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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

School gardens take root on Long Island

Hayground School, a private school in Bridgehampton, uses its culinary arts program to teach students hands-on, farm-to-table practices. Credit: Randee Daddona

Emma Ginsberg carried her plate to the table and sat down, tired and hungry after a long morning of hard work. The bright-red juicy tomatoes in her salad beckoned, along with fresh, green lettuce and cucumbers that crunched when she bit them. Her lunch was locally sourced and harvested just hours before.

But Emma isn’t a farmer, and she wasn’t dining at a hipster farm-to-table joint with a coffeehouse vibe: She’s a sixth-grader at The Waldorf School in Garden City, where gardening has long been integrated into the class schedule and students eat the fruits of their own labor in the school cafeteria.

Other Long Island schools are also taking steps to introduce students to gardening, and the benefits extend far beyond the vegetable patch. Students are learning not only how to grow food, which incorporates incidental hands-on science and math lessons, but they’re also learning about nutrition and picking up business skills, all of which will serve them well in the future. Plus, they’re spending time outdoors and getting exercise.

“We’re different from other schools in that we focus a lot on eco-friendly, plant-friendly things,” said Waldorf 11th-grader Aidan Koubel, 16. “Last year, we had a new water dispenser installed in the cafeteria because the school stopped selling water bottles to save plastic and help the environment as much as possible.”

The Waldorf School serves organic, homegrown produce harvested from its own garden. Students like Emma, 11, tend the vegetable patch (and fruit trees and herb gardens) during two mandatory class periods each week as part of the school’s gardening curriculum, and they do all the planting, weeding, harvesting — and eating, according to Jeannine Davis, the school’s sustainability and science teacher.

Davis, who has a master’s degree in Waldorf education — a teaching method founded in 1919 by Austrian scientist Rudolf Steiner that emphasizes academic and experiential studies for the growing child — and has been teaching at the school for 11 years, said she believes “children need to be out in nature more, especially today with their phones, some kids have zero nature in their lives. They wake up with their phone and go to sleep with their phone. It’s really a problem because it affects you spiritually if you’re not out in nature. I want to immerse them in it.”

The school’s program teaches not only about sustainable agriculture and organic gardening techniques, but also delves into the presence and effects of pesticides in the food supply and enlists students to think about change.

The course material gets increasingly more involved as students get older, Davis said, with first- through third-graders “just doing the basics of gardening, like how deep should you plant something? — you shouldn’t see the roots — and learning to make compost.” Fourth- through seventh-graders are more involved in maintaining the garden. They also study weeds and learn about insects, botany, pollination and the weather. Seventh- and eighth-graders build the composters and focus more on sustainability, while learning about cooking, canning, nutrition and fermentation.

Back in the cafeteria, Koubel dipped his spoon into a steaming bowl of tomato-basil soup, his favorite of the kitchen’s garden-derived offerings. Although he has completed the gardening curriculum at the school, a lifetime of lessons has left a permanent impression on him. Koubel has been a student at Waldorf since he was in pre-kindergarten and said the school’s culture has influenced his family life.

“My mom converted to organic foods and it’s changed the way my whole family eats,” he said, adding that his family also has a composter.

All the crops grown in Waldorf’s garden beds and greenhouse end up in the cafeteria, Davis said, except for those harvested for use during cooking class, where students recently whipped up a batch of savory garlic kale.

Junior Kayla Douglass, 16, transferred to The Waldorf School from public school when she was in sixth grade. She spent only three years in the school’s gardening program, but she, too, attributes a lifestyle change to those classes.

“It was a very good experience,” Douglass said. “The classes were fun and I learned a lot about planting properly and cooking the food we grew, and I started eating more organically,” she said, adding that her parents now “like the organic lifestyle, too.”

Growing friendships and more

“There are many benefits to school gardens,” said Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, founder and president of Edible School Gardens of the East End, adding that they are “the perfect place to teach food and environmental literacy.” Carmack-Fayyaz teaches multiple subjects, including nutrition and culinary arts, to middle and high school students in the Bridgehampton Union Free School District.

Lessons in horticulture, botany, science, nutrition and taste education take place there, she said, adding that “one of the most significant benefits of the school garden movement has to do with social development. Many unlikely friendships have been formed in the garden.”

