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It might seem a stretch to think about garden fresh tomatoes and other vegetables at a time when snow is covering the ground and potato bugs haven’t even made reservations for another garden invasion.
But, take heart. Students in Misty Bivens’ greenhouse technology class at LaRue County High School are taking the groundhog’s observation to heart and are already seeding and transplanting in their greenhouse.
“Due to school outings, we started seeding about the third week of January,” Bivens said. “We’ve already started transplanting; we generally start that process the first week of February.”
Bivens’ students tend the vegetables and fruits from seed to sale to the general public. During the process, they learn not only about how plants and vegetables grow, but also business and science principles involved in that growth, and some math as well, from measuring fertilizer to making change during sales.
“They, of course, learn the basic principles of plant production, but we also work in class on doing some math to figure cost, marketing to see how to sell the plants and public speaking to deal with customers.”
In addition, the whole plant growing process is basic biology.
“The best part for many of the students is that they get to see the growth process of plants firsthand and not just see pictures or read about it,” said Bivens. “They see how long it really takes for a plant to germinate and then they appreciate the plants that produce flowers and vegetables.”
Watering is the most thankless job the students do, according to Bivens. They also transplant, make labels, fill trays with soil, and clean up the area. When the time comes and the plants are ready, they sell them and learn to interact with consumers.
“Some students love to sell, but others would rather do anything than deal with the customers,” Bivens said.
She has about 20 students in the class this year which Bivens says is about the right size, better than the 36 in last year’s class which she declared were “way too many.”
Disease resistances, drought tolerance, and popularity with local patrons are the things she looks for while purchasing seeds.
“We typically stick to seeds we can germinate,” she said. “For instance impatiens and begonias are really hard to germinate, so we buy those plants as plugs and don’t waste money on seeds.”
She changed some varieties of seeds this year and also tried a few new flowers though she primarily ordered some new vegetable varieties, adding eggplant, hot peppers and lettuce.
“When you try new things you have to see how well they sell and if they become a constant or they last only a couple of years,” she said.
“Tomato plants have become the most popular item,” said Bivens. “A few years ago, I would have said wave petunias, but the vegetables are more popular than anything now.”
The hardest part in successfully growing plants in the greenhouse is similar to what faces gardeners - growing conditions.
“You never know if the heat might go out, if there will be adequate sun, or there will be some other problem,” she said.
Consistency is another reality she must deal with because each year she has a new group of students and each class is different and willing to do different things.
The class’s goal is to open for business two weeks before Mother’s Day (May 8), but growing conditions also sometimes affect that date.
“I don’t like to open too early because people have trouble with their plants and blame it on us, but plants aren’t going to survive cold temperatures, no matter where you get them.”