Walking down Chase’s US hallways over the past semester, you’ve likely been greeted by a lush oasis sprouting up ever so resiliently within our science lab greenhouse.
In a space once resigned for dried up cacti and decaying pots, there now resides a fully-functioning hydroponic system - complete with grazing fish, bubbling water, and fresh growing herbs. A Senior Capstone Project dreamt up by recent alumnus Johnny D'Aversa '17, this self-sustaining piece of hydro equipment is a continuation of D'Aversa's vision for the conservatory space - now fully-realized by Chase kids Griffin Puc '18 and Stefanos Bilis '19.
“It’s basically plants without soil,” laughed Bilis, when asked to briefly define what any passerby now witnesses when they kneel down to peer into the fish tank connected to white tubing which houses floating green sprouts.
“Yeah, so basically it's the hydroponics [that you see],” elaborated Puc. Here is how the system works, “you feed the fish and they go [defecate] in the water. The plants love the nutrients which get cycled through to the plants. The plants use that up, they clean the water and then that gets cycled back into the fish tank. So you can kind of think of the hydroponics system as acting as a filter for the water and all of the bad stuff that the fish don’t need, the plants need.”
For even better mental imagery, “it’s like the fish that eat stuff out of shark’s mouths. Or like the birds that eat stuff off of hippos,” joked Bilis - it’s mutually beneficial.
Sound complicated? Well, kind of. But never the types to shy away from a challenge, Puc and Bilis fell into the independent project through their mutual curiosity coupled with the request of their newly graduated classmate. As part of his blueprint for the mostly abandoned space, D'Aversa wanted to ensure a fish tank was installed as a useful and productive addition to the glasshouse. So he did what any inquisitive and savvy Chase kid would do - he reached out to his friends, enlisting the help of Bilis, who had some first-hand experience with the life aquatic.
“He knew that I did a lot of things with fish at home,” explained Bilis, about D’Aversa’s appeal for help last year. “I have two fish tanks. I have one saltwater and one regular and so he asked me to help him out with the fish aspect [of his Capstone]. And then this year, Mr. Kopecky came back to me about it and asked me to start [up again].”
For Puc, watching D’Aversa’s Capstone unfold ignited an interest in the water-based system that actually began over the summer. Puc explained, “over the summer I was kind of researching it [hydroponics] because I knew I wanted to do that in here. It was just kind of luck that Stefanos wanted to do the same thing. So, he did [took responsibility for] the fish tank stuff and I worked on the hydroponics and then we kind of just put it all together.”
And so, just like that, in a classic case of passing the torch, taking initiative, and applying teamwork, the components of what you now see in the space conjoining the two US science labs, rippled gently into place. Not to say that research, trial and error, and innovation weren't needed to ensure the project came to fruition. Puc eventually took the reigns at the start of the school year, devoting time and personal expense outside of the classroom to both further research and construct the hydroponic system himself.
“There's a store just for hydroponics in Orange,” stated Puc. “So I took a trip down [to HTG Supply] and talked to them. They were actually, really helpful.”
Offering additional support on the homefront was Puc’s grandfather, Glenn, who also helped his grandson fund and piece together the components of the water-based system.
“[Prepping the hydroponics system and parts], it was all time spent working on it at home, and then the system was brought in [to the school] and installed,” explained Puc, who went on to state that the whole process of visiting stores and building the system took about two weeks.
Since then, working with and maintaining the space has had its ups and downs, including a failed experiment with an automatic fish feeder. Bilis explained that initially, getting into the groove of what the space needed was challenging - especially when attempting to juggle free time in the space with school work and sports. “The beginning was hard. Like setting it up,” he explained. “And as it has been progressing it shifted more from what I do, [to Griffin’s basic maintenance] because what I did was set up and start the fish tank, and so now I’ve moved back from it - not, like, completely away from it, but it got easier - [the tank is] self-sustaining now.”
“Yeah, I pretty much do daily check-ins [now],” confirmed Puc, who agreed that with the plants established, the water system is easier to maintain. “Once things got growing we were going to collaborate with the dining hall to try and get them [the herbs] on the menu,” continued Puc.
“Also, the dining hall, like, makes things on a very large scale and we don’t have that many herbs. So… the staff could incorporate them into, I don’t know, parent meetings or any small dinners or events,” chimed Bilis. “We just really liked the idea of herbs, or like an herb garden, because you can actually eat them.”
Personal use is also on their minds, for example, “do you need basil at home?” questioned Puc. On top of the hydroponically grown herbs and strawberries, you can also find tomatoes, flowering plants, and racks of additional herbs growing and being sprayed and maintained daily by the aqua farming pair.
With his commencement looming, Puc is excited to see where his new hobby develops and he hopes that Bilis is able to continue their joint endeavor at Chase next year.
“For sure. I’m going to keep it going," echoed Bilis. “And, I’ll also help keep the senior tank [in the Senior Lounge] going next year too. So I’ll be holding two torches. I’m going to see if there’s any freshman or juniors interested in working on this.”
Puc added that it really only takes one or two committed volunteers to maintain the space. “Things can grow even through the summer,” he explained. “We can always [stop in] to maintain it.”
Reflecting back to the start of the year, both Puc and Bilis are thankful that they had the fish tank at the school already, along with the solutions that D’Aversa had already established for the space. Mr. Kopecky then adding his mentorship and Puc’s grandfather volunteering his time were just the ripe berries at the end of the hydroponically grown vine.
“If you saw the space at the beginning of the year till now,” laughed Puc. “It’s just really nice to look at.”
“The space hadn’t been used in like three years since he [D’Aversa] came in,” added Bilis. "Students had [previously] managed, which is very hard to do (by the way), to kill a cactus in there. It was like a desert. [Now] it’s green in there. It’s cool.”
Don’t hesitate to visit the US greenhouse on your next Chase visit, and if you see these two Chase kids in the halls, ask them for some dill - they’ve got you covered. Also, if you’re a current Chase kid who has the urge to get your hands dirty in the soilless space, track down Bilis and let him know you’re interested. After all, as Bilis and Puc proved, it only takes a couple curious minds to keep an idea alive.
~Kelly Ann Oleksiw,
Digital & Social Media Specialist