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A growing education: Islip students find 'joy' in planting native garden

Islip Middle School eighth-grade science teacher AnnMarie Mills

Islip Middle School eighth-grade science teacher AnnMarie Mills spoke to Newsday about working with 26 students, a garden designer, school and district officials and four environmental groups to create a garden at the school to help restore the ecosystem. Credit: Linda Rosier

"If you build it, they will come." That is the theme of a new curriculum developed by Islip Middle School eighth-grade science teacher AnnMarie Mills this past school year.

The quote, borrowed from "Field of Dreams," the 1989 Hollywood fantasy blockbuster, applies to Mills’ own field of dreams, which does, in fact, sit on an actual field. And she worked with 26 students, a garden designer, school and district officials and four environmental groups to make the dream a reality.

Within the field on a recent day, two dozen geese fluttered about, presumably welcoming the fledgling 40-by-10-foot rectangular bed, which holds young native specimens. It was just planted on June 3, but it holds the promise of a restored ecosystem, bees and butterflies, clean water and the lifelong convictions of a group of middle school students who spent a pandemic learning about how to care for a world that is bigger than they are.

As far as the theme goes, "it" refers to the native garden, and "they" are the insects, birds and mammals it will draw to the once lawn-covered patch of earth just inside the fence in front of the school, which sits along busy Montauk Highway.

What culminated in the planting of swamp milkweed, hyssop, aster, Joe Pye weed, bee balm, mountain mint, black-eyed Susan, goldenrod, verbena, ironweed and a young white swamp oak began five years ago when Mills, a teacher at the school for 19 years, took part in a weeklong summer ecology workshop for educators offered by Greentree Foundation in Manhasset.

"It was wonderful learning everything about native gardens with like-minded educators, and they taught us about Long Island’s natural history, its mammals, plants and environmental issues," Mills said of the workshop, led by Peter Walsh of Seatuck Environmental Association in Islip, professors from Adelphi and Hofstra universities and other local experts.

In the fall of 2019, one of the middle school’s librarians, Kathy Ryder, who also had completed the Greentree program, told Mills she wanted to plant a native garden at the school.

"She had the vision," Mills said, "and I had just won the Presidential Innovation Award for Environmental Educators, so I had the money." The award, which provided $2,500 for Mills to apply to a school project, was presented by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of a program to honor teachers for innovative approaches to environmental education.

Mills asked students in her science club for their thoughts on planting a native garden, and Ryder, who co-advises the school’s Keep Islip Clean Club with librarian Vivian Kaywood, introduced the idea to students at her next meeting, and the students broke ground that fall for a small native garden in the school’s courtyard.

"I could not believe how much the children enjoyed this," Mills said, adding that the students’ enthusiasm made it clear that more funds would be needed to create a second garden. So in February 2020, she began writing a grant application for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Mills met with Walsh, Seatuck’s education director, and garden designer Sue Avery of Nature’s Edge Landscape Design in Stony Brook, "and they helped me pick the location" for a garden in the front of the school, Mills said. "I pitched it to our principal, Dr. Timothy Martin, and got approval, and pitched it to Dr. Ellen Semel, the superintendent. Then everything closed down for COVID."

Science teacher AnnMarie Mills holds the garden plaque,
Drawings on outside the school capture the spirit

Science teacher AnnMarie Mills, left, holds the garden plaque, which reads in part, "If you build it, they will come," riffing off the 1989 movie "Field of Dreams." Sidewalk drawings outside the school capture the spirit of students' hopes for the native plant garden. | Photos by Linda Rosier

Plans take shape

While coordinating virtual lessons from home, Mills said, "everyone was super supportive, even though they were very busy with COVID-related issues." Because of that support, the paperwork was completed on time and approved over the summer, and the school was awarded a $3,000 grant, which, together with Mills’ previous award, "gave us a total of $5,500 to play with" to fund both gardens, she said.

