No matter what the weather is outside, students at Belle Valley School in Belleville can get their hands dirty taking care of plants in the school's greenhouse.
Teacher Alycia Obernuefemann, who is Mrs. "O" to the kids, said the fifth- and sixth-grade science students are responsible for maintaining the greenhouse, which includes watering plants, harvesting vegetables, feeding fish, looking for insects and "deadheading" -- removing dead flowers.
"They absolutely love it," Obernuefemann said. "They turn into different kids when they are out there. Their little faces light up."
As fifth-grader Aiyana Anderson, 10, picked sweet peas from a gardening bed inside the greenhouse, she said, "It's so fun. I would love to do this every day."
Aiyana said sweet peas are "actually good." She enjoys eating them as well as feeding them to the class pet, a bearded dragon appropriately named Sweet Pea.
In addition to sweet peas, Belle Valley students have also planted beets, carrots, radishes, garlic, mint and parsley in traditional gardening beds around the outer ring of the greenhouse. In a garden located in the center, the students are caring for annual and perennial flowers and banana tree plants.
Using aquaponics, the students are growing cabbage, tomatoes and tilapia fish. Aquaponics is a method of growing plants and fish in system that re-circulates the water. It's a combination of aquaculture, also known as aquafarming, and hydroponics, growing plants in nutrient-rich water.
"The fish are our source of fertilizer for the plants in the bed," Obernuefemann explained. "We feed the fish, and they do what they do. With their waste product, bacteria break it down naturally and that is pumped into the plants."
The plants and fish pond are connected through a system of tubes. "When one bed is draining, the other one is filling up," Obernuefemann said.
Fifth-grader Hannah Miskowski, 11, said she likes feeding the fish and watering the plants. Likewise, classmate D.J. Shumpert, 11, said he likes feeding the fish.
Outside the greenhouse, students tend to raised garden beds. Obernuefemann said the beds contain different kind of milk weed plants that monarch butterflies feed on. The school has applied to become a Monarch Way Station. "Hopefully, we will have a butterfly habitat," Obernuefemann said.
This is the first year Belle Valley students have been able to work inside the greenhouse. Obernuefemann said the greenhouse wasn't finished at the beginning of the year, and students spent first and second quarter of this school year planting the beds and getting the greenhouse up and running.
"It's been a really learning curve," Obernuefemann said of operating the greenhouse for the first time.
The 33-foot diameter greenhouse is behind the new Belle Valley School on Amann Drive.
Obernuefemann explained a 1,000-gallon pond filled with koi fish helps regulate the temperature of the greenhouse. "During the day, the pond absorbs the heat, and at night, it releases that heat back into the green house," she explained.
In addition, solar cell vents installed at the top of the greenhouse open and close as needed, Obernuefemann said.
Working in the greenhouse allows the students to be actively engaged.
"You can talk to them all you want and explain gardening all you want, but then when they get to do it, that's a life skill they learn and they can apply to the rest of their life with their family," Obernuefemann said.
Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 239-2562 or firstname.lastname@example.org.