Harry Harley’s Hoop House adds Aquaponics to Ford School Garden

Story and photos by William J. Dowd

During a dedication ceremony held on July 13th in Robert L. Ford Elementary School’s community garden, curious children gathered around a white plastic bucket with baby tilapia swimming in it, waiting patiently for the fish to be placed in their new home – a 250-gallon tank.

Their new home – an aquaponic system, located in the garden’s Harry Harley’s Hoop House, has been installed, adding fish to a list of more than 25 fruits, spices and vegetables that the garden grows throughout the year.

“We’re all excited,” Dr. Claire Crane, the school’s principal, said. “It’s going to be an exciting addition to the garden. The kids are going to gain so much knowledge from the aquaponic, so I feel like the aquaponic is on the cutting-edge.”

What makes it so cutting-edge? An aquaponic system combines aquaculture, the practice of raising aquatic animals in tanks, and hydroponics, the practice of growing plant life in water without soil, to create a sustainable food production system, where fish and plant life support one another in a symbiotic relationship that’s based on reciprocity.

A Lynn Tech science teacher and a volunteer of the garden, Harrison Harley, who the dedication ceremony was held for, brought the idea of installing the aquaponic system to the forefront, as a way to further enhance the garden’s learning environment.

As leaders within the garden cite, Harley encouraged and advocated that the garden be on the cutting-edge of urban agriculture, and, during his time in the garden, he designed and partially built the system – before he passed away in July of 2011.

“He was an awesome guy. He was very intelligent. He had so many stories to tell. He was just a very motivated guy,” Andrew Harding, a Food Corps’ member, who worked with Harley on numerous occasions and teaches students about healthy eating, said.

Harley’s idea will teach young people about microbes and biology and harvesting fish. The talipia, which were donated by Dr. Joseph Buttner, a professor at Salem State University, will get big enough to be sold at markets.

“The fish tank is colonized with two different bacteria – one that will change the ammonia, which is what fish put out in their excretion, in other words, their pee and poop – and transforms it to nitrite,” Robert Lang, the garden’s manager, said, “and then another set of bacteria will transform the nitrite into nitrate, which is usable to the plants, so they uptake the nitrate and use it in their photosynthesis.”

According to Lang, those who maintain aquaponic systems replace soil beds with materials that are neutral to acids and bases, that are inert or that do not hold nutrient values – such as mineral wool, coconut husk, perlite or expanded clay pellets, creating a growing habitat that’s free of unwanted chemicals.

And, in return, plants, according to Lang, get not only the nutrients they need in the purest form, but also speed up their growth.

As far as the school’s aquaponic system goes, they went with the expanded clay pellets, which are a reddish-tint and about the size of Milk Duds, to support their plants’ roots system so they can absorb nutrient-rich water that flows through cracks and crevices the pellets create.

“The plants take the entire nitrate out of the water, use it in their photosynthesis and clean the water, and then send it back to the fish,” Lang said. “So it’s a constant, closed looped system.”

For the past four years, teachers have had the ability to transcend their classroom barriers, abandon traditional pedagogy methods and bring their students – out from behind their desks – and into the garden.

The Highlands Coalition of Lynn, a grassroots organization that’s involved in a myriad of social justice projects in the city, has been involved with the garden from the get go. David Gass, the coalition’s director, whose idea it was to begin the garden at the school, said the garden can wholly or partially meet the needs of tactile, aesthetic, audio and kinesthetic learners’ needs.

“Scientific thinking starts with your senses – so we go to the smell test – smell this mint, well, how did it get smell? Where did the smell come from?  If there’s gravity, how does water get to the tops of trees? What does the plants’ color mean?” Gass said, giving examples of the type of questions posed to students once in the garden. “Those are things you got to start looking at, and science starts with facts, and then you get into theories.”

Gass said the community garden extends beyond just teaching; over the past four years, it has become a community effort that has brought people and community organizations together.  He attributed that it has a lot to with the way Crane runs the school, which, for the past 20 years, has functioned as a “neighborhood village with the school at the center” model.

“The idea is the school becomes the center of the neighborhood in solving social problems,” Gass said. “We work closely with Dr. Crane, who without which, we wouldn’t have the whole thing, and she invited us in.”

When asked whether she believes that were the case, she responds humbly.

“I can’t say enough about the community the way it has really come together and has made a huge difference at our school,” Crane said. “I call it the ‘peace garden.’ It has brought so many people together, and the kids look forward to it. You’ll say to the kids ‘today’s the day you get to go into the garden,’ and they go ‘yeahhh’ – they get so excited.”

That’s the type of excitement Harley liked to create.  The hoop house may carry Harley’s name – but it also carries his legacy for being a science teacher, who enjoyed making education fun, and he believed gardens were a perfect place to do just that.

“It’s everything kids need in life in a caring, community-school setting,” Harley expressed to those involved in the garden, and always with conviction. “This is what school should be about, hands-on learning, science, math geography, character building combined in a creative way. It’s all about keeping curiosity going, not stifling it.”