These Aeroponic Gardens Are Transforming Schools and Homeless Shelters In Los Angeles

“Growing your food is a lot better than buying it from a market because they spray it with pesticides or something that could harm us or harm the plant and not make it grow as well,” Sierra Madre Middle School student Elizabeth Nazaros says.

The rest of the class, filled with kids who are barely teenagers, nod in agreement.

“I think it’s more sustainable this way,” student Sarah Vance chimes in.

These kids are part of the gardening club at Sierra Madre Middle School, an elective that manages an outdoor soil garden and two aeroponics systems. Today is the day right before school lets off for Thanksgiving break, and while the rest of the school is out in the courtyard screaming for pie, these kids are waiting patiently so they can harvest their greens and eat their hard-earned salads.

Tower Garden: Sierra Madre Middle School students harvesting their greens.
Sierra Madre Middle School students harvesting their greens. | Photo: Clarissa Wei

“It’s amazing to see how excited they get when they see the plants grow,” Gina Davis, the teacher, says. “Especially over a weekend or long weekend and they see the difference. They get so excited to see something that they’ve produced grow.”

The salad is grown in an indoor aeroponics growing system called a Tower Garden. It’s a four foot structure that automatically waters the plants every 15 minutes. A water reservoir is at the base of the garden, which only needs to be refilled every two months. According to Sue Clark, owner of a Tower Garden franchise in Los Angeles, this system uses 90% less water than conventional gardening methods and produces 30% more food. A single harvest can be ready in three weeks. A basic system costs $500.

Note that aeroponic farming is different than hydroponic farming. In hydroponics, the plants still need to be grown in a material, usually a soil substitute. Aeroponics requires no growing medium and the plants are fed through the air with a steady supply of carbon dioxide, water, and nutrients. It’s a more efficient system and as these students have proven, completely kid-friendly.

Clark helped the local school district apply for $6,000 worth of grants for the gardens and today, there are seven of them scattered across the school district.

“[Pasadena Unifed] school district is committed to using ten percent of what’s growing in the garden and putting it into the cafeteria,” Clark says. The Tower Garden makes it especially easy; kids can eat straight off the system without having to wash the leaves.

Tower Garden: Sierra Madre Middle School students enjoying their hard-earned salads.
Sierra Madre Middle School students enjoying their hard-earned salads. | Photo: Clarissa Wei

It’s an astonishingly simple structure that’s making its rounds in Los Angeles. In 2013, Step up on Vine, a 34-room permanent housing facility for the homeless in Hollywood, installed a rooftop worth of gardens so that residents could have year-round access to produce. Franchises like Tender Greens have Tower Gardens scattered throughout their restaurants. While these systems are no doubt a growing trend, the impact they have in schools is immeasurable.

“You can grow any organic, non-GMO seed and the kids grow the plants straight from seed,” Clark says. 

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At Sierra Madre Middle School, the children are learning about the food system as a whole and what it means to plant seasonally. In their soil garden, natural pesticides and crop rotation is a regular part of their curriculum. The best part of the Tower Gardens, they say, is that they can harvest all year round. They each go around listing their favorite vegetable. Arugula, it seems, is the class favorite. 

When I am done interviewing them, the excitement is palatable. They gather around the structures and pick off their favorite vegetables for salad. It’s like watching kids in a candy store – except everything is green.

“Knowing exactly what goes into our food is a good thing,” student Isabel Eisenberg says. “It’s more work, but it’s worth it.”

Tower Garden: Sierra Madre Middle School teacher, Gina Davis (left) with Sue Clark (middle), owner of a Tower Garden franchise in Los Angeles.
Sierra Madre Middle School teacher, Gina Davis (left) with Sue Clark (middle), owner of a Tower Garden franchise in Los Angeles. | Photo: Clarissa Wei

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