I soon found myself writing letters to the city in a quest to adopt a larger garden site. After almost a year of negotiating with the Parks Department and planning with a committee of parents, students, teachers, and neighbors, an overgrown 1⁄10-acre lot at 119th Street and Amsterdam Avenue became the Columbia Secondary School Community Garden. Waist-deep in weeds, my students spent that first fall clearing and cleaning, collecting soil samples for testing, and planting daffodil and tulip bulbs in anticipation of spring color. The more students experienced the garden’s transformation, the more willing they were to return with muddy hands and soiled sneakers—and the more I realized that profound learning was being cultivated alongside our garden beds.
The true value of a school garden lies in its ability to be used as a classroom where regular school subjects intertwine with real-world experience, where even standards-based learning organically grows. Measuring and angles jump out of math class and into activities to design and build raised beds and low tunnels. The science of decomposition is gleaned from our expanding compost project, first through a series of classroom worm bins, now an effort to collect and weigh all compostable lunch scraps for garden composting. Careful calculations of expected harvest dates drive garden planning and succession planting. Student-created garden business plans entail drying and selling homegrown herbs for a Thanksgiving fundraiser. Research and literacy skills lead students to collaborate on garden grant writing, read up on pollinator-attracting perennials in preparation for spring planting, and compose letters to coordinate “Garden to Café” lunches with our cafeteria director.
Skills from leadership and teamwork to community engagement and activism grow in the garden, too. Here, social dynamics don’t need to matter and students collaborate across grades, frequently joined by a dedicated network of families, friends, and community members. The more students play a central role in garden planning, the more they see the garden as a space for them; a space to let their imaginations free, to make discoveries, to grow. They experience the wonder of the natural world and the humility that comes from realizing the power held in a single seed or a teaspoon of soil.