Carmack-Fayyaz, who was recognized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a consortium with the 2016 Agriculture in the Classroom Award, said she founded the East End group in 2008 “to share information and resources with other school garden representatives” and to promote gardening and wellness in schools. She started the garden at Bridgehampton School, raised funds to build a greenhouse there and has involved the students in all phases of the growing process — from learning about soil science, botany, agricultural production, propagation and the physiology of plants and the environmental factors that affect plant growth, to hydroponics and even orchid care.

But the students are learning even more than that. Nia Dawson, 17 and the star of the girls’ basketball team, said she never imagined she’d be interested in gardening. But when her friend Madi Koral started a gardening group called “Sprouts” as her senior project, Dawson dug right in.

“It’s very different from anything I’ve done,” she said. “After I got involved, I really started to like it, and I spoke to my parents about starting a garden at home. It’s a great way to save money and eat healthier.”

The school even started a new “entrepreneurial agribusiness project where students grow and sell edible flowers at a farm stand that is now being built,” Carmack-Fayyaz said, adding that the students “will be creating a business from scratch.”

Carmack-Fayyaz said the school’s greenhouse was paramount because the growing season on Long Island doesn’t coincide with the school year. The structure not only allows the students to grow food year-round, it affords the opportunity to teach them about four-season production using quick hoops, Carmack-Fayyaz said, referring to fabric-covered plastic hoops that are installed over crops to protect against cold snaps and extend the growing season. The students grow foods that store well, like potatoes, butternut squash, onions, herbs and lettuce, and greens and herbs are supplied to the cafeteria on a weekly basis.

Bumper crop of programs

More than 30 school districts on Long Island have garden programs, with more joining the movement every year. The benefits spill over from the classroom to the dinner table.

Much like the strategy employed by many parents who involve their picky eaters in the cooking process to entice them to try new foods, Carmack-Fayyaz said children are more likely to eat vegetables they grow themselves, and that, in turn, fosters healthy, lifelong eating habits.

“It is really exciting to plant a seed and to follow its development into a plant. In short, it is a small miracle,” Carmack-Fayyaz said. “Kids feel a personal connection to the plant and are willing to try eating it. They are always amazed by the fresh, delicious taste of fresh produce.”

A few miles north, in Sag Harbor, Alexander Kamper’s school didn’t have a garden, nor any plans to build one, but that didn’t stop the Pierson Middle/High School student from starting his own last year in a 3,600-square-foot corner of the school’s athletic field.

Now a senior, Kamper, 17, said he originally had “lofty dreams of producing all my food for the winter, but as I started compiling information, I became overwhelmed.” Undeterred — and ever resourceful — he contacted farmer Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farms in Amagansett and asked for advice and an apprenticeship. He got both.

Beginning as a volunteer and soaking up all the knowledge he could, Kamper is now an employee at the farm and has used his newfound knowledge — and lots of elbow grease — to develop the school plot, almost single-handedly.

“It was a bureaucratic process, trying to get space for the garden from the keeper of the school’s grounds,” he said. “My principal, Mr. Nichols, and his assistant, Miss Meah, have been very supportive. They’ve been helping me with buying things with school funds. There’s a lot of paperwork involved.”

When he finally got the green light this past school year, the school supplied $50 to $70 worth of seeds and a seeder. “The school also was able to rototill the space for me, which was nice,” Kamper said, “but the rototiller broke in the process, so I had to plant on partially cultivated ground, which was devastating for my tomato plants.”

He also had deer to contend with. “My dad paid for a fence,” Kamper said, so deer are no longer a problem. Still, there is a lot more work to be done — and money to be spent. Over the summer, his grandparents, sister and a couple of friends have helped here and there, and Kamper rented another rototiller with his own money. That experience, he said, was eye-opening.

“Renting heavy equipment, visiting tool supply shops and operating the rototiller was a lesson in manhood,” Kamper said with a chuckle. At Quail Hill Farms, where he works part time, Kamper’s duties include weeding, planting and cultivating.

He has launched a Pierson Garden Club Facebook page and uses it to promote the fledgling school garden and communicate with other students when he heads over to the plot so they can join in.

