By Kristin Schultz
It was all hands on deck as more than two dozen families volunteered a Thursday evening to clean out the gardens at Craig Elementary School. Once raked, trimmed and picked over, the raised beds in the elementary school’s courtyard will be ready for a second year of garden club.
Last winter, friends Sarah Bilofsky and Tamara Geveci (who also works in the school’s library) were mulling over ways to celebrate the upcoming 2016 Earth Day when Geveci hit upon the idea of using the school’s underutilized courtyard for a garden. Bilofsky got on board and the club was born.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” said Geveci.
What she was getting into were student-designed vegetable, bee and butterfly gardens and lots of gratification.
Students started meeting in February of 2016 as part of the after-school ASAP club program. Since February in New York is not ideal for starting a garden outdoors, students planted seeds in containers inside and planned to transplant them in the spring.
The seedlings grew and eventually they were moved outside.
“They all died,” said Geveci. “Well, some survived but mostly they died.”
Geveci has a garden herself, but since she direct-sows her seeds, she didn’t realize plants started indoors must go through a hardening process to acclimate to the wind, varying temperatures and other elemental variables outside.
Undeterred, the club’s 15 students replanted and, this time, the seeds took.
In its inaugural year, the Craig Garden Club planted many vegetables. The students grew a three sisters garden consisting of the traditional corn, beans and squash. This method of planting these complementary vegetables together dates to a centuries-old process employed by American Indians.
The students also planted potatoes, cherry tomatoes, beefsteak tomatoes, basil, broccoli and peas.
The club met once a week to tend the gardens.
“The students planned out everything,” said Geveci. “We had a good harvest, not great, but good for the first time.”
That harvest appeared mostly over the summer — when students were not in school and able to care for the garden. To manage and care for the plants, families volunteered to water, weed and care for the plots for one week while school was out.
“I was amazed at the people who wanted to help over the summer. The people who helped got the harvest,” said Geveci. “We had so many cherry tomatoes!”
With one season under their belts, Geveci and Bilofsky have turned their attention to the 2017 growing season.
This year, the club will direct-sow seeds and, like last year, the students will design the garden and choose which vegetables to grow.
“We saw that the kids love the dirt, the shovels, the planting,” said Bilofsky. “They like to see the fruit of their labor.”
In addition to growing familiar vegetables, the students also tried new vegetables like purple carrots at the beginning of the club meeting, and to the astonishment of students and parents alike, the kids liked vegetables.
A bountiful harvest does not exist without pollinators like butterflies and bees. A portion of the garden was dedicated to pollen-rich flowers and plants to encourage a thriving ecosystem.
More than an exercise in agriculture and environment, the garden aligns with some of the science and social studies curriculum across the grade levels. The kindergartners study life cycles; second-graders study the parts of plants; the third-graders learn about caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis; and the fourth grade studies early American history, including the stories of Native Americans helping the Pilgrims plant food to survive.
“It was great to see the kids making the connection between flowers, bees and vegetables,” said Geveci.
The garden is also an opportunity for students to be outside.
“Kids need to be outside. It helps with nature deficit disorder,” said Principal William Anders, referring to the phrase coined by author and journalist Richard Louv.
Both Geveci and Bilofsky hope the lessons the students learn will stick with them into adulthood.
“If we teach our kids about environmental issues, they’ll be aware, concerned and then they’ll be active,” said Bilofsky.