Big Bend Conservation Alliance program teaches youth about hydroponic gardening 

Sophia Piedra tends to a seedling — in a recycled planter she designed herself — in the hanging garden at Presidio Elementary School.

PRESIDIO — Johnery Estolloso’s classroom was a flurry of activity on Monday as his students tended their gardens — both indoor and outdoor. Estolloso has partnered with the Big Bend Conservation Alliance (BBCA) to offer an enrichment course on gardening through Presidio ISD’s summer program for elementary school students. Each weekday afternoon, the intimate class of four students consider what it means to grow your own food. 

BBCA’s Presidio community liaison, Elvira Hermosillo, has had a front-row seat to all the fun, providing materials and educational context for the kids to explore. “We’re trying to increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” she explained. “This time around, we’re focusing on indoor gardening, and then we’re doing the outdoor version with the library later this summer.”

The star of the show is a hydroponic gardening unit in the classroom — a big pod about the size of a bathroom stall. Hydroponic gardening allows plants to grow without soil, expanding the growing season and the variety of plants that can be grown in a place like Presidio, where soil is scarce in the wild.

It’s Estolloso’s first time partnering with BBCA, and he’s enjoyed being able to teach his students complicated scientific concepts in a hands-on way. “It’s such a big responsibility to have one baby [plant] you have to monitor, you have to have patience as well,” he explained. “Every morning we check the pH level of the water, and then we check the temperature as well.” 

Their hard work has been paying off: a few weeks into the program, plants like lettuce and kale are starting to show off their leaves. The kids have also been constructing planters out of recycled materials like soda bottles to hang from the fence around the school. They water the plants with a spray bottle at least once a day, mostly resisting the urge to spray each other throughout the process. 

When the program ends, the kids will be able to take home their plants to their families, providing an opportunity to encourage older folks in their lives to take up gardening. Part of the fun is getting to pick their plants. Miah Rodriguez chose cucumbers and yellow onions; Sophia Piedra added beets and thyme to her Gatorade-bottle garden. 

The program is funded through a generous donation by Amerigroup, who has worked to advocate for the health of Presidio residents through expanded telemedicine options and other projects. For Greg Thompson, president and CEO of Amerigroup Texas, supporting the elementary school’s garden was a no-brainer. “It’s our mission to help people get healthy and stay healthy,” he said. “It’s important to educate our youth about healthy eating habits.”

Hopefully, empowering young Presidians to start gardening will have a ripple effect far beyond getting to enjoy the taste of a home-grown pepper or squash. “Somewhere around 43% of all of the residents in Presidio are below the poverty level,” Thompson said. “It can be expensive to buy fresh produce from the grocery store. That’s why it’s so important to understand how easy it is to grow your own produce.” 

The hydroponic garden in Estolloso’s classroom is expected to grow around 25 pounds of food every four weeks — one Amerigroup-funded pilot program generated 394 pounds of produce in total from a hydroponic growing unit just like the one in Presidio. “It’s important to nourish the community,” Thompson said. “It’s a lifeline.”

From left to right: Allison Tiscareno, Sophia Piedra, Miah Rodriguez, Emmanuel Lujan, and instructor Johnery Estolloso check the water temperature in their hydroponic garden.