Reflections on a New School Garden

By James Gardeneer, Principal, Austin Road Elementary School, Mahopac, NY

I think we can all agree it has been an unusual winter.  It’s now the end of the first week in February and we still have no snow on the ground.  The temperatures are frequently hitting the low 50’s, and there are reports of birds already beginning their spring migration back to the northeast. Despite the unusual weather, and my desire for at least one significant snowfall, I am already turning my thoughts to spring, to warm sun, and of course, to our new school garden.  When I look out on our now dormant beds, I see one thing.  Potential.  Potential for our school to completely integrate a new learning environment into the fabric of our school culture.

As a former life science, biology, and AP environmental teacher (for over 20 years), my transition to an elementary principal 18 months ago was, at times, dramatic.  However, the one goal I did want to pursue was to incorporate as much science into our elementary program as possible and, in particular, get students out into the field to observe, to record, to enjoy nature, where it deserves to be enjoyed – outdoors.

With support from teachers and our amazing PTO volunteers, we created a proposal to build a school garden on our grade 1-5 campus.  Despite the fact that this was not an inexpensive proposition, our PTO generously approved the project and lent their full financial support to the endeavor.   The garden was completed in late July of 2011, just in time for our summer reading camp participants to plant our first small crop.

Our 630 students returned in the fall to an amazing new structure on campus.  To say that anticipation was high would be an understatement.  Our students energetically jumped into planting over 700 seedlings in our new Austin Road garden.  The majority of our teachers participated in this first round of fall planting, and those that did not, did express some regret at not doing so.  It gave me great joy to see many classes going out in the garden throughout the fall as they measured, made drawings, and examined their plants to see the amazing growth.  Students seemed relaxed and happy outdoors even when getting their hands dirty.  Despite a freak 16″ snowfall at Halloween, many of the plants survived and continued being observed and examined by our students throughout most of November.  Staff too went to the garden to pick some of the lettuce and bok choy plants for home use.  In late November, we blew out the water lines and officially buttoned things up for the winter.

Now as we move into mid-February, I realize that we have a lot of planning and work ahead.  Good work and with great potential for positive outcomes.  With the help of TGS, we have been contacting other schools to “borrow” curriculum ideas and suggestions.  In addition to administrative and teacher input, we have parent volunteers that are very much a part of all of our planning.  We even have one amazing 3rd grader, Max, who is heading up our organic insect control research.  Could he be a future world famous botanist or entomologist?  Only time will tell.

Once again, our PTO has backed our most recent requests with additional financial support.   With their generous help we are bringing an outside curriculum consultant to our school to help create a planting schedule, design activities and lessons, and integrate our garden into our school curriculum.  Everyone agrees that we don’t need another “add on.”  The school day is already too busy for that.  Therefore, our goal is to make our garden part of the school itself.  Our hope is to make it as integrated into our student’s lives as the playground itself.  When this happens, and I am convinced it will, I will feel satisfied that the true potential of our garden has been realized.  In the meantime, we are all, students, teachers and parents alike, enjoying the process of building a school garden program.

As we move into the 21st century, our students are immersed in a technological world.  Yet they also need real life experiences in nature.  In my humble opinion, they will certainly benefit from planting a seed, watching it grow, and harvesting a vegetable.  To me, this is where true learning and greater appreciation for our global resources is born and thrives.  Who knows what impact these experiences will have on their overall life?

About Teich Garden Systems
Teich Garden Systems custom designs and installs animal-resistant, sustainable school, community and residential garden systems for gardeners of all ages and abilities. Teich Garden Systems require very little upkeep and maintenance enabling you to enjoy your garden’s bounty with minimal effort. www.teichgardensystems.com

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