Working on a green thumb

Exciting things are happening at Hughesville High School now that Lisa Strouse, Hughesville’s Earth science teacher and Penn State Extension master gardener, has taken over the greenhouse.

For Strouse’s first year in taking over the greenhouse from the retired instructor William Carroll, a few bumps happened along the way. She had success in some plant life growing very well while others did not. There also was an aphid problem that threatened the plant life.

Walking in the greenhouse, ladybugs seem to be everywhere. She sent out a memo to staff and asked students for ladybugs. Many students took it upon themselves to collect ladybugs, transport them to school in containers and let them loose in the greenhouse.

Strouse fills the greenhouse with helpful bugs that eat harmful ones in order to protect the plants in a natural way.

“So any time we see any bug problems, instead of spraying chemicals, I’ll use soft pesticides like insecticidal soap or maybe a little bit of neem oil. For the most part, we have hidden in the baskets are lacewing larvae. They won’t hurt you. They’re these little alligator type looking things. We let them loose in here, and they walk around and eat all the aphids,” Strouse said.

With 60 students involved in the greenhouse through different classes, Strouse says they spend half their time in the classroom and the other half actively working in the greenhouse.

“We have a lot of students down here having a great time,” Strouse said.

While many might have the misconception that it is an easy course, Strouse assures that it is not. Students have to learn Latin and proper names of plants. From cleaning, potting plants, watering, checking nutrients or collecting greens, the students constantly are working while in the greenhouse.

Becca Temple, senior, enjoys getting her hands dirty.

“I like to play with the dirt,” Temple said as she helped move plants into larger pots to give the roots room to grow.

“I have a garden at home. All my family members are gardeners. My grandmother is also a master gardener, so I thought this would be a nice course to take,” said Bryan Murray, senior.

Dylan Klaahsen, senior, credits working with his mother in the garden at home with his interest in gardening.

“Ever since I was little, my mom always had a garden. I used to come home from school, go out to the garden, pick like seventeen carrots to bring in and eat them without even washing the dirt. I loved the freshness,” Klaahsen said.

Klaahsen worked on watering the plants in the greenhouse and repotting plants while listening to music.

“I like that it’s dirty, wet. It’s a lot of fun. You get to take something from a seed and make it edible, or a flower or whatever. I don’t like the planting aspect. I’m a big boy with big fingers. Planters need delicate, small fingers. Me and my group fill the pots and water the plants,” Klaahsen said.

Many upgrades to the greenhouse also have happened this year with improvements that made watering the plants easier.

“We got rolling benches this year so we can get between much easier to water, and we have a 36 inch clearance. If we ever have a student that is wheelchair bound, it meets the requirement,” Strouse said.

The benches, holding many plants, easily move on rollers to allow for ease of access for anyone to get around the greenhouse.

They also had all new hanging basket rails as well as many tables and benches.

Also for the first time this year, the greenhouse has been working with the culinary team in a microgreens project.

“I have a student in culinary, which is neat, because he meets here and goes straight over to culinary. We take special scissors, and he has his own little area to keep it sanitary. He’ll cut these microgreens to take them over to culinary,” Strouse said.

William Brenst-Wingfield, a senior culinary student, helps make sure the microgreens are transported safely from the greenhouse to the culinary classes.

“Being able to use the finished product in a culinary class is awesome,” Brenst-Wingfield said.

He is the first culinary student to also take the horticulture class, so together with Strouse, they formed the idea to help provide greens for the student cafe.

Strouse handles the plants for culinary use in a specific manner to make sure they are safe for eating. Arugula, lettuce, basil and other microgreens are grown in a new “grow lab” just outside of the greenhouse with special lamps and carefully monitoring systems. She hopes to supply more greens for culinary classes in the future.

There also is a new hydroponics section in the greenhouse. The students learn how to grow plants with liquid nutrients using a water and air based system.

“My honors chemistry students are in charge of the aerator because they have to test the pH, put in nutrients and measure things of that sort,” Strouse said.

Seniors Wilson Michael, Dan Winder and Ian Hufnagle are in charge of the hydroponics. The students carefully monitor the plants in the grow lab.

“This basil, you can see how the leaves are more white. It doesn’t have enough nutrients. The white color means it needs more nitrogen,” Michael said.

The three students then had to figure out which of their liquid nutrients held more nitrogen to give the plant in order to help it grow.

“We just got this two or three months ago. We don’t really know much about it yet, so we’re still in the learning process,” Winder said.

“We all have farms and gardens, but we’re new to hydroponic stuff. It’s all water based. There’s no soil with this, so we have to get nutrients by putting stuff into the water,” Michael said.

“I’m thinking of getting a garden of my own. Since you can’t farm in the winter time, I’m thinking of starting a hydroponics system like this,” Winder said.

Winder said the system was easy to make, and he could construct it himself at home.

“I was thinking of having a hydroponics system except having fish in it. Fish can provide nutrients, too,” Michael said.

Strouse’s master gardener background has been helpful in starting up the greenhouse. Whenever she has plans for a new project or new ideas, she has plenty of contacts to reach out to for suggestions or tips.

“They will have the master gardeners meet here, and many of the suggestions and some of the things that have been done have really come out of those evening meetings,” said Michael Pawlik, superintendent.

“She’s taken the greenhouse in a different direction. Introducing controls of bugs is something we haven’t gotten into in the past. I like the fact that she’s incorporating real life things for the kids. For instance, growing the microgreens and using them in the Lyco-Cafe. She’s put more of a science twist to it than we’ve had in the past as she’s a biology teacher and a master gardener. We’re thrilled that it’s another option that our students have to learn some practical skills that they’re able to apply in the real world,” Pawlik said.

Some of the students benefit greatly from the hands on approach.

“From the minute the kids walk in the room, they’re doing something. It’s hands on. The courses are science courses, and they’re incorporating what they’re learning with what they’re doing in the greenhouse. For some of our students, that hands on incorporation means absolutely everything to them,” Pawlik said.

From culinary to hydroponics, Strouse has many ideas for upcoming projects.

“There’s so much we can do in this area,” Strouse said.

She hopes to teach other courses outside of just ones for the school students in the future.

“At some point, I would like to have some outreach extension where I could have people come in and teach how to plant seeds, or to teach the community how to do composting or how to set up a grow lab. Plus, I’m not allowed to get paid for it if I want to get my master gardener hours, so it’s a win/win,” said Strouse.

The school also will host a plant sale of the various student raised plants from the greenhouse from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 15 and from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. May 16.

The sale will be at the school. Strouse also hopes to have baskets available for sale the on May 8.