“On a few occasions I’ve had people come work with me, which was really nice,” he said. “My personal goal has been to establish a foundation for students who come after me, so others don’t have to deal with the bureaucratic ordeal. I’d love to see the food being incorporated into the cafeteria, and see the curriculum open up to food preservation, such as canning and freezing.”

Kamper, who hopes to one day work in research science, said he would also like to donate produce from the garden to the Sag Harbor Community Food Pantry. “The garden wasn’t really productive enough to donate anything this year, but it’s a future aim,” he said. “Since I’m graduating, I’m leaving that to future leaders of the club.”

The future is exactly what motivates The Waldorf School’s Davis.

“My whole goal is for students to have a reverence for nature, so that they’re going to want to do the right thing when they’re faced with it when they’re older,” she said. “You can’t ask a person to save the environment if they don’t have the foundation.”

How to start a school garden

Whether you’re an educator, a student or a parent, if you’d like your school to have its own garden, here’s a preliminary checklist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s People’s Garden school gardening initiative, in conjunction with frst lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign.

1. To help determine the best uses for the space available, ask:

  • Is the site easy and safe for both students and teachers to access?
  • Is there a nearby and dependable water source?
  • Is the site protected from vandals, rodents or other potential threats?
  • Is the area big enough for future growth?
  • Is the site exposed to sunlight at least six hours a day, if planting flowers, herbs and vegetables?
  • Is the soil contaminated with lead or other heavy metals?

2. Find resources and build partnerships

Forming local partnerships is an excellent way to leverage resources and gain access to needed materials, tools, funding, volunteers and technical assistance. You can contact a USDA Service Center for technical assistance or the Nassau or Suffolk Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) office, which can provide useful, practical and research-based gardening information for free.

Enlist the help of an Extension master gardener for advice and assistance in keeping your garden maintained and sustained throughout the year, including during the summer months.

3. Check the health of your soil

Healthy soil is essential for a successful school garden. It’s important to collect soil samples to identify the soil quality of the proposed site. Have your soil tested for pH, nutrients and lead contamination by a soil-testing laboratory (contact the CCE to learn how to take a soil sample and where to send it for analysis). If your site is contaminated, the simplest solution may be to garden in raised beds or a mobile garden planter. Don’t rule out gardening indoors instead of outside.

4. Collaborate on the design

Get the entire community — parents, students, teachers, administrators, food service staff and local partners — involved. Encourage students of every grade to share their ideas and include them. Hold a brainstorming session, collect design concepts and develop one design plan. Think big yet start small.

5. Select plants

Choose a palette of plants that are safe (no poisonous fruits, large thorns or weak limbs) low-maintenance, desirable in size and form, and suitable to the climate. Have older students survey younger students about what to grow. Try selecting plants based on a theme, such as a storybook, food recipe or science lesson, to connect with what is being taught in the classroom.

6. Build and use your garden

Include the entire school community in the building and planting of the garden. Student participation will instill a sense of ownership, pride and responsibility. Use the garden as an opportunity to educate students about pollinators and to connect students to the source of their food. Plant easy-to-grow fruits and vegetables like lettuce, strawberries, peas, radishes and watermelon. And be sure to select plants that are identified as suitable for Long Island’s horticultural zone 7.

Learn more by visiting the National Farm-to-School network at

Start them young

Gardening as a child has been shown to have lasting health benefits, according to a $4.9-million research initiative called Get Fruved (an acronym for get your fruits and vegetables).

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s grant-funded collaboration of four universities (University of Tennessee, University of Florida, West Virginia University and South Dakota State University) sought to understand the factors that “predict and influence the health behaviors of college and high school students.” Findings announced last month showed that children who spent time gardening end up eating more vegetables when they reach college age. Four other universities (Syracuse University, Kansas State University, University of Maine and Auburn University) are serving as controls for the research, which involves 40 Ph.D researchers and more than 1,000 students.

The project uses peer interaction and social marketing — and students dressed as fruits and vegetables — to survey and encourage high school and college students across the country to embrace proper nutrition, stress management and exercise.

“This finding is particularly relevant, given the recent popularity of school gardens and farm-to-school projects,” according to Anne Mathews, lead author of the study and a University of Florida assistant professor of food science and human nutrition. “We found that if your parents gardened but you did not, just watching them did not make a difference in how much fruits and vegetables you eat in college. Hands-on experience seems to matter.”

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