Greenhouse project fills unexpected need

STEM students at Holland Middle School see fruits of their labor feed the community during pandemic.
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Holland students and community members pitched in to build the greenhouse at Holland Middle School. Courtesy Bill Boerman

A greenhouse project that was created a year ago to help students learn more about science, technology, engineering and math proved to be an essential source for feeding the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Community Action House food bank in Holland was the beneficiary of produce grown at Holland Middle School’s greenhouse to feed low-income and homeless families in the community during the crisis.

Prior to schools being closed in March, STEM students from the middle school, under the guidance of Bill Boerman, Holland Middle School STEM educator, were able to utilize its new 960-square-foot greenhouse.

The students were able to use 10 garden beds inside the greenhouse to plant lettuce, swiss chard, kale, cucumbers, tomatoes, raspberries, blackberries, corn, bell peppers, peas, beans and watermelon.

Some of the fruits and vegetables have not yet been harvested, but the students have harvested 20 to 40 pounds of lettuce, swiss chard and kale three times so far.

Cucumbers, tomatoes, raspberries and blackberries currently are blossoming, and corn is growing on the stalk. Bell peppers, peas, beans and watermelons have been planted and are expected to be ready to harvest by August.

While the greenhouse has proven to be beneficial to the community, Boerman said the idea for the greenhouse project stemmed from his realization that many students at Holland Middle School did not have a basic understanding of nutrition.

“My father comes in to volunteer once a week,” he said. “(My parents) have a garden and my father would bring in some fruits. He would bring in raspberries and I had multiple students who never had raspberries before. He would bring in blueberries and I had multiple students who never had blueberries before. So, I just became aware that general nutritional understanding was an area of need. Needless to say, understanding how to eat and taking care of your body is a key component to getting a good education because if you are not eating well, it affects your education and what happens in school. That was where the idea of creating a greenhouse came from.”

STEM students also are being taught the fundamentals of design, gardening and nutrition.

Months before the greenhouse was built, Boerman’s advanced STEM class worked on the engineering portion of the greenhouse, including designing, planning and preparing for the greenhouse facility.

Since the structure has been operational, Boerman said any of the 700 students enrolled in the middle school can visit the greenhouse. 

“We have science classes that have been able to come in and study plants and their life cycle,” he said. “They also study temperature, humidity and different subject areas that impact plants. We have special needs students who come in and learn about life skills. This past year they were out there once a week learning about growing, planting, nutrition education and serving the community.”

Boerman recently installed an upgraded irrigation system that includes different watering zones that — once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted — will allow students to monitor watering volume and measure soil moisture.

“We have small drip lines that go through all the beds,” he said. “Everything is on a timer. It gets watered on a daily basis (and) for a set amount of time. With the help of Hope College and Gentex in the Zeeland area, we have been able to install larger fans. So, we have great ventilation in there.”

In addition to donating to Community Action House, Boerman said after July 4, the greenhouse will be open to the public and community members will be able to harvest fruits and vegetables for free. He also will move his mobile kitchen unit to the greenhouse, allowing families from different cultural backgrounds to gather, harvest, cook and dine together. This, too, would depend on lifting of COVID-19 health and safety restrictions.

The creation of the greenhouse project was supported by numerous businesses and organizations, including Herman Miller, Gentex, Ridge Point Community Church and Jonkers Garden.

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