Digging the Love

The Hayground School’s garden was in full bloom by graduation time last year. Philippe Cheng

“No matter how much we studied, did art projects on plants, or planted seeds up in the lab, the children just could not grasp the concepts of botany,” said Kryn Olson, a science teacher at Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, where she has taught since 1996. Ms. Olson started the Greenhouse Project in 2000, after her idea to create a school garden was approved by the Sag Harbor Group, community members with a mission to fund special projects that were progressive and innovative. 

Quite literally, things just grew from there, Ms. Olson said. “I started doing more and more hands-on work with the children outside in a large area that the school allowed me to use as a teaching space . . . until where we are now with a greenhouse, water retention area, 14 raised beds, and our own sprinkler system. We have an herb garden, strawberry patch, lavender beds, and a dye garden.” The school also grows beans, tomatoes, carrots, celery, pumpkins, kale, arugula, squashes, onions, garlic,  peas, and potatoes.  

Deborah Dooley, a speech pathologist at the school, helps Ms. Olson with the project and heads the school’s garden club, which involves students in the planning and maintenance of the garden. Students are even offered lessons in fabric dyeing and weaving, thanks to the plants they grow in the dye garden, which are boiled down and used as natural dyes.

The Sag Harbor School is not alone in the realization that school gardens are an excellent tool for experiential learning and nutrition education. In fact, all South Fork schools from Southampton to Montauk, including the Ross School and the Hayground School, have edible gardens, which help supply produce for their cafeterias or go on farm stands to be sold.

As a result, an edible school gardens group has emerged, in which representatives from all the East End schools that have incorporated gardening into their curriculum meet monthly to discuss ideas and share support.

In Bridgehampton, Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, the school’s environmental design and technology teacher who will soon be overseeing a push for career readiness in several agriculture-related fields, began the school garden in 2009. This year, Bridgehampton received a $100,000 grant from the federal Department of Agriculture, which it will share with the Southampton and Tuckahoe School Districts, to continue the push to take fresh food from farm to schools.

Ms. Carmack-Fayyaz’s motivation to create awareness of nutrition and health occurred after she noticed a great difference between the body types of students at the Ross School, a private school in East Hampton where she had taught, and Bridgehampton, where over 60 percent of the student body qualified for free or reduced lunches. “Obesity was a major factor at the school as well as Type 2 diabetes,” she said.

So, as a means of educating kids, she said, she instituted a nutritional and culinary arts program, based on the principles of slow food — good, healthy food, grown in an environmentally conscious way, and which is accessible to all at fair prices.

Today, Ms. Carmack-Fayyaz’s program has sprouted into an extensive garden where students help grow butternut squash, sweet peas, onions, tomatoes, carrots, radishes, and cauliflower. In addition, the school also has a greenhouse in which various lettuces and leaf vegetables are cultivated. Their trademarked Killer Bees arugula was sold last year to Almond, a Bridgehampton restaurant, where it is featured on the menu. Other items, such as squashes and onions, are easily stored and used in the school’s cafeteria throughout the year. 

With the generosity of local farmers from Open Minded Organics and Bhumi Farms, the school has been able to develop a community aupported agriculture program, in which 20 families receive 12 weekly baskets of fresh vegetables for a total of $150. “Priority is given to those families who would most benefit from this,” Ms. Carmack-Fayyaz said.

Another noteworthy development from their garden has been the opening of a farm stand called Sprouts  in front of the school on Route 27, which sells school produce from May to September.

“There is definitely a greater awareness of health and nutrition now at the school,” said the teacher. “There are apples from Milk Pail Farms in the cafeteria as well as items like fish sticks from Haskell’s, the sustainable seafood company.” She called it “taste education,” adding that there’s a genuine excitement about food and healthy food among Bridgehampton students today.

When the Hayground School opened on a former potato farm in 1996, so too did its edible garden, showcasing the school’s commitment to restore the soil to its natural health and create a small-scale model of sustainable agriculture.  Twenty years later, Hayground’s campus hosts three organic gardens, two greenhouses, a heritage-breed chicken coop, a seed-to-table culinary program, and a weekly farmer’s market in the summer. 

As part of Hayground’s seed-to-table curriculum, students dig into the school’s organic gardens to explore soil science, sustainable agriculture, and the complex art of growing food.

The campaign to take gardening to schools is reaping a rich harvest. Teachers across the country have reported that the presence of an on-site garden can be a rich source of inspiration while also instilling an understanding of where food comes from, the importance of eating fruit and vegetables, and even encouraging teamwork.

Orange tastes good when it’s carrot.Durell Godfrey
Springs School kids have fun gardening as signs attest.Durell Godfrey