Cultivating Good Grades – School Gardening Blooms in Westchester County

by Anna Snider

St. Matthew’s Head Start gardening at the Ossining Organic Community Garden

In the past few years, school gardens have sprouted all over the country, and Westchester County is no exception. Educators are using school gardens to promote healthy eating, get students excited about learning, and teach subjects like science, math, language arts and social studies. At Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), we promote school gardening because we believe that experiential learning is the key to engaging students and developing critical thinking skills.

Researchers and teachers have documented the positive impact of school gardening on standardized test scores and GPAs, but perhaps the most fascinating finding in these studies is that students involved in school gardening are more enthusiastic about learning.

With urbanization, children have come to associate food with grocery stores instead of the plants and animals from which their food comes. Both urban and suburban kids have become disconnected from their food sources, as illustrated by an inquisitive fourth grader who recently pointed to a yellow bean plant and asked me, “Is that a French fry plant?” Children who grow vegetables themselves are more likely to eat those vegetables, which is why school gardens play an increasingly important role in nutrition and obesity prevention programs.

School Gardening in Westchester
It is estimated that there are nearly one hundred school gardens in Westchester County, used in a variety of ways. Here are a few examples:

In 2010, the New York School for the Deaf in Valhalla started gardening with students thanks to the help of a Master Gardener Mentor from CCE.  Harvesting vegetables grown in raised beds, students baked a zucchini birthday cake and served salads to students and staff every Friday. They also created cement stepping stones for the garden and sold baked goods made from the vegetables in the school café. The income generated from these sales was used to teach the students about eating healthy on a budget.

At Bedford Hills Elementary, the school nurse decided to start an after-school gardening program after becoming concerned about childhood obesity and poor nutrition. Her idea became a reality with the help of funds from the school district, donations from parents and local businesses, a Master Gardener, and a high school shop class that built a compost bin. An enthusiastic group of third, fourth and fifth graders now meets weekly during the growing season to select, plant, maintain and harvest their vegetables. The entire school visits the garden and participates in special events like salad days, pumpkin harvesting and science projects, making the garden experience an important and delightful part of the school.

If you are a teacher, or parent who’d like to start a garden in your child’s school, here are some guidelines to help you start:

• Make sure that everyone is on board. A school garden will not succeed without the support of the administration, so you will need to form a school garden committee that includes school administrators, teachers and interested parents. Determine what funding is available and apply for grants, if needed. Remember to include students in some of the decisions; studies show that students involved in planning and planting become lifelong gardeners.

• Determine how the garden will be used—whether in the curriculum to teach a variety of lessons, from math to social studies, or in after-school programs or 4-H clubs. If you need some ideas, consider attending a School Garden Workshop at CCE, where we can guide you through the many options available for different grade levels.

• Start small. You may want to garden in containers the first year or add a new raised bed to your garden each year.

• Decide on a site for your school garden. If you are planting vegetables, make sure that the site receives at least six hours of sunlight every day. A Master Gardener School Garden Mentor can help you decide on the best site for your garden.

• Decide who will be responsible for which tasks. Care of the garden over the summer can be divided among students and parents, or it can fall to the custodial staff.

• Get gardening!

Anna Snider is a Horticulture Resource Educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Westchester County, NY.  Call CCE at 914.285.4617 for info on school gardening workshops.

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