easy.

Price and Philmon were part of the class that helped finish building the frame that holds the bed’s grow lights. Students are 100 percent involved in building structures, Denton says, as well as being in charge of crop rotation, water testing, and fish care. »
« “They’re responsible for making sure we have seeds and letting us know if we need to reorder.” Grants are in place for them to purchase supplies.

“We want to start a salt water system, too,” says Price. “[Ms. Denton] said we’d want to grow things like seaweed and kelp. Is kelp good?”

Denton allows that it’s okay while Philmon asserts, “It’s nasty.”

“We have to plant things that might not be part of our palette,” Denton says, explaining the importance of learning about food and growing environments in other cultures. Either shrimp or a variety of saltwater fish will be the marine culture, which is a bit trickier than freshwater. Fortunately, the school partners with the Henry Doorly Zoo, which Denton says is very understanding of a learning process that might result in the loss of a jellyfish or two.

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The first year, a class of about 19 students looked after the system. This year, Denton has 26 in her seventh-grade service learning class. Aquaponics is only part of the service learning class: This year, students will create lessons on video to show to other schools, ensuring that they exercise presentation skills alongside gardening and engineering and science. “The social aspect is really key as well,” Fripp says. “What we do every day is engage kids on so many levels.”

Another area of learning is in the art of giving. As part of her service-learning class, Denton and her students volunteer at Open Door Mission. When a food drive brought together a variety of canned and dry goods, some of her students asked, “Why can’t we donate fruit and lettuce?” Now, she and at least four kids take their aquaponics produce over to the mission after school every four to six weeks. “We’re able to harvest that quick,” Denton says. “And they immediately wash and serve it that night.”

Not exactly everything is donated. The students always eat a first harvest themselves, and they haven’t forgotten about the fish. A true aquaponics system is about raising fish to eat as well as produce, and Denton says her students decidedly do not view the tilapia as pets. “We haven’t eaten any yet,” she says, “but they keep asking for a fish fry.”

Cultivating Your Vegetable Garden

May 25, 2013 by

Sustainable vegetable gardens are a great way to encourage organic living. When beginning yours, plan for year-round growth. Keep a gardening log to record tips and tricks you’ve picked up along the way; it can help you determine what may or may not work for next year. It’s also a good idea to educate yourself at your local nursery or farmers market about proper care and growing techniques.

Thanks to Mother Nature, almost every vegetable has at least one companion plant that helps protect it from pests and insects. For example, marigolds repel beetles, nematodes, and rabbits. Dill and parsley attract “garden heroes,” like spiders and ladybugs, that love to eat garden pests. And while most people know that herbs, such as basil and chives, make great additions to your fresh dishes, others such as yarrow and lavender protect plants from moths.

Here are more tips for maintaining your vegetable garden in the summer months:

JUNE

All warm-season plants should be in your garden now. Remember to water weekly and pull weeds when they sprout. According to The Old Farmer’s Almanac (almanac.com), “By keeping your plants well-watered and fertilized, they will quickly fill in spaces instead of weeds.” Start seedlings for broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage now so they’ll be ready for fall. Use nine-cell containers that can be watered from the bottom. Then, transplant to bigger containers 1-2 weeks later, or when sprouts begin to appear.

JULY

If you have summer squash in your garden, harvest when they grow to eight inches. Fertilize tomatoes and peppers lightly, and water the garden in the morning or later in the afternoon to prevent evaporation. Also, make sure to stake the taller plants to encourage growth and protect them from falling over during any summer storms. You can now begin sowing all your seeds for your fall garden: beets, carrots, collards, kale, radish, snap beans, turnips, and winter squash.

AUGUST

Continue to harvest your fruits and veggies every few days—this will promote production well into fall. This is a good time to begin canning. In fact, can everything you can! Let your tomatoes ripen on the vine. If any green tomatoes fall, store them in a paper bag with an apple to help them ripen. Keep planning for your fall garden and watch for pests and diseases. And don’t forget to share your harvest with friends, family, and neighbors! Backyard parties under summer skies are always better with fresh vegetables on the grill anyway.