Rye Lake Campus garden offers a bounty of benefits

teachers show student garden plants

Students learn in a natural setting, just outside their classrooms

Educators watched on a recent morning as students plucked cucumbers, tomatoes and basil from the garden they’ve been tending outside one of the classrooms on the Rye Lake Lower Campus.

“I’m a good gardener,” said one student. “I grow tomatoes at home.”

The scent of produce, the faint breeze and the texture of fresh herbs rolled between two fingers made for a calming and engaging sensory experience.

“There’s something therapeutic about the garden when they go in,” said Special Education Teacher Janeelia Henry.

Funded by a private grant, the garden is an outgrowth of a similar program at SWBOCES’s Tappan Hill School in Tarrytown. Principal Julia Dolan asked Ms. Henry’s class to lead the effort, which since May has yielded an abundance of fresh produce and instructional benefits.

Students from the campus’s AIIM and TSP-I Elementary School programs participate. There is daily gardening time built into the curriculum when students water the plants or pull weeds. 

A Garden Committee oversees the program, including  Ms. Janeelia Henry, Occupational Therapists Kara Allen and Giovanna Ciccone, Physical Therapist Mary Harrison, and Teacher’s Aide Dolores Rocco.

 teachers show students around garden plantingsThe initial vision was for a space where students could commune with nature, Ms. Allen said. The experience teaches students about nature and the origins of their food. “I think people are very proud,” she said of the program. “Everything goes in steps. This is a first step.”

Ms. Henry agreed. “One of the things we’re seeing is when the kids get in there, they’re very calm. They’re learning to be gardeners,” she said, adding that they laugh when she talks to her plants. 

The wood-frame enclosure bursts with greenery. High fencing helps keep out wildlife. A drip irrigation system installed by campus maintenance staff ensures plants receive adequate water when classes are not in session.  Among the current harvest are peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, and callaloo, a leafy vegetable similar to collard greens that is popular in Caribbean cuisine. Nearby, a hydroponic tower features detachable modules in which strawberries, dill and lettuce grow in a matter of weeks.

“When you go in and take care of things, you’re learning how to take care of yourself,” social worker Rebecca Phang said.

Students learn accountability and ownership; this is their garden, and they are responsible for helping with it.

 educators standing by garden Horticulture is a big theme in Ms. Henry’s classroom. Out front, an ornate flower bed features a rose bush, a row of sunflowers and other plantings. Inside, a “rainforest cafe” of indoor plants provides a setting for teaching about the environment.

Ms. Henry praised maintenance staff - Matthew, Jose, Jorge and Fernando - for their support. The structure is neat and clean yet provides a space for students to get their hands dirty. Transportation staff who work down the hill donated pepper plants they started, further making this a campus-wide effort.

A nice part has been seeing students enjoy the fruits of their labors as classes partake of fresh, healthy salads, straight from the garden!

“The energy and excitement that the garden has brought to the Rye Lake Lower Campus community is contagious," Principal Dolan said. "I am so proud of the collaboration by the staff and the hard work and dedication from both the staff and students. A special thanks to Phyllis Rizzi for including us in her grant, making this all possible."