In the last couple of weeks, we have been reporting about our conversation with Michele Israel, a parent at PS 107 in Park Slope, Brooklyn, about how to grow an edible school garden. Michele has guided us through the planning stage and has generously shared with us possible sources of funding. The next step, finally, is to plant and reap the benefits of all your hard work.
The inspiration to grow an edible school garden originates with the children, of course, and the desire to see them learn firsthand about where food comes from and to literally enjoy the fruits — and veggies — of their labor. As soon as you have funding and your garden is a go, you will want to find ways to bring the children and teachers of your school into the process. What the garden committee at PS 107 did first to capture the children’s imagination was hold a garden-naming contest. Out of 140 entries the name “The Sunshine Garden”, submitted by a first grader, was selected. Having a naming contest gave the students a sense of ownership; it signaled to them that the garden was theirs to learn from and enjoy.
PS 107’s science teacher was instrumental in ensuring that the children were involved in the planting of the garden and that the garden became integrated into the curriculum. “We believe that the parents should provide foundational support and continued resources,” Michelle says. “But to really make the garden part of the school, it should be in the teachers’ hands.” This past year Michele decided to approach other teachers at her school about gardening and was able to recruit 12 more in different capacities. As Michele explains, “When I say different capacities, I mean that some just did hydroponic gardening in the classroom using AeroGrow Gardens, others started seeds in the classroom using grow lights. … And several used the garden to address a mandated inquiry project they had to do.” The point is gardening doesn’t just have to take place outside, it can happen in the classroom as well.
Be prepared that with students planting, the garden is probably going to have a haphazard quality. “Let the garden be messy,” Michelle advises. “With students, especially young ones, things might get a bit disorganized — too many seeds in one place, things kind of strewn here and there. … For me, that’s OK. … Things can be thinned, replanted, replaced. … Nature truly does take its course.”
As students get their hands dirty in the garden, they learn about plants, the natural environment (from weather to water to soil), and healthy eating. This year students at PS 107 will use their garden to examine environmental conditions that have an impact on gardening. Steve Tomsik, PS 107’s science teacher, explains, “I see the garden not only as an extension of my classroom, where lab work and scientific inquiry can take place, but also as a novel and engaging place where students can explore.” Here’s a sampling of some of the fruits and vegetables PS 107 grew in 2009: peas, spinach, corn, raspberries, gooseberries, lettuce, kale, leeks, arugula, beans, sweet peppers, eggplant, sunflowers, chives, three types of basil, parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and heirloom potatoes. And remember theirs is a shady garden!
You may be wondering what to do with all this fresh, healthy food once you’ve grown it. Many NYC schools with edible gardens participate in the Garden to School Café pilot program of the city Department of Education’s SchoolFood and the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets. Participating schools have a “Harvest Day,” when the fresh food grown in their gardens is used to prepare dishes that the students can sample. The Earth School in the East Village recently had their Harvest Day. Their menu included roasted potatoes with rosemary, sautéed spinach with garlic, and pasta with fresh basil pesto. These dishes were served that day as part of the school lunch in the cafeteria as well. PS 107’s Harvest Day included roasted basil chicken, herbed rice, and kale slaw, all prepared with the fresh vegetables grown in their garden.
The Garden to School Café program shows students, parents and teachers that meals prepared with fresh ingredients are possible for school lunch. At The Earth School in the East Village, students loved the food that was prepared. “The potatoes are amazing!” “The spinach is so good!” At PS 107, students were heard saying at their Harvest Day, “This is the best food I ever ate!” “Do you know why the pesto was so good? Because we grew it!” According to parents, kids whose favorite vegetable was french fries are now requesting kale and pesto for dinner.
As we said at the beginning of this series, starting an edible garden at your school is going to take planning, diplomatic skills, research, creativity, resourcefulness, and stamina. As you consider whether to grow an edible garden at your school, we’d like to leave you with these words from Cynthia Holton, PS 107’s principal:
I view the garden as an important part of the school’s progressive curriculum, in which experiential and collaborative learning are key components. What better way to immerse students in science, as well as in environmental and nutrition education? Our fruit and vegetable garden serves as an outdoor learning lab where students delve into the life and physical sciences and agricultural literacy. They work together to plant and make gardening decisions. They become environmental stewards who grow their appreciation of the natural world. All of this makes for an excellent education.
About our First Person series:
First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.