Volume 17 • Issue 10 / July 30 - August 05, 2004

Gardening students pay close attention as program leader Doug Van Horn describes the plants. Laura Steger Tebbit, a senior horticulturist, orchestrating an afternoon session

More than just flowers

At BPC gardening class, kids learn “deeper lessons of life”

By Melanie Wallis

During a sunny afternoon at the children’s garden in Battery Park City, several little girls giggled with delight as lady bugs scampered across their upturned palms. Meanwhile they listened as a teacher explained that the red and black insects are “good bugs. ”
The girls were taking their weekly gardening class at Rockefeller Park, sponsored by the BPC Parks Conservancy. At the garden, a mixture of summer smells wafted from the herbs, flowers and plants. Created and maintained by children, the garden is more than just aesthetically pleasing. At the 300-square-foot plot, the children not only learn about organic gardening, but the deeper lessons of life, including responsibility, team work and patience.
Maya Binshtok, mother of two of the gardening pupils, Matthew and Margaret May, believes gardening is crucial to a child’s understanding and appreciation of the world. She describes the Rockefeller Park plot as a place where children learn the fundamentals of life.
“It teaches the children to be responsible. They learn about how things grow. That you must do things with energy and love. If you don’t care, you get nothing,” she said.
Binshtok, a native of Russia, describes the garden as an “oasis in an industrial city,” and says she wants her children to learn about the land.
“It’s important for kids to feel ‘it’s my land’ and that not everything comes from a supermarket,” she said.
The children’s gardening program started up again in 1998 following the renovations made to Rockefeller Park. Each Tuesday afternoon, up to 20 children, from both the immediate neighborhood and further afield, come together to learn about the integrated lives of plants, wildlife, and flowers.
The program, aimed at five to 10-year-olds, runs from May through October. “Peas to pumpkins” is how Abby Ehrlich, Director of the Parks Program, describes it. In the spring, they plant vegetables such as peas, radishes and lettuce. During the summer, children learn to care for the flowers and begin to harvest vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, beetroot, tomatillo (green tomatoes), eggplant and strawberries.
The garden is divided into 15 sections, each overflowing with a variety of vegetables, flowers, herbs and plants. Each plot has a color theme, of purple, blue, green, yellow, orange and red.
“We’ve tried to create a rainbow,” said program leader, Douglas Van Horn.
In the recent ladybug session, Van Horn, who has a Masters degree in early childhood education from the Bank Street College of Education, brought along a pot of lady bugs.
He instructed the kids to put them on a dying plant that had been attacked by the “bad bug” – aphids. Lady bugs eat the aphids. So instead of using weed killer, the children had great fun with the lady bugs trying to resurrect the plant. At the same time, Van Horn taught them about the bug itself, aided by a picture book.
At times, the harvested items make their way into tasty dishes and other creations.
“A Hispanic woman who lives in the neighborhood helped us make salsa verde, using the tomatillos and everyone brought along chips,” Van Horn said.
Among the things the class has made are herb-infused teas, mint ice-cream, fragrant sachets made from the herbs, bookmarks of pressed flowers and fresh salad’s of fresh tomatoes, carrots, and beets.
Matthew, 6, and Margaret May, 5, who live in Battery Park City have been coming to the gardening class for two years. Unlike most kids, they have their own garden. It took year and a half on a waiting list to buy a plot of land at Battery Park City’s community garden. Coming to the classes has helped them develop their own garden.
Other attendees include Olivia, 5, and Alexandra, 3. Their mother, Magdalena Kusio explained how the gardening program is essential to those who live in a city.
“The children are not exposed to nature. It’s good for them to learn how plants grow and to understand how things work from the beginning,” she said.
Laura Steger Tebbit, the BPCPC Senior Horticulturist, agrees that children don’t have many opportunities to garden in the city.
“Few realize that vegetables come from plants,” she said, “It’s great to see a child plant a bean seed, watch the plant grow and then open up the new beans to find more seeds inside,” she said. Tebbit notices the children coming back year after year.
Children also help choose what seeds to plant. Ehrlich said they have tried to accommodate all the senses, by not only planting a huge variety of flowers, herbs, plants and vegetables, but also those with interesting textures.
“The garden has a plant called ‘lambs ear.’ It’s not pretty or useful, but good to touch,” Ehrlich said. The leafy, stubby lamb’s ear plant has thick, soft, velvety leaves.
Ehrlich echoes the parents, in what she sees as the benefits of gardening with children.
“It helps them understand natural cycles. Its hands on science. And hands on chemistry when they start to make food from the products,” she said.
Ehrlich also believes that the weekly sessions teach a deeper lesson about life. “The projects take a long time, so it teaches the children patience and team work,” she said.
At the end of the day’s session, Margaret May and Matthew proudly showed off their harvest of the day – beetroot and eggplant. Their mother predicted that the vegetables would be the dinner topic for that evening. They would explain to their father how they nurtured the organic vegetables over the weeks, from a small seed to its place on their dinner plate.

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