When the 2020-21 school year started, Mills reconnected with Walsh, who coordinates native plant gardens for schools around Long Island, and he began organizing the project while Mills began preparing her students.

Seatuck's Native Schoolyard Garden Program, which has helped more than two dozen Long Island schools plant native gardens, involves students in every step of the process, from planning and preparing garden beds to planting and caring for plants on school grounds. Throughout the school year, students are taught about the importance of native gardens and tasked with using that knowledge to incorporate more than a dozen species of native plants into their own garden designs.

Then starts the manual labor: Students dig beds and turn soil, then plant native species delivered by Seatuck, which partners with the Long Island Native Plant Initiative, and spread mulch.

"Teaching was so awkward," Mills said. "We were two days in school and three days home," but the class started talking about fish kills, nitrogen pollution, climate change and biodiversity. Realizing "the kids would feel more comfortable being outside working together because of COVID," she moved instruction outdoors.

Students set about identifying different species of birds, testing soil, conducting water-quality tests, putting on waders and exploring one of the campus’ two lakes, which are overridden with invasive plants, and using newly acquired knowledge about sun exposure, soil quality, garden design principles and attracting beneficial insects to select appropriate plants.

After learning about biodiversity, Sophia Martinez, 13, said she would like everyone to plant native plants "because they would be more helpful for the habitat and for the insects, and that’s important because it creates food so they can live."

Students created a map of the garden to
Students at Islip Middle School work with science
Students at Islip Middle School work with science
Students created a map of the garden to plan where everything would go. Tools and plant markers stand at the ready. | Photos by Linda Rosier

'A vast, big area'

By March, the students were designing plans for the front garden on graph paper and mocking them up outdoors using rope, dowels and measuring tapes to assess practicality. "This was, in hindsight, the perfect year" for this program, Mills said, "because realistically we weren’t going to finish the mandated eighth-grade curriculum, anyway."

The students broke ground May 24 on the front garden (the courtyard garden will continue to be planted next fall).

"Riverhead Building Supply was kind enough to donate hand tools for us," Mills said. "The kids measured 10 feet around to ensure lawn mowers could get through, set the shape of the bed with a hose, spray painted to delineate the parameters and dug up 400 square feet of grass."

"Planting was a whole day," said Amber Murnane, 14. "Then we had to put in mulch and water the plants. But we had learned about it for most of the year, so we knew what to do."

Students dig holes for planting alongside science teacher
Eighth-grader Matthew Infante helps unload plants for the
Austin Funk of Seatuck Environmental Association, among the
Clockwise from above: Students dig holes for plants alongside science teacher AnnMarie Mills, standing in background. Eighth-grader Matthew Infante helps unload plants for the native garden. Austin Funk of Seatuck Environmental Association, among the partners in the garden project, helps a student remove a plant from its pot. | Photos by Linda Rosier

Eighth-grader Cody Allen, 14, was a bit surprised by the amount of work involved. "There’s a lot of digging that had to be done. It was a vast, big area of land," he said. "It will do so much good for the environment and bring back all kinds of different species to make it more biodiverse."

His classmate, Jake Minsky, 13, agreed. "The amount of work it takes just to make a garden took a lot of people by surprise," he said. "But just working out there was a lot of fun, and just knowing I’m going to help the environment" made the effort worthwhile.

As it turns out, the garden, which will become the responsibility of a new group of students come fall, was not just good for the environment. It was good for the students as well.

"It was therapeutic."

"It was soothing."

"It brought me joy after such a tough year."

Those are just some of the sentiments students expressed about the experience in a writing assignment for Mills at the end of the school year.

"It was sort of serendipitous that this was an unusual year," Mills said. The project gave the students "something they could be proud of. We talk about the doom and gloom of climate change, but if everyone does a small part it can make a big impact."

