Detroit Lakes Boys & Girls Club members and staff will be enjoying the fruits of their own labors this summer, in the form of freshly-grown crops from the club's new hydroponic garden.

The first crop of lettuce grown in the garden was served up to club members on Wednesday, May 12, just under four weeks after the seeds were planted. Alex, one of the club's members, gave the plants an enthusiastic "100 thumbs up!" according to marketing director Alyssa Hoskins.

Detroit Lakes Boys & Girls Club member Alex was given a helping hand by Ethan Mattson, the club's recreation director, as he attempted to harvest his lettuce plant from the club's new hydroponic garden on Wednesday, May 12. (Submitted photo)
Detroit Lakes Boys & Girls Club member Alex was given a helping hand by Ethan Mattson, the club's recreation director, as he attempted to harvest his lettuce plant from the club's new hydroponic garden on Wednesday, May 12. (Submitted photo)

"We grew 144 plants in there," said Ethan Mattson., the club's recreation director. "We can have up to 288."

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The number of seeds planted is based on how large they will be when fully grown, he added. Future crops grown in the soil-free indoor garden may include not just vegetables, but also herbs, flowers and even pumpkins or melons.

"It's a water-based system," Mattson said. "There's no soil."

A closer look at the new hydroponic "flex farm" system that was recently purchased from Fork Farms by the Boys & Girls Club of Detroit Lakes. The club plans to use the system to grow many more lettuce crops like this one, but will also be harvesting other vegetables, herbs and flowers as well. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)
A closer look at the new hydroponic "flex farm" system that was recently purchased from Fork Farms by the Boys & Girls Club of Detroit Lakes. The club plans to use the system to grow many more lettuce crops like this one, but will also be harvesting other vegetables, herbs and flowers as well. (Vicki Gerdes / Tribune)

One of the most important tasks in maintaining the garden is "to make sure the pH (acidity level) is balanced and optimal for that crop," Mattson said. For lettuce, that means a pH level of about 6.0.

Once the crop has been harvested, the individual growing units can be pulled out and washed. "It's dishwasher safe," Mattson said.

Each club member was able to plant and harvest lettuce in their own growing unit, he added.

The garden, which is called a "flex farm" system, was purchased from Fork Farms, and holds eight towers for housing growing units. The towers can be pulled in tightly around the LED lights at the center, which are specially designed for growing indoor plants. Water is funneled to the plants through the towers.

U.S. Senator Tina Smith got a personal demonstration from Boys & Girls Club Recreation Director Ethan Mattson of how the Club's new hydroponic garden works when she toured the facility on Saturday, May 8. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)
U.S. Senator Tina Smith got a personal demonstration from Boys & Girls Club Recreation Director Ethan Mattson of how the Club's new hydroponic garden works when she toured the facility on Saturday, May 8. (Michael Achterling / Tribune)

U.S. Sen. Tina Smith got a first-hand look at the new hydroponic system during a tour of the club, which was the first stop of her Saturday, May 8, visit to Detroit Lakes.

It was an absolute pleasure to give U.S. Senator Tina Smith a tour of the Club this past weekend and share what happens here every day to make GREAT FUTURES possible for local youth!

Posted by Boys & Girls Club of Detroit Lakes on Monday, May 10, 2021

"The garden was purchased through proceeds from our thrift store," said BGC Executive Director Pat Petermann. "We're the first Boys & Girls Club in Minnesota to have one."

The system came complete with an educational curriculum for teaching kids in grades K-12 how to grow their own crops. "We'll be incorporating it for the kids who come to the club this summer," he said.

To learn how the system worked, Petermann added, club staff drove out to River Falls, Wis., to view a similar, but larger system being used by one of Fork Farms' partners. Several schools and clubs in Wisconsin are already using Fork Farms' hydroponic systems to grow and harvest food for their own use, he said.

Petermann added that future plans may include partnering with Detroit Lakes High School's Academy program on an agricultural project of some kind.

"My goal is to get about 10-12 of them (flex farms) to start an entrepreneurial program for teens," he said. "We're excited by the possibilities."

For more information about the Boys & Girls Club of Detroit Lakes, you can visit their website at bgcdl.org, or check out their Facebook page for updates on club activities and programs. You can also check out previous stories about the club at the newspaper's website, dl-online.com.