Written by Science Teacher Wayne Gottlieb
Inspired by Michael Pollen’s books in the spring of 2009, we started the DeWitt Vegetable garden. It seemed the perfect real-world activity that would help teach seventh grade science concepts, and hopefully encourage other teachers to find interdisciplinary connections. It would also help our school become more sustainable in a way that would affect all members of the school community. Selling the harvest to the cafeteria would help defray costs and help the garden become a more school wide experience. For more specifics on gardening, I sought help from local experts.
DeWitt was already home to a community based garden program, a class of special education students who grow plants in a greenhouse to sell. The program, run by Patricia Armstrong, boasts a large greenhouse, which is available to science teachers. DeWitt also has a habitat garden, which was started in 2000 and has been incorporated into the seventh grade curriculum in different ways. The habitat garden has provided us with experience incorporating gardening into the curriculum, managing students in the garden, dealing with safety issues and acquiring money, materials and volunteers.
Many years ago, Bob Leathers, who organizes community builds for school playgrounds, told a group of us that money is a secondary concern. Community support is the most important factor in the success of any large project. In the summer of 2009 I lined up this support starting with our principal. Then I went on to Patricia Armstrong (special ed teacher who runs the community based garden program), Penny Boynton (DeWitt’s Family Liaison and avid gardener), and Fred Knewstub (who was a crucial component of the habitat garden), all at DeWitt. We contacted Dale McClean, head of food services, to make sure the district would buy our food. Dale, who has been supportive of sustainability efforts in the district, offered to pay market prices for our harvest. Next, I searched for master gardeners, knowing that my own garden expertise was insufficient. Cornell Cooperative Extension was quite helpful here, providing us with four experts who were willing to join in. The PTA email list and my own website were helpful in getting many parents on board. Before the build happened in April 2010, I sent a volunteer form home to parents to get even more involved.
I started with the assumption that I would not get any grants, and went to work lining up donations. My biggest concern was a fence, so I was happy when Josh Dolan, at Cornell Cooperative Extension, offered to help me harvest some free black locust poles. I was also offered free seeds, mulch, fence material and other things. I knew we could scrape together enough tools through the habitat garden, the community based program and family donations. The garden would happen one way or another. Still, I was relieved when the Lowe’s ($4,650) and IPEI (Ithaca Public Education Initiative, $1,450) grants arrived. The master gardeners’ insights were invaluable for helping to perfect these grant proposals. I’m sure it helped that the garden would be in a school setting and would be part of the science curriculum. After seven years of running the garden, money has not been an issue. Every once in a while, we need to write a small grant, but between sales to the cafeteria, donated seeds and parent support, the garden is self-sustaining. This does not take into account large purchases that we just do without. Our latest desire is to have a summer program in which students would be paid to work in the garden. This would require from $10,000-$15,000. In the meantime, we continue to maintain the garden in the summer with volunteer students, teachers and parents.
PLANNING THE GARDEN
Working within a large school district is a little like trying to steer a large ship. You have to start turning the wheel in October if you expect to actually turn the ship in April. We submitted two garden locations in October 2009 and got approval in December. In December, we submitted detailed plans for a fence and water system and got preliminary (verbal) approval in January (final approval came in April). I had a large order for fence supplies ready, but couldn’t turn it in until I gained final approval. Aside from wanting a vegetable garden, I wanted to let the students make as many decisions as possible. In September, students were told about the garden and asked to submit a name. The final list was voted on and the final name was approved (“The Super Duper Awesome Skillage Garden of Doom and Broccoli”…. Sometimes they really test your resolve). Later, each group of four students (about 30 groups) was given an outline of the garden on a piece of paper. They were asked to design the garden within certain constraints.
BUILDING THE GARDEN
In early April 2010, the district was kind enough to drill all of the post holes. The following week, several parents, students and teachers set the posts and began digging the water line. Two weeks later, we put up the wire fence, finished the water line and laid out the plots. Finally, on April 19, students prepared their own plots by double digging and mixing in mature manure or compost from Cayuga Compost. At the end of a week of digging, students planted the early crops. They had started seeds in the greenhouse six weeks earlier.
I’ve been lucky to have so much support. Everyone from administrators, Lowe’s staff, CCE, master gardeners, parents and students have made it easy to proceed with my plans. Still, I can’t help think about the immense scope of the project and worry about all of the things that can go wrong. Will the volunteers come through? Will the seeds arrive on time? Will the district actually drill the holes? Will the fence go up? Will anything grow? Will there be enough time in class to do everything we need to do? Will there be enough of a connection with the curriculum? What happens in summer? Lots of questions and worries, but that’s what keeps you coming back year after year. 2016 update: After seven years no insurmountable problems have come up. Every year, plots were successfully planted and harvested. Some years the harvest was smaller than other years, but we continue to grow every year.