In courtyards, in backyards and on rooftops, hundreds of school gardens are in bloom. Tens of thousands of city children are planting seeds and helping them grow into flowers and plants that build good health and bring color to schoolyards and communities everywhere.
School gardens date back to 1908 when The New York Times ran a news story with the headline, “80 School Farms Now Running Here.” Margaret Knox, a Manhattan principal, wrote, “When the signs of spring asked for by the teacher … brings only the answer ‘yes, ma’am, I know when spring is here because the saloons put on their swinging doors,’ is it not worthwhile to lead such a child to notice other signs of spring? To me this is what a school garden means in a crowded city district.”
By 1931, there were 302 school gardens, with 65 acres under cultivation.
Over time, the gardens gradually disappeared with the pressures of building for a growing population and the need for parking space.
But the tide has turned again with a resurgence of interest in the environment and a new awareness of the positive impact that gardening has on both academics and the physical well-being of children. Today’s gardeners have added fruits and vegetables to their planting schedule as nutrition and locally grown food have become greater concerns.
Today, according to a Department of Education spokeswoman, Grow to Learn, a public-private partnership, has helped establish gardens in 335 schools alone.
Most school gardens start with small grants such as those provided by Grow to Learn.
At PS 3 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, kindergarten teacher Ryan Cain said, the garden began three years ago with the simple thought: “We really should have a garden.” The PTA provided $100, a GrowNYC grant added $2,000 and the Brooklyn Food Coalition also chipped in.
The kale, chard, tomatoes, basil and garlic grown in the raised garden beds at PS 50 in East Harlem, then harvested and cooked in the two school kitchens for student consumption, “address the needs of a beleaguered ZIP code, a community at the epicenter of diabetes, defiance and despair,” teacher Paul Clarke noted.
Starting with raised beds in their front- and backyards, PS 50 is now waiting for construction of their rooftop garden and greenhouse to be completed.
Cain’s kindergartners at PS 3 are ready to publish their “My Tree Book” based on their study through the seasons of how time, weather and the environment affect the magnolia and London plane trees in their garden.
“Learning is not abstract in the garden,” he pointed out. “Children are able to get their hands dirty. They love digging, finding worms and following their curiosity.”