Greenhouse doubles as outdoors classroom

Chelsea High School students are moving from the classroom to the greenhouse.

The school is building a new greenhouse with the help of a $5,000 grant from CAWACO, an organization devoted to natural resource conservation. Alabama Rep. Mike Hill gave $3,000, and Shelby County donated $1,000 worth of gravel. The school must raise another $1,000.

The greenhouse will use hydroponics, which is a method of growing plants using water and minerals without soil.

The greenhouse project is a way to get general education students to work with special education students, said Joe Smith, who came up with the greenhouse idea and is the head of the school’s social studies department.

“We’re trying to do several things all rolled into one. The first thing is letting students interact with one another, because they will have to do that in real life,” Smith said. “The second thing is that the greenhouse itself will present so many opportunities for math and science. It’s a hands-on experience.”

School officials are hoping to start construction on the greenhouse within two weeks. Smith said the greenhouse should be completed within a month after building begins.

The goal is to have the greenhouse done by Christmas and the first crop harvested by the end of January. Students will grow butter leaf lettuce, cabbage and sweet basil.

“Those (plants) grow the fastest and the best in hydroponics,” Smith said. “We were looking for things that we could grow pretty quickly, that we could turn around and sell.”

Smith has already lined up potential buyers for the students’ crops. Western Supermarkets, which has locations in Pelham, Birmingham, Mountain Brook and Rocky Ridge, has said they will buy some of the vegetables. That’s important, as Smith wants the project to pay for itself eventually. School officials have been working with Auburn University to come up with an economic plan for the greenhouse.

“The cost of the greenhouse will be about $500 a month,” he said. “We should be able to generate that. We’re planning on this project being self-supportive by marketing our products.”

Smith said school officials decided to use hydroponics as the growing method because students need a firm grasp of math and science to do well. Hydroponics growers need to understand water and mineral volumes as well as how the plants grow.

The students will also need an understanding of geometry to build the tables that will hold the plants, Smith said.

Every student at Chelsea High School will get down and dirty in the greenhouse during math and science classes.

“All students at CHS, at some point in their high school careers, will pass through the greenhouse,” Smith said.