A Day in the Life: A Grow to Learn School Garden tour

Grow to Learn celebrated the end of the 2013-14 school year with a tour of four school gardens in Harlem and the Bronx. Since launching in February 2011, 438 schools have joined Grow to Learn, making them eligible for garden grant funding, training and materials offered by Grow to Learn partners GrowNYC, NYC Parks Department’s GreenThumb Division and NYC Department of Education’s Office of SchoolFood. Join us on this virtual tour of some dynamic school gardening programs:

Stepping into the hydroponics classroom at PS 208m The Alain L. Locke Magnet School for Environmental Stewardship, several fifth graders sat huddled over small tanks in front of them.  They were adjusting and observing the miniature hydroponics systems they had designed and built themselves.  Behind them stood the rows of basil, rainbow chard, and lettuce they’d been tending in the larger classroom system that served as their model. 

The class, taught by hydroponics teacher Tina Wong, begins with the history and basics of hydroponics, includes lots of planting and harvesting (each student tends to one plant, and picks what they get to grow), and ends with a STEM-infused experimental design unit.  Next year, students will test their know-how against the elements by expanding their garden – for the first time – outdoors.  With the help of City Year and Grow to Learn staff, PS 208 built an outdoor garden area with raised beds in cheerful shades of purple, yellow, red, and blue.  During the coming school year, students will run a small farmers’ market as part of their class, learning economics and business principles as they garden.

Ask the students at Family Life Academy Charter School, the next stop on our tour, if they know a good place to get local produce, and they might just tell you their roof.  During our visit, FLACS students could be spotted pulling young carrots straight from the ground, lining up at the hose for a quick rinse, and munching away.  Between bites, students shared a variety of facts they’d learned researching different crops in the garden (originally, students had been asked to create labels for crops, but got so excited they would up making a fact-packed laminated brochure for every plant in the garden). 

The school’s chef, Chef Bennett, looked on proudly.  He uses garden produce (especially herbs) in the school’s cafeteria, and uses the garden as a way to make healthy eating more appetizing, exciting, and understandable to the students that pass through his lunchroom.  We were lucky enough to stay for lunch, and enjoyed a fresh salad bar, roasted cauliflower, and other healthy treats!

At Bronx Lighthouse College Prep Academy, students spoke eloquently about the hard work and long hours they’d contributed to the garden.  They shared their different roles (from seed-purchaser to resident photographer), their garden struggles (a four-flight bucket brigade to bring soil to their terrace garden came to mind), and the rewards of all their hard work – like pesto from garden-grown basil served in the cafeteria.  Currently in their second season, the Bronx Lighthouse College Prep Academy gardeners felt more seasoned, and expected to produce over 400 tomatoes – a bumper crop compared to the four they said they harvested last year!

We ended the day with a sweet surprise at PS 154x Jonathan D. Hyatt: members of the Chicken and Garden Club greeted us at the garden gate with a bucket of freshly picked raspberries.  Older students, about to graduate, showed up-and-coming Garden Club students the ropes: from watering, to weeding, to eating radishes straight from the ground.  Most exciting, though, was the run on the far side of the building where “The Ladies” live.  Four hens (Storm, CoCo, Tami, and Diva) live and roost in a coop and run abutting Alexander Avenue, and are a constant source of curiosity and delight for teachers, students, neighborhood residents, and passersby.