New Paltz Middle School’s Organic Garden

New Paltz Middle School creates an organic garden-slash-green classroom



For the past few years, New Paltz’s two elementary schools, Duzine and Lenape, have used an on-site organic garden to grow tasty produce and to teach students gardening-related concepts in math, science, English, health, and art. Village trustee Shari Osborn’s son participated in the programs, and remarked about how much he had learned from the garden — and how he wished the upper schools offered one as well.

“I mentioned that jokingly to Jim O’Dowd,” Osborn says. O’Dowd, a local healthy-living advocate, had worked with Osborn and others to establish the first two gardens. “He said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

So they did — with the help of other community leaders, including school board member K.T. Tobin and Brian Wallace, curator of the Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art at SUNY New Paltz. The New Paltz School District and middle school Principal Dr. Richard Wiesenthal gave their blessings along with a patch of land. The organizers then applied for grant money, receiving $1,000 from the Nyquist Foundation (a New Paltz-based family foundation), and $500 from the Fishman Fund of New Paltz; local physician Dr. Stephen Weinman and his wife made a donation as well. The group also hopes to receive donations of seeds, tools, and other materials that will make their garden grow and thrive.

Once the site was chosen and the funding in place, all organizers had to do was wait for this year’s seemingly endless winter to wind down. At that point, students and teachers — under the guidance of organic gardening expert (and middle school parent) Martha Cheo — will dig up a small plot of land near the school’s playground and plant whatever the kids want: pumpkins, tomatoes, corn, maybe even Brussels sprouts. “Kids who watch Brussels sprouts growing are blown away,” says Dr. Wiesenthal. “It’s really a bizarre-looking thing, and this is a great opportunity for the kids to see it.”

Seeing and doing are integral parts of the school’s philosophy, he says. “We are big into authentic learning and hands-on kinds of experiences,” he explains, mentioning class trips to faraway places such as Japan and whale-watching expeditions off Cape Cod. “This garden is a unique chance to integrate subjects like nutrition, science, art, and so many other learning categories in a hands-on way. I was fully on board with the project from the start.”

So was Wallace, who is interested in “bridging the college campus and the community.” He has worked previously on other art-related projects with the village, and envisions a strong artistic connection to the garden. He hopes to build a combined work shed and artist studio — watering cans and watercolors, if you will. “There is a growing cohort of artists who feel a sense of responsibility to the environment,” he says. “A lot of art uses not so eco-friendly materials and processes, so many artists are thinking in a more global way. Many of us also feel a sense of intellectual or creative sustenance from our community, and this garden is another kind of sustenance.”

The garden will be built with open spaces between the beds for classes to gather. “It really will be an outdoor classroom,” Osborn says. As of press time, logistics were still being worked out; but the intent is to have classes sign up to meet in the garden as they wish. Slots will be available for weeding, watering, and — when the time comes — harvesting. “Whoever reaps it, keeps it,” Osborn says: If a class meets to pull carrots, then the students and teachers divide the crop. And over the summer, families will be encouraged to sign up, do the dirty work, and keep the results. If the garden is particularly productive, there may even be enough to donate a share to the charitable organization Family of New Paltz.

Osborn says creating a garden at the high school is a long-term goal; eventually, she and the other organizers hope the gardens will produce enough to meet 10 percent of the district’s vegetable needs. “That’s a very lofty goal,” she admits. For now, a garden that simply helps children learn, and gets them to try veggies they might not otherwise sample, is a more than admirable mission.

“At one of the elementary schools, we made soup from the garden’s carrots for a special event,” Osborn says. “Several kids told me they would never, ever eat carrot soup — but because these were carrots they grew themselves, they tried it. That spoke volumes to me. This is good for people in more ways than I can tell you.”

Dig in: To learn more about the garden or how you can help, send an e-mail to towngownconnect@gmail.com.

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