Juniors Cultivate Innovation With Hydroponics Initiative

By: Will Dowling

Since April 2016, three members of the Gilman Class of 2018 have been leading an initiative to construct and maintain a hydroponics system next to Gilman’s turf field and track. The idea was originally Cameron Haire’s, who worked with Matthew Mu and Merritt Wiggin, and he said that he devised the plan to “...pursue an area of interest that [previously] wasn’t available at Gilman.” In order to fund this project, Mu, Haire, and Wiggin presented their idea to a group of faculty members, including Mr. Henry Smyth and Mr. Sean Furlong, asking for a grant. Aided by members of the science department, namely Mr. Jim Morrison and Mr. Jason Hogan, their request was granted, and, several months later in August, the 12x10x8 greenhouse was built.

The field of hydroponics, which literally translates as “to work with water,” is a non-traditional method of agriculture. Mu said its main benefit is that “it doesn’t use dirt…[and] by suspending plants in water, you can essentially control the rate at which plants are growing, how much they’re producing, and when you want them to grow.” Several subsystems fall under the overall category of hydroponics. The first of two that are currently used in Gilman’s greenhouse is a drip system, in which the plant being grown is placed in a semi-absorbent medium onto which water and nutrients are slowly dripped, later to be absorbed by the actual plant. The second system used is a Nutrient Film Technique System, or an NFT System, which is more complex than the drip system. It involves “...plants suspended in...little containers and a pipe...[with] water running in the bottom of it...What happens is the nutrients are near the top, [as] they’re a little lighter than the water, so as the water passes through the neti cups, the plants soak up the nutrients.”

During its first eight months on campus, the hydroponics greenhouse had its most significant success growing herbs, such as basil, parsley, and oregano. Tomatoes, squash, and lettuce have also been grown, but their success was limited, partly due to the greenhouse being blown down by strong winds in November of 2016. However, this tragedy may have been a blessing in disguise, as it has allowed for a further, larger grant and new construction plans to build a bigger and better greenhouse in the form of a geodesic dome, the structure of which was originally designed as a cheap housing alternative in 1954 by Buckminster Fuller.

The production of fresh food, however, is not the ultimate goal of these three students. They believe that the best use of the greenhouse is as a learning classroom to teach other students, mainly middle and lower school students, about hydroponics and agriculture in general. Wiggin, Haire, and Mu aim to take advantage of the fact that “...in schools especially, [hydroponics] is a novel concept” and hope that they can “...have kids from different grade levels come in and learn about [hydroponics]... [ideally,] it will be a part of Gilman.”

The work of these three students will make “a lasting contribution to the Gilman community,” according to Merritt Wiggin. In a world that is becoming increasingly concerned with the source and sustainability of its food production, it is more important than ever for us, the Gilman student body, to be informed about healthy food and how to produce it, as, like Wiggin mentioned in a short movie he created about the initiative, the future of cities depends on the ability to efficiently and rapidly produce food. This hydroponics initiative is the first step towards a knowledgeable, sustainable community at Gilman and in the greater Baltimore area.