Giving Garden grows

PCMS Garden Club learns and grows

Sixth-grader Lauren Helpel used a small trowel to dig a hole and carefully placed a basil plant in it. She then repeated the procedure until all the plants were in the ground.

“It’s pretty now,” she said looking around the 60’ X 40’ garden plot on the campus of Port Chester Middle School that was full of green plants, a few buds and a whole lot of promise.

Lauren is a member of the PCMS Giving Garden Club and has been a part of a six-week program orchestrated by Family and Consumer Science teacher Allison Silverman. This year the work in the garden was more formalized with the introduction of the club. The garden has grown in more ways than one through the years — not only in size but how it helps the community.

The produce grown here assists the community. Ms. Silverman uses some with her students in their cooking classes, much of it is donated to a local food pantry and there is a family membership program in which members volunteer time in maintaining the garden and are “paid” with produce.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions last year and the necessity for remote learning, Ms. Silverman was working on the garden by herself with some help from her family. In years past she had welcomed student volunteers.

“I spoke with Bill [Cusano] at Caritas of Port Chester, on a normal month they do 3,000 meals. Last April and May, they did 17,000,” Ms. Silverman said referring to the food pantry director.

Knowing how great the need is, Ms. Silverman hoped to get more assistance with the garden.

She was approached by the Children’s Environment Literacy Foundation, an organization she had worked with before that had reached out on prior occasions hoping to work in Port Chester. CELF’s focus is on sustainability education. CELF received a grant from Sustainable Westchester, enabling them to develop a curriculum, “Th Big Ideas of Sustainability,” for the teacher to use with her club. Ms. Silverman invited students, who this spring returned to in person schooling, to join the garden club for a six-week program focusing on sustainable gardening.

Each week the club met they covered a new topic including Community & Systems, Diversity & Interdependence, Cycles & Changes over Time, Limits, Fairness & Equity, Place & Ability to Make a Difference and Long-Term Effects & Equilibrium.

The club attracted 15 students.

“We didn’t just do the garden,” Ms. Silverman said. “We were able to learn more about some really important ideas. For example, farming and equity and how that works over time.”

In addition, the club was able to create an underground compost piece that they then released worms into. Food scraps from her classroom kitchen are put aside for composting.

“Most of what we cook in class comes from the garden,” she said. “The kids love it.”

This summer Ms. Silverman is hoping to have student volunteers and interns assist with the garden. As the produce comes ready, she is looking to work with Open Door and their free CSA program to provide some fresh produce

Volunteers will weed, water and harvest the plants in the summer months. They will be assisting 33 different fruits and vegetables that grow there.

“I try to plant in a rotation,” Ms. Silverman said. “They are all growing together. It helps maximizes the growing capacity.”

The garden club advisor said she is often asked her advice about gardens.

“I’m not scientific about it. It’s the concepts, about all things being connected and learning lessons from strawberries,” she said. “I’m trying to help them discover who they are in the world and what we want to do with our time here.”

In addition to learning about how the garden can support a community and best practices to use in growing, the garden has become a place of peace for many students.

One student told Ms. Silverman that working in the garden was calming for her.

“It’s a disconnect with all the other things going on,” Ms. Silverman said.

The students also love to eat the food they helped to grow.

“Now they feel like ambassadors for the garden,” Ms. Silverman said of club members, many who have continued to lend a hand after the six-week program ended. “I think they felt pride in ownership. They are directly impacting their community in a direct way.”

“It’s good to help around the community,” Lauren said.

“I wanted to help the community and thought it would be really fun,” fellow sixth-grader Kenny Cruz said. “My favorite part is after these grow, we can give it to the food bank so the clients can have a good and healthy meal.”

Selvin Martinez, also in sixth grade, said he helped to pick radishes and strawberries this spring. More recently he helped to plant cilantro.

“I found all the topics interesting,” he said of what he learned during the six-week program.

Alexander Cruz was especially interested in the course pertaining to balance.

“We talked about how the plant has life cycle just like humans do,” he said.

“With the support Sustainable Westchester is able to provide, we are able to meet the needs of her classes,” Maria Genovesi, Director of Marketing and Communications and Outreach at Sustainable Westchester said. “I just love the enthusiasm.”

“The community connection has never been stronger than in years past,” Ms. Silverman said. “I think everybody wants to help. Maybe because of COVID, I don’t know, maybe we all feel the need to work together. The garden is a good way to do that.”