Gardening can be tedious.  It requires gallon after gallon of water, tubs of fertilizer, and hours of work that can be unfriendly to one’s back.  Here in Wyoming, all of that work only comes to fruition during a few short months of the entire year, from spring until fall.  And, as we can surmise based on the copious amounts of snowfall earlier this year, spring isn’t really spring.  It’s more like second-winter, which complicates things for the aspiring gardener whose precious plants are growing outside, at the mercy of the elements. 

But what if there was a better way, a way to maintain a fantastic garden inside your home where it is protected from the elements?  Yes, I am aware that involves bringing soil and a whole host of six-legged critters inside of the house you strive so hard to keep clean.  But what if you didn’t have to worry about soil, or even sunlight?

Thanks to hydroponic technology, which allows for the growing of plants without soil or direct sunlight, growing plants just got a whole lot easier.  It sounds like an idea torn straight from the pages of a science-fiction novel, but I can assure you that it’s not.  Just take a stroll into the Campbell County School District Science Center/Adventurarium and ask Jodi Crago-Wyllie, elementary science facilitator.  She is the one who brought the technology to the Adventurarium and is the one with big plans for how the facility can use the technology to its fullest potential. 

The wall

The word garden draws to mind an image of a perfectly plowed stretch of land with row upon row of carefully manicured flowers, vegetables, and other neat plants.  What the word doesn’t bring to mind is a brightly lit room with eight vertical rows of plants growing horizontally from the wall.  In the room, two technological contraptions stand a couple of feet apart on the right-hand side of the room—one made from metal that nourishes the plants and the other holding a row of special lights that mimic natural sunlight. 

The only sound in the room is the gentle hum of the lights and the steady drip…drip…drip of water droplets.  The temperature and humidity in the room are noticeably different from the rest of the Adventurarium—about 75 degrees Fahrenheit with 50 to 70 percent humidity. 

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The scent is… interesting.  There is a strong smell of soil in the room, but soil itself is absent from the spotless, white room. 

It only takes a few moments to register everything, and then it hits you: this is nothing like traditional gardening or farming.  This is the future.

How it works

By definition, hydroponics is a method of growing plants using a water-based, nutrient-rich solution.  There is no soil involved; the roots of the plants—lettuce—are supported using an inert medium, like peat moss or clay pellets.

The young lettuce heads in Jodi’s hydroponic project receive everything they need from a set of drippers that drip the nutrient solution onto the top of the eight vertical rows.  The solution then flows down, pulled by gravity, providing nourishment to the roots of more than 50 separate heads of lettuce.  The rows of lights give the plants the necessary light that they need to grow and are mobile so that they can be moved farther away as the young heads of lettuce mature. 

Jodi said that the lights do not stay on indefinitely, but are set on a timer to turn off at 10 p.m. and to turn back on at 6 a.m. 

The best part? There is no potting required, and very little maintenance.  The only things that Jodi has to do is change the nutrient solution every once in a while, and make sure the lights don’t burn out.  The rest is purely automated. 

Why hydroponics

“If anything, I want to show people how easy it is,” Jodi said.  “You don’t have to have an expensive wall, you can use a fish tank and you can grow in your own home.”  As an example, Jodi showed a small, ten-gallon fish tank with a line of other lettuce plants, which have been used to feed a number of animals that the Adventurarium houses. 

As an educator, Jodi just feels that there is a lot that can be taught through hydroponics.  Many students are raised living in an apartment, and don’t have access to anything like a garden.  On some occasions, she said, Jodi has found some students who do not know where their food actually comes from. 

“Some kids, you can ask them, they think it comes from Wal-Mart,” said Jodi.  Teaching the growing process provides those kids with a better understanding and prepares them for a scenario where a Wal-Mart, or other grocery store, is unavailable.

For the rest of the public, Jodi hopes to one day demonstrate that utilizing hydroponics to grow their own food can save them money in the long run, especially to eat healthy. 

“It’s expensive, a lot of people are trying to do Keto, and it’s expensive to eat well,” she explained.  Showing the public that they can actually grow their own produce, with minimal effort, can make it so families can learn to help themselves. 

Eventually, the towers within the Adventurarium’s hydroponic room will be home to a whole host of different vegetables and herbs—such as cilantro and tomatoes.  But for now, the goal is to simply grow enough lettuce to sustain the turtles, tortoises, and other animals. 

By: Ryan L. Lewallen for 82717