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Lifelong food security, an inspiring educational opportunity, and the chance to bring positive change to local people; horticulture truly is a many splendored thing. The Grow Club at St. Mary’s School in Ogdensburg, NY State aims to engage young people in all of these causes and more using a brilliant and varied range of growing techniques. They’re experimenting with DWC, native pollinator gardens, organic composting and organic beds, indoor gardening, grow lights, and AutoPot Watering Systems, don’t you wish your school did that?!

Above: The Grow Club using raised beds to demonstrate the principles of organic growing

The Grow Club has covered much of the above in just a few months and it’s going down a storm, as project leader Chris Michalak reports. ‘Our students have been extremely receptive. The work has primarily been done during school hours but interest is such that I’m planning to create a format for our club to meet after school and over holiday breaks.’ Such sustained enthusiasm from the kids is really encouraging given Chris’ underlying motivation for teaching horticulture.

Above: What child doesn’t enjoy some healthy decomposition?! The guys inspect their organic compost bin

The area surrounding St Mary’s suffers from a degree of social deprivation with many community members living well below the poverty level. As Chris explains, this is a driving force behind the Grow Club. ‘Fresh, high quality produce is often out of reach for low income families. My goal is to teach students that, by growing your own, you don’t need much money to eat healthily. Teaching students to grow their own food and then how to properly store it by canning, drying, or freezing will provide some form of food security throughout their lives.’ 

A grasp of the general principles of growing and self sufficiency promises to serve students well for years to come. To really benefit the kids, The Grow Club also addresses issues of home economics and horticulture that are specific to the US northeast.

Above: Practising with the 4Pot System donated by AutoPot USA

Ogdensburg is in New York State, approximately 250 miles north of New York City. That geographical fact has a profound effect on the lives of people there. As Chris states, ‘it is a very rural location and we have a very short northern growing season.’ From a consumers’ point of view, this contributes further to the difficulties they face in getting access to affordable fresh food. ‘As such, produce can be pricey outside of the growing season.’ From an aspiring growers’ point of view, you’d have to be very experienced to attempt in-earth cultivation and would have to be prepared to suffer big losses if things go awry. This is one reason why The Grow Club is introducing kids to indoor growing. The advantage of such an approach is year-round access to produce with vastly improved success rates and minimal training required. The rapid, observable progress of the plants and the excitement of a technological element are also great selling points.

Above: The Club has proved an excellent means to teach all manner of connected subjects including ecology, biology and economics

‘The kids think it’s amazing! I introduced them to deep water culture this past winter. More recently the AutoPots have been a huge hit. I use AutoPot myself at home and knew the kids would love the simplicity of those systems. Students are able to monitor and maintain the AutoPots all on their own. That independence is what I’m trying to instil in them. I would love to expand our system if and when we receive additional funding.’ 

Currently the 4Pot System donated by AutoPot USA has 2 bush cucumbers and 2 yellow summer squashes growing in a coir/perlite blend. From the fall onwards the system will run inside under Quantum LED boards in a further demonstration of how efficient and effective indoor growing can be. 

Above: Grow room ready!

Chris says that the Grow Club is also providing an appealing ‘in’ to a multitude of other curricular subjects. ‘Thus far, I have focused on ecology (my background). Planting native pollinator gardens and composting our organic waste has been a great start there. Next year I hope to delve more into biology (symbiosis with beneficial microbes) and economics (at our local farmers market).’ Music to our ears! 

Above: Official Club merchandise!

For Chris the future is bright, even if keeping up can be a challenge. ‘I am excited to move forward, but I’m volunteering my time and money to this endeavour and just haven’t had enough chance to plan and fully implement as yet. Our summer break will allow me to organize everything to start in earnest in the fall.’

We very much look forward to following the Grow Club’s progress. Getting young people engaged with horticulture is a great way to start generational changes in lifestyle. The Grow Club is a truly inspiring example of this, run and enjoyed by people who love plants and who are keen to make things happen for themselves.

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