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Call it a sign of the times

Call it a sign of the times—but gardening and farming projects have become an important part of school curriculums all across New York City. According to GreenThumb, a division of the City Parks Department that provides schools with technical support, the number of school-based gardens registered with the city jumped from 40 to 232 in the past two years.

Two years ago the office of Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, organized a forum for teachers, administrators and parents on the topic of green roofs– and since then it has provided more than $3 million toward making them a reality.

The Horticultural Society of New York has helped schools since the 1980’s with garden design, construction and curriculum through its Apple Seed program. The Society’s director of children’s education, Pamela Ito, credits the former city school chancellor, Rudy Crew, for promoting horticulture in New York city schools beginning in the later 1990’s. Recently the society worked with four schools in Queens that benefited from the Greening Western Queens Fund– part of a settlement the city reached with Consolidated Edison after extended power failures in 2006.

Each garden focuses on something different. In Astoria, at P.S. 70, students chose plants that attract butterflies and bees, and tree stump seats were constructed in the garden to facilitate outdoor classes. At P.S. 2, in Jackson Heights, students grow edible plants and observe a rainwater catchment system. The roof garden at P. S. 41 in Greenwich Village focuses on green technologies. It’s home to a combination of drought-resistant perennials– sedums, herbs, and some native plants—all growing from four-inches of soil in roof-top trays. Here students learn about the importance of diverting rainwater from the school’s storm-water system, and observe demonstrations of alternative energy sources, like a small wind turbine hooked up to a battery– and a solar-powered fountain. As the school’s science coordinator, Vicki Sando, says, “It’s great for the younger kids because if they stand in front of it and cast a shadow, it stops working.”

At P.S. 333, science class is held in a rooftop greenhouse where children learn about sustainable farming practices, green technology and plant life cycles. There are lessons here about worm composting, solar panels and aquaponics. P.S. 333 students are probably better acquainted with sustainable urban agriculture than most adult New Yorkers.

Like all good teaching tools, the lessons these gardens provide aren’t limited to one subject. Gardens teach us about science and social studies, art and math. And the real take-home message may be how critically interconnected these subjects are in the real world.