School garden has roots in water

It looked more like two guys piecing together large square Tinkertoys, connected by white tubing, than workers of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Aquaculture & Fisheries Center building an urban garden at Pine Bluff High School.

Reginald Wilson, high school assistant principal and Morgan Wilson's father, is just as enthusiastic as his daughter about the new gardening project.

Five UAPB faculty members and graduate students are volunteering their time in the construction of the urban garden, which combines water-based growing (known as hydroponics) with fish living in the circulating water below. And in that case, it becomes aquaponics.

Tilapia is a popular aquaponic choice, but goldfish also work well, too, said Dayan "Dave" Perera, extension specialist at aquaculture. While goldfish can survive freezing water, tilapia can't. Fish waste adds some of the nutrients required by the plants, while in turn the plants filter the water so the fish remain healthy.

Also, the microbes that thrive in the water provide additional nutrients, Perera said. The result of the three living components is a perfect collaboration between aquaculture and gardening. It's also a growing backyard trend.

"As an extension specialist, I have received an ever-growing number of requests from urban gardeners, and small scale farmers requesting information regarding aquaponics and how to set up small scale systems," Perera said. "So currently it is not the norm but has significant potential in the near future."

The collaboration between the two schools came about when Reginald Wilson approached Perera about assistance with developing the garden grant. Perera said Wilson's "primary goal was to expose his students to farming and food production techniques" that included hands-on experience.

The high school received the $500 grant from the Arkansas Department of Agriculture's State School Garden program, and as well, Reginald Wilson said the school raised another $500 through community donations.

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