School Gardens Are Growing
Urban school gardens are becoming wildly popular in the last few decades. “Of the 1800 public schools in the city, nearly one-third now have school gardens registered with GrowNYC, and this number has been growing by 75-100 gardens every year since the registry was begun in 2011.” And why not? These natural spaces allow for practical urban farming education, provide energetic “mini” garden volunteers, and in many cases they encourage PTA-school partnerships. The gardens come in all shapes and sizes, and range in location from indoor hydroponics to building rooftops; they are as unique and diverse as the people of New York City.
Something is missing...
Most of us still remember elementary school, and the priceless freedom of field trips or outdoor lessons. Children generally ask to play outside everyday and as children we loved to play with dirt. In that sense children are natural and curious gardeners. Yet in this day and age, a child is more likely to learn math from their Ipad or plastic toy than from a garden. There is also a disconnect between all of us city dwellers and our outside environment including our food source. The effects of which are not limited to obesity, poor nutrition, and organic food insecurity. So, what can we do? Our city soil is sometimes polluted with lead and outdoor space is hard to come by. People, including many schools, look to the hydroponic solution which reduces watering needs and allows for indoor gardening. This method of gardening replaces soil with water as the growing medium, and replaces sun with indoor lighting, to boost plant growth by 30-50% while providing higher yields. Yet there are some downsides for climate change; by taking soil (and bees, worms etc.) out of the equation, hydroponics isolate our food system from the earth itself, right when sustainable development is requiring us to be more holistic. The merit in gardening lies in more than the harvest, because there are valuable lessons ingrained in the experience. Like patience and stewardship, and nature’s recycling and composting process. When we give back and unselfishly till the soil, plant the seed, water our plants, and harvest the fruit, we do more than just consume. We become stewards of our planet and our neighboring animals. Growing food helps kids grow!
Can it be done?
So what does it take to make a school garden? Grow to Learn NYC, a leading nonprofit that works with NYC public schools writes individual grants for school gardens and estimates the cost to range from ($500-$2000) per school. The grant includes the cost of garden bed material and labor, as well as supplies and tools. The organization also provides online and on-site support services, making it a powerful package. Yet most schools do not have the budget to prioritize garden funding. For one, a school garden requires maintenance and ongoing seed/soil amendment supplies. It requires active participation from schools and assigning clearly defined garden care roles. And it requires a garden curriculum which is not currently embedded and must be open-sourced. All of these things seem like substantial resources to be acquired or built out. Yet the substantial number of existing school gardens seems to be living proof of the return on investment in economic, community, environment, and public health sectors. Learn about the four concrete reasons for school gardens.
Finding a simple solution
Take this example of a school for kindergarten to grade 12 in Canada that reveals just how simple it can be to incorporate a school garden into day-to-day life. As described by their sustainability coordinator, Julie Johnston, “Picture this. It's a beautiful September day. One of those autumn days that shouts, ‘Bring the kids outside to learn!’ The school's courtyard is a hive of activity and excitement. The youngest students are getting a tour of the learning garden from their grade six tour guides. An art class settles in for a peaceful hour of sketching. And some grade 5 boys are collecting mint and lemon balm leaves from the "scratch and sniff" bed to make tea bags to share with parents and other visitors. Everyone enjoys an alpine strawberry, a ground cherry or a tiny tomato. Shouts of discovery (Look, a cucumber! a squash! purple beans! some carrots!) fill the air. This is their garden, and these Upper Canada College students love it.”
This school has chosen the consensus method to help them reach their goals. They involved their parents, and community members to create many stakeholders and networks of support; from faculty and staff to alumni and donors.
The examples of creatively managed DIY school gardens are many, because times are changing and our solutions must keep up. By keeping in mind the goals of sustainable development, we can create a beautiful tale of a modern city that is alive with the ancestral rituals and practices that help us thrive.