"There were students that never spoke in the classroom and when you put them outside and they were given a task, they were amazing," she said. "They were so passionate and dedicated they even stayed after school on days when I wasn’t planning to stay. It really brought them to life."

Science teacher AnnMarie Mills, center, plants mountain mint
Eighth-graders Alex Rahner, left, Genesis Diaz, Thomas Longobardi
Eighth-graders Katherine Placa, left, and Evelyn Mapoleone plant
Clockwise from above: Science teacher AnnMarie Mills, center, plants mountain mint with eighth-graders Annalise Rossano, left, and Isabella Costello. Eighth-graders Alex Rahner, left, Genesis Diaz, Thomas Longobardi (hidden in the back) and Vincent Valenzisi plant an oak tree. Katherine Placa, left, and Evelyn Mapoleone plant another mountain mint. | Photos by Linda Rosier

Lessons from nature

Seatuck Environmental Association, which guided Islip Middle School’s native garden program is "planting the seeds of creating future conservationists and community members who will understand the importance of native plants and native pollinators and their role in the ecosystem," said Peter Walsh, the Islip organization’s education director. The hope, he said, "is that they become young adults who have a connection to where they live."

Walsh, who has been working with local schools for about a decade, said the program began with a desire to help schools re-imagine schoolyards as a place of learning. "We know that students who spend time outside of their classrooms in green spaces have better memory retention and learn better. Being outdoors provides stress relief for everyone, and that’s amplified for students," he said. "Students in a green space are calmer, they use richer language with each other."

And the benefits can be social, too. "The student who can’t excel in the classroom suddenly excels outside, and the others see them differently and that carries back inside."

In a world filled with TikTok and television, "we have a generation of kids who don’t have much of a connection to the outdoors, either at home or at school," Walsh said.

"But outside, it’s a tangible thing they can feel. When the lesson ends, it’s still there," he said. "They walk past the garden every day when they go in and out of school, and even after the students leave, they still care for the garden. It’s their garden, so the sense of creating space and habitat is real."

For teachers, "the great part is it empowers them to think of their campus as an extension of their teaching space and continue accessing it. We are fortunate on Long Island, for the most part, to have large campuses, and they can do field trips outside without buses and permission slips," Walsh said. "The garden becomes an integrated part of their curriculum. It becomes a valuable teaching tool."

How to start a school garden

For teachers interested in starting a native plant garden program, Peter Walsh, education director of Seatuck Environmental Association, said "the biggest bit of advice is to start small. It will be approved more quickly and will give administrators an easier understanding of the project." Plus, he said, "it will provide the opportunity for [the garden] to grow over the years." What’s "small"? Walsh advises under 200 square feet.

He recommends teachers follow these steps for success:

1. Talk to school administrators. "The first step is to help them understand that this is relatively low-maintenance once it’s underway. A lot of schools are afraid that everyone will be involved during the school year and then everyone will go home and no one will care for the garden," leaving it to the maintenance staff. "But native gardens don’t need a lot of care. They only need to be mowed in late March or early April, and then they come back to life again so it’s not a heavy lift for the staff, and that’s [important] for teachers to convey to their schools."

2. Pick the best spot. "The garden should get a lot of sun, and access to water should be considered. Native plants don’t need much water once established, but for the first season or two, they will need to be watered. Then think about how it will be accessed. Where is it on the grounds? Is it going to interfere with someone else’s use?"

3. Select the right plants. "Making sure you’re picking native plants that would be appropriate for the location and researching plant options and understanding soil types is important. If the area is wet, [consider] a rain garden. If it’s dry, with sandy soil, that will be different."

4. Prepare the bed. "Remove existing turf or sod that’s there, cover [the area] with mulch and let the ground rest for a bit to prepare itself for the plants, and then plant them. Once the plants go in, it’s managing that first year, year-and-a-half, until the natives really grow and take hold. You’re going to have to be able to do some weeding to remove competition, but once [plants] establish it will be pretty low-maintenance."

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