Feature stories

Seeds of learning

School gardens spread beauty, lessons across city

Miller Photography Time for students at PS 115 to set out the tomato plants in planters built by the father of former students.
PS 115 celebrates its new look with a garden party.
PS 102 gardeners overcome cement with wooden planters.

Across the city, children are learning about the mysteries that are unlocked when a tiny seed is planted in the spring and grows into the food they eat at harvest time or blossoms into a rainbow of flowers.

It’s Jack and the Beanstalk come true.

Even though PS 102 in East Harlem is surrounded by housing projects and has very little growing space, 3rd-grade teacher Vanessa Hefa, the school’s sustainability coordinator, reports that they have used ingenious tricks to find a way to garden. Colorful flowers grow in window boxes and out of halved plastic bottles filled with earth and hung on the chain-link fence. Using raised wooden planters, children are growing food they will harvest and eat.

“The children are beyond surprised,” Hefa said. “They are elated.”

Each of the 10 pre-K to 3rd-grade classes at the school takes ownership of one section of the garden, one day a week, when they are responsible for watering, weeding and keeping the garden beds clean.

Kindergarten teacher Mary Keegan at PS 123 in Bushwick was surprised and delighted when her young gardeners enjoyed the spicy crunch of radishes, a first for most of them. She suspects that it may be because they had grown the radishes themselves.

One of the major goals of the citywide green initiatives is to improve diets and health by exposing children to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s important to have children see the connection between what is grown and what they eat,” Keegan noted. That’s especially true for the children of the low-income neighborhood surrounding her 110-year-old school. They are learning not only about new vegetables but also about strawberries, herbs and perennials as well as about marigolds that keep insects away.

At PS 115 in Floral Park, dance teacher Rick Guimond was tired of walking through the weeds and dead bushes, tired of feeling that he was entering an industrial park each morning on his way into school.

So he did something about it. The school grounds have been transformed. They’re ablaze with flowering bushes, shaded now by trees, and feature a children’s garden where tomato plants transplanted from classroom window- sills are now thriving along with carrots and lettuce. It’s the pride of the neighborhood.

A neighborhood landscaper worked for over two years, according to Guimond, to “make something from nothing.” A second landscaper pitched in, and Mike Magenheim, the father of three former students, built one raised planting bed for each grade, three free-standing planters, five benches and a shade pergola for the community garden.

Principal James Ambrose credits Guimond’s “passion for the gardening project and his fundraising” for making it happen.

A bonus of the garden boom is how communities have embraced it. Hillary Macklow’s birthday gift to her husband was to raise $25,000 for the PS 123 garden in Bushwick. Working with the New York Restoration Project, she joined in the planting of flower beds, bushes and a dozen trees and the creation of a children’s garden. The Coalition for Hispanic Family Services is also involved and cares for the PS 123 gardens during the summer.

PS 102 in East Harlem got growing with a mini-grant from Grow to Learn, which is part of the Citywide School Gardens Initiative. That group, in turn, connected Hefa, the sustainability coordinator, with City Year, which helped build raised beds and benches.

Since its launch in 2011, Grow to Learn, which functions as a one-stop shop for parents, teachers and administrators looking for resources to start and sustain a school garden, has registered 202 school gardens, reaching 49,229 students.

No matter how school gardens come into being, research indicates that they strengthen children’s intellectual and emotional growth and contribute to increased knowledge retention, creativity and academic achievement.

And that’s in addition to the sheer joy that children get from watching plants grow and enjoying their harvest.

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