Tucked away down a maze of hallways at Hamilton Southeastern High School is a large commercial-scale greenhouse filled with healthy, vibrant plants, all grown and carefully tended by HSE students.
In the warm, humid environment, plants thrive as horticulture students mix soil, trim dead leaves, add water as needed, and get their hands dirty in the best possible way. In the middle of it all is teacher Caroline Mills, who said this level of agriculture education is unusual in a more urban school environment, but it’s a great hands-on way for students to learn how things grow.
Mills said the first semester is more classroom-based, and students learn about plant parts, plant reproduction and different methods of plant propagation — seeds versus cuttings, for example.
“And then when we move into spring or second semester, we start right off the bat planting herbs and then getting our plugs and getting flowers planted,” she said. “And then we move into vegetables and things that kind of pop out of the ground a little quicker.”
The students have input into what kind of plants they grow, with assistance from Hamilton County Master Gardner Program volunteers, who give advice on what to plant — and what not to plant — and help manage the class.
Also getting her hands dirty in the greenhouse is Sylvia Shepler, an advanced master gardener from that program. She’s one of a handful of volunteers who help with the horticulture class.
“(We help with) whether it’s stem-cutting root cuttings, just planting seeds, the correct soil, (or) making sure that it is watered properly,” Shepler said. “And as we go along through the semester, we just assist the teacher and give some counsel, some advice, suggestions, because it’s her class. We don’t want to take over.”
All that work leads up to a big plant sale, with proceeds going back into the school’s agriculture program expenses. They use it to buy plants and seeds each year, but the program also gets cuttings and plants donated by gardeners in the community, usually right before the first frost in the fall.
“They bring them in the greenhouse, and we can keep them alive all winter,” Mills said. “And then once those plants grow, we can separate them and do cuttings on them. And then we get an abundance of extra plants that we actually get for free because of those donations.”
Junior Allison Giganti was one of the students working in the greenhouse during a recent class. She said she’s learned a lot about plant structure: Their roots, their leaves, etc. — basically how plants work. Giganti said growing plants from a cutting is an interesting method of propagation that she learned, and they recently had a class about hydroponics.
“Which is a system in which you’re able to grow plants through water,” she said. “And in that system, typically you don’t use soil. You just use water in different growing substrates, which will allow the plant to grow without soil. So, there has been some research on that. I think they’ve been looking for different ways to make it more efficient and different ways to kind of utilize that technology in the future to make agriculture more productive.”
Giganti said she enjoys working and learning in the greenhouse.
“This class, probably it’s probably one of my favorite classes because I like being in nature, you know?” she said.
Giganti said she likes growing zucchini and squash, and her favorite flowers are canna lillies because of their tropical look.
Student Ami Howser said she particularly likes the elephant ear plant, which is basically a long stem with one large leaf at the top. She said she enjoys the variety experienced in the horticulture class — it’s not the same thing every day.
“Sure, we might plant every day, but it’s different plants,” she said. “They all need different things to help them thrive. It’s just fun learning about them. And then just like seeing them grow, because you start with a little seed, and eventually you’re just like, “Oh, wow, that one’s pink and that one’s red.’”
Mills said the greenhouse was built more than 20 years ago, and the agriculture department is connected to the school’s FFA chapter, which has about 130 student members. Mills is also the school’s FFA advisor.
“I would say we have seven or eight (FFA members) that actually come directly from agriculture, which is really unique because not a lot of schools in the state of Indiana are like that,” she said. “But agriculture is so diverse. And they kind of get to see (that) agriculture is not just for like a certain demographic, it can be for anyone.”
Plants for sale
Hamilton Southeast High School students in the horticulture program have been growing and caring for hundreds of plants all semester in preparation for their annual plant sale.
The sale is set for 3 to 5 p.m. May 3, 4 and 5. People interested in buying plants in support of the school’s agriculture programs can park in front of the greenhouse, located on the north side of the school off 126th Street.
Plants available for purchase will include a variety of annuals and perennials, vegetables, herbs, succulents, and hanging baskets for indoors and outdoors.
Teacher Caroline Mills said prices range from $3 to $10 for individual plants, and up to $30 for hanging baskets.
Students will be on hand to help load purchased plants into vehicles.