The Garden of Dreams: A blend of work, education and my grandparents

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“everything is fertile here—your grape vine, the eggplants, the peaches—even our teachers!”

A catbird nests near a quiet waterfall, an earthworm wriggles beneath a log, and children sit in the shade of a peach tree. This paradise is not a botanic garden or a camp in Bear Mountain--it’s a learning garden in a Manhattan public school courtyard known as the Garden of Dreams. Under the direction of The Horticultural Society of New York (my employer), this oasis was designed and installed by PS 57’s third graders in East Harlem.  HSNY’s GreenTeam (our work force development program) built all elements of the garden. My husband John directed the installation of three 1,200 square foot cast stone planting beds and created a free form waterfall.  Each handful of soil was hauled in one wheelbarrow at a time through the school’s hallway and into the central courtyard where the 9 year-old environmentalists then planted and created the habitat.

Today-- five years later, the garden is home to my grandmother's favorite Kwanzan cherry trees, dozens of evergreens, large beds of perennials, fragrant herbs and luscious organic vegetables, all of which are maintained and hand-watered by PS 57’s students.  A leggy grape vine that I had on my roof for several seasons bloomed and fruited the first year its roots were embraced by the garden. HOW IN THE HELL DID THAT HAPPEN? I wonder. Bunches of blue Concord grapes in September. Growing in a built environment, surrounded by four walls of three stories of a public school, yet thick and lush and juicy. Principal Soto laughs and says, “everything is fertile here—your grape vine, the eggplants, the peaches—even our teachers!” The garden is a live, dynamic, and accessible aspect of learning right here, “in our own backyard.” A “backyard” where our urban children, living with little or no green space, or with limited opportunities to visit natural areas beyond the city, can experience plants, rain, worms and edibles.
Third graders meet with an HSNY educator once per week for hands-on experiments and garden maintenance. Students explore process and inquiry skills through dissecting flowers, measuring plant growth, writing nature poetry, cooking vegetables, transplanting, making watercolor paintings, fertilizing, recording weather changes, and maintaining their garden.

In addition to the Garden of Dreams, HSNY built an outdoor classroom that serves as a surface for a rainwater system. The rainwater--a free resource that would otherwise go down the drain-- is stored in a 200 gallon cistern.   Each precious drop of water is transferred into a small watering can and poured at the base of each plant.  Taken as a whole, the Garden of Dreams, the outdoor classroom, and the rainwater harvesting project is a comprehensive, sustainable ecosystem rarely found in any public school, let alone one in the middle of East Harlem.

Our rain water harvesting system was the focus of a training program for the school’s teachers. They explored New York City’s unique water delivery system and identified everyday ways to conserve clean tap water. Pre-K students create gorgeous, colorful images of water as rain, for drinking, for swimming in and for life. On paper, the collection system’s goal is to ensure that everyone learns about the distance water travels and appreciates what’s involved in having clean, drinkable water--so readily available. But at the heart of the matter is the long-term hope that our generation can actively conserve water as a personal choice and an automatic, unconscious response.

I hated the rain as a kid. My maternal grandmother used to sing a song about rain. In Japanese, I never remember all the words, but I think it goes like this: Ame ga furu, Ame ga furu, doko ni, Saka ni furu, Yama ni furu, Doko ni furu The rain, the rain is here-- From the hills(?) from the mountains… It is here.

Kazuo, my paternal grandfather had a garden that was bigger than his home. It was full of tomatoes, beets, long black eggplant, daikon and spinach. He collected rain water in buckets as it ran off the garage. He called rainwater “magic”. Collecting rainwater is older than time. And it’s gaining recognition now…as a kind of lost “technology”. This “magic” from the mountains floods our streets, taking with it the grime and wrappers of our modern day life….until it rushes out polluting our rivers. No more.

The Garden of Dreams feeds the full body of the school community, its brain, thirst and soul. Its rain-water harvesting system is a drop-in-the-bucket, but for me, it was an opportunity to merge my work with educating the next generation while connecting them to my grandparents..and other grandparents all over the world …Please feel free to experience the project for yourself, on East 115th St. between 3rd & Lexington Avenues, in the heart of New York City’s urban jungle.

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