Perry winter greenhouse project inspires students

Posted March 08, 2011, at 1 p.m.
Last modified March 08, 2011, at 6:12 p.m.
Holly Preston waters lettuce grown by teacher Dan Morang's fifth- and sixth-grade class at Perry Elementary School.
Holly Preston waters lettuce grown by teacher Dan Morang's fifth- and sixth-grade class at Perry Elementary School.

PERRY, Maine — When Dan Morang arrived at Perry Elementary School on Friday morning to teach his combination fifth- and sixth-grade class, the temperature outside was 15 degrees below zero.

But he wasn’t worried about his students’ unique greenhouse project, the Perry Green Dream, which is located just to the west of the school playground.

The 16-foot-by-16-foot greenhouse is heated solely by the sun — a pump pushes hot air from the top of the greenhouse through plastic piping to a gravel rock bed, enclosed at the base of the raised vegetable beds. The rocks capture the warmth and throughout a cold winter night, radiate it up to the beds. There is no auxiliary heat source — no wood stove, no electric heaters — just the sun.

As he pushed a probe into the soil around tender lettuce and spinach plants Friday morning, the temperature read 53 degrees. Nothing was damaged; growth continued. Lettuce beds shone bright green in the morning sunlight, a welcome contrast to the white snow outside.

“This is the first greenhouse of its kind to go up in Washington County. Last month, it cost us 77 cents for the whole month,” Morang said. “That was the electricity cost for the pump.”

After the students came up with the concept, the greenhouse was completed by local volunteers on Dec. 21. The children planted the garden on Jan. 3 with two types of lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes and peppers.

“All through February, the soil has not dipped below 50 degrees,’’ he said.

The greenhouse has excited Morang’s students and served as the backbone to lessons in:

  • Writing — The students wrote three proposals for grants to fund the greenhouse to the Maine Community Foundation, Maine Agriculture in the Classroom, and the Perloff Family Foundation. They received $5,000 and have spent $3,800 so far. The remaining money will be used to create raised beds outside the greenhouse for spring planting.
  • Mathematics — Students are making graphs and spreadsheets about growth statistics, expenses and revenues.
  • Biology — They are researching plant varieties and studying which grow well in a Maine winter greenhouse.  Student Gavyn Young said, “Peppers and tomatoes don’t grow well in the winter. It is too cool. The lettuce and the spinach grow best.” Student Emily Davis said, “We also had to put the greenhouse in its proper place so that it gets enough sun from the south.”
  • Digital science — Two webcams donated by the Perloff Family Foundation record the plants’ growth. “At the end of the year we will make a time-lapse video for the school’s website,” student Zoe Cramer said.

In addition, a first-grade student is experimenting in the greenhouse with sequential patterns by planting her own row of pole beans. Morang’s students will be conducting another experiment to chart whether antifreeze in the piping might be more efficient.

“The kids seem to have such an increased awareness of local foods and what it takes to grow food,” Morang said. Using rotational crops, the students plan to create their own farmers market, Mustang Market, and reinvest the profits from their sales back in the program.

Student Benjamin Shain said his class also will install a gutter system that can recapture rainwater, and a local 4-H club will maintain the gardens in the summer months.

Morang said that in the next few months a solar panel will be installed on the greenhouse roof to provide enough energy to run the fan.

“Then we will be totally off the grid,” he said.

Morang said other schools and local farmers have been taking tours through the greenhouse to see whether they can replicate its efficiency at their own locations.

“Ours is an example,” one of the children proudly said.

“We have learned how to grow our own food and what plants need,” student Katelyn Mitchell said. “It will change what I eat.”

“That’s the best part,” said classmate Ethan Lank. “When we get done growing the vegetables, we can eat them.”

To view the greenhouse webcam, go to www.mediamaine.org/webcam/perrymaine/

The link to the school is www.perryelementaryschool.org.

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