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COTTAGE GROVE, Minn. -- Shiann Timmons held up a ruler to her lettuce plant - and her jaw dropped.

“This is amazing!” she said. “It’s 5 1/2 inches! It was half a centimeter in March, and now it’s in these huge bushes!”

Shiann, 11, has become an ardent gardener without leaving her classroom at Pine Hill Elementary School in Cottage Grove.

The reason is an innovative plug-in garden in the back of the room, which on Thursday was swarmed by fifth-graders.

If there were a spaceship garden in “Star Wars,” it would look like this - 6 feet tall, vertical grow-lights and plants hanging out of openings in the white plastic. The whole contraption is on wheels, so it can be unplugged and rolled to another classroom.

The Tower Gardens were mentioned in Cottage Grove’s Sustainable City Award, given annually on Earth Day.

The award was given to teacher Diane Bezdicek, who helped get funding for six of the gardens at the school. She bought the towers with help from Cottage Grove, a Statewide Health Improvement Program grant, and the Washington County Health Department.

Bezdicek said the Tower Gardens were developed by North Dakota native Tim Blank, who managed exhibits at Disney World’s Epcot Center until leaving to start his own company.

When the first units arrived, students put in tiny seeds into small pieces of rock wool, which holds water and is hospitable for plant roots.

A 20-gallon tank at the base holds water mixed with nutrients. It is circulated by a pump that is turned on for 15 minutes, then off for 30, over and over. The water is lifted to the top, where it trickles down to the roots of the plants.

The towers use about 10 percent of the water needed by conventional gardens, Bezdicek said.

The towers grow plants even in a dark Minnesota winter, thanks to the fluorescent lights running on 12-hour cycles.

Each unit has spaces for 28 plants - enough for each student to have one. Bezdicek said that students have planted lettuce, arugula, basil, cilantro, parsley, kale and nasturtium, an edible flower.

For the teachers, it’s a way to teach about plants year-round. “It wouldn’t work if you had to drag them outside daily to look at a garden,” Bezdicek said.

She is surprised by how the towers have worked their way into classroom curricula.

Students use math to calculate the amount of nutrients to use. They use biology to study the fertilizer.

They learn to record the growth of their plants in handwritten diaries. Some are even using iPads to photograph them every day, to eventually produce time-lapse photography of their growing plants.

But when talking with the kids, the biggest benefit seems to be excitement about healthful eating.

“Kids who grow their own food tend to eat healthier,” said Bezdicek. At the end of each six-week growing period, the students toss their harvest into bowls for a “Salad Party.”

On Thursday, Elvis Ponce, 11, gently felt the leaves of his arugula plant. “I have never tried arugula before. I guess it’s kind of spicy,” said Elvis, as he photographed it with his iPad.

“It’s a jungle!” gasped Jeorgia Hoverson, 11, as she saw the tangle of greenery.

She checked her “gourmet lettuce” plant. Compared with outdoor gardening, she said, “This is way more fun.”

“And no hurt backs!” chimed in Rachel Krause, 11. She recalled getting sore while working in her grandmother’s garden.

Tre Zitzow, 10, said his arugula will be more healthful than plants in stores, which can be exposed to pesticides and chemicals.

“This is much better for picky eaters,” he said, “like me.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.