Brandon Wagner teaches a new horticulture class at Yankton High School. Students in this agriculture class engage in a mix of learning in the classroom and direct application in the greenhouse. Students learn about plants and how to grow them. As questions about plants arise, they use the Internet and other resources to find answers.
The horticulture class is part of the high school’s Vocational/Industrial/Technical program. Wagner also teaches cabinetry and woodworking.
“This class applies to students in their daily lives and hopefully down the road as they grow plants,” he said.
“We start with ‘What can we grow?’ and then ‘What can we do with the plants?’”
Wagner explains what students have done earlier that leads to today’s seed planting activity in the greenhouse.
“Groups of students went to retailers’ websites to figure out plants in our USDA growing zone, and then what plants would be used for. Uses included to be sold at a plant sale or put in a hanging basket and contributed to a nursing home. Once the group had selected a couple of plants they wanted to grow, they found out if it can be started indoors. What’s the last frost date for this region? (May 5-15) Then we had the calendar to work backward to see when to start seeds,” he said.
The class has use of a new germination chamber for flats of planted seeds that keep them at controlled temperatures and humidity for improved rate of germination. Wagner asks about germination progress from students that are assigned to maintaining the chamber. They check to be sure the controls are working and plants are germinating. Students make sure the chamber reservoir is full of water. Since different seeds have different lengths of time before new plants germinate, the students need to be watchful. Once the flat has most of the seeds fully up and growing, the next step is to put the group’s flat in the greenhouse and continue monitoring it until plants are ready for transplant.
Jordan Strickland is one of the students checking the process to get the germinated plants ready for the greenhouse.
“Some plants are in the germinating chamber and some are almost done and ready to come out. Then we’ll water them twice a day in the greenhouse,” Strickland said.
Overhead sprinklers are now set to operate twice a day for two minutes. Even though the greenhouse temperature is expected to be maintained at 75-80 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, getting the needed amount of water right for the seedlings takes some adjustments as the season progresses.
Students with trays of germinated plants head to the greenhouse on a brisk April day. Inside, the greenhouse is comfortable and students shed their jackets. Some students are labeling markers for flats and filling 72-cell trays with potting mix.
Students assembled ingredients that fit a plant’s needs for a potting mix another day. Now they comment on what they see in the bagged commercial potting mix they are using to plant tomatoes.
Brandon Peitz has been testing water valves and is assigned to check the greenhouse overhead sprinkler timer.
“We had it set to run every day for one minute, but it’s not long enough to get the plant soil damp enough. Now we set it at two minutes,” he said. “It will run every day at 8 a.m. It can be run manually also. If I hit the button, everyone would be soaked; but better not do that.”
Wagner asks how deep they are planting the seeds, noting some seem a bit deeper. Reid Dutrow is one of the students working with seeds.
“My mom’s a gardener, so I learned tips from her and when my parents get the garden going,” he said. “We till the soil and make mounds of soft soil to plant squash. There’s a trench around each mound of plants where we pour the water. We make walkways around the mounds at the beginning. Later the vines are all over. I learned a lot, watching my mom; she makes me do chores.”
Dutrow notices that the potting mix needs to have clumps broken up so the mixture is consistent and damp.
Wagner shows how the greenhouse will ventilate on hot days. Automatic temperature controls open shutters and fans blow air over a tube of water that cools the air. This spring, outdoor conditions have varied a lot; a challenge when trying to set timers and controls to grow a variety of plants.
“The first days in the greenhouse, it was 40 degrees different than outside temperatures,” Wagner said.
The greenhouse is fundamental to the horticulture class.
“Our school district received a grant and we were talking about expanding the agriculture program,” he said. “The greenhouse was one idea. Some other schools such as Lennox have one. We had lots of local businesses and individuals help us.”
The greenhouse has been operational since mid-March, but with set germination and plant growth timelines, he and students are learning the requirements for growing conditions in this greenhouse as they go.
“At the end of the semester,” he said, “we’ll look at how we can improve.”
Some of Wagner’s plant-related learning activities reach beyond the school year and include students in FFA. Some horticulture students are planting Roma tomatoes today. They are intended for the second year of a student harvest garden at Stewart Elementary. They plant the garden for early fall harvest. Some of Wagner’s high school students tend the garden and will help mentor elementary students as they gather tomatoes and peppers together in the fall.
Wagner and several FFA students also built raised bed gardens for the Yankton Area Boys and Girls Club last spring to assist project leader Cindy Nelsen with a Kid’s Garden Club project.
“She wanted chicken wire under the beds to keep the rodents out. We screwed the corners and braced the sides of the rectangular plank beds because they tend to bow out when filled with soil,” he said.
“It’s good for our high school students to give back to the community and impact other kids, Wagner said. “To a 10-year-old, a high schooler can be a superhero.”
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