April Spotlight: Sidney Central School District Gardens

In honor of National Garden Month, our April Spotlight are the Sidney Central School District’s Elementary School Gardens. Tom Lewis, our Food Access and Development Coordinator spoke with Josh Gray, a teacher at Sidney CSD, Co-Chair of the Sidney Wellness Committee, and School Coordinator of the Creating Healthy Schools and Communities grant. Mr. Gray spoke about the gardens’ history, its impact on the students, and goals for the future of the gardens.

What is the history of the gardens and how did they get started?

Mr. Gray: Sidney CSD has what I would call a garden system, consisting of a number of areas where gardening can happen.  We have two outdoor garden areas, one at the elementary, which is a more experiential garden, and the other a larger garden intended to produce veggies for the cafeterias.  We have a hoop-house under construction, and an aquaponics system located inside our elementary cafeteria.  Our gardening program began in its current form at the elementary school about 6 years ago, reclaiming an unused garden space that was installed with funding from Cornell Cooperative Extension. I asked the teacher who had last used the garden if I could do some work on it, and started involving some third and fourth graders during the last period of the day to clean it up and get things planted.  That year, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Delaware County contributed some seeds and plants.  We had six raised beds that year.  One of the teachers at our school has an alpaca farm, and we hauled in a pickup truck load of alpaca manure, which some intrepid fourth graders helped to spread on a warm day in May, and likely went home that evening stained and smelly.  In one of the beds, we planted strawberries and chives, and another bed we created a perennial butterfly/herb garden. The remaining beds went to tomatoes, peppers, basil, cilantro, nasturtium, and sweet potatoes.  I think the garden looked very nice that year, and caught the attention of staff and administrators, which brought us support to keep going and expand a little. Since that first year, we have expanded the growing space in the elementary garden, and added compost tumblers and some higher raised beds for movement-challenged students who may want to participate. It is a nice place to be. In the fall, we have a garden celebration called ‘An Evening in the Garden’ for students, parents, and staff to gather and enjoy the space. The success of the garden for me is best symbolized by a robin that began laying her eggs in a corner alcove there.  It tells me we have created a place where nature is comfortable being.

What role do the students have in the gardens?

Mr. Gray: We have two after-school groups that use the elementary garden. I think our season begins in the fall, when we plant garlic and clear the rest of the planting areas in preparation for the next year. Students in the after-school groups have small teams that plant and take care of an area of the garden. With the addition of the hoop-house, we hope to expand our reach and get classrooms more involved. Our high school students in agriculture classes help to maintain the larger garden.

What are some impacts you have seen on students who participate in the garden?

Mr. Gray: One of the goals of the gardening program is to connect students to local food, to where it comes from, and to tie that connection to healthy eating and food sense, including an awareness of food waste. The students who are involved in gardening are also involved with our cafeteria taste tests and our school farmer’s market.  These students surprise me sometimes with how much they know, and how much of that knowledge they are able to share with others.  Our ‘gardening’ program does not just work in the garden. We take field trips to local farms, pick strawberries, plant potatoes for a day; we have visited a seed company, recycling facilities, and take nature walks. I like to think that if you are in the gardening program, you are going to be outside and going to come home a little muddy. If we have at least accomplished that, it has been a good day.

What vegetables do you grow at the gardens and what happens to them after they are harvested?

Mr. Gray: Last year, we had two garden areas. The one at the elementary school is used mostly as an educational space, and the veggies including tomatoes, kale, lettuce, radishes, carrots, cilantro, jalapeno and sweet peppers, are eaten right there as they are picked, or taken home by the students who pick them. Part of our idea is to do outreach to the community (parents and families) through gardening, and we offer parent-student gardening classes in the summer, as well as a school farmer’s market in the fall that features vegetables grown in our other, larger garden. The larger garden supplies the cafeteria with fresh produce and any overflow goes to our farmer’s market. Last year, we grew onions, cabbage, tomatoes, kale, broccoli, squash, carrots, and celery there. CCE Delaware uses the space to develop community gardening. The garden area is expanding as our need for fresh local produce in the cafeterias increases.