Green thumbs growing at Peekskill schools


By Sally Bentley

Green thumbs don’t actually grow on trees, but in the Peekskill city school district they are being nurtured and encouraged at all ages. The kindergarten and first grade students who attend Woodside school have for more than 20 years participated in activities centered around the greenhouse at the heart of the school. Working with their classroom teachers and volunteer horticulturalist, Laura Perkins, the children learn the miracle of life growing from a tiny seed into a colorful flower or tasty vegetable on their plate.

Retired teacher Karen Wallis remembers days of the original greenhouse which had to be demolished for safety reasons and how it took years of planning and fundraising to build the current greenhouse.  Wallis recalls the combined efforts of teachers,  PCSD personnel,  the PTO (Parent Teachers Organization) and the Peekskill Rotary Club organizing for the new greenhouse. The current greenhouse was dedicated in June 2019 during an evening garden party and has been in steady use ever since. Wallis enumerates the many opportunities for hands-on science lessons that involved the greenhouse.

The ribbon cutting of the Woodside greenhouse in 2019.

“They would plant seeds, care for them, and then transplant the hearty plants into the school’s outdoor vegetable garden. Eventually, students were able to harvest the fruits of their labors through the late spring, the summer and the early fall,”said Wallis.   It was a hands-on science lesson, with a tasty reward.

Melina Cronin is a current kindergarten teacher, who serves as the garden advisor for the school.  She has been digging in the dirt with her students for more than 16 years and reports that “I have seen the first-hand positive impact of the greenhouse and how it has helped in the development of my students. It involves them at an early age and gives them an opportunity to develop a sense of wonder about the world around them.  I know that it helps them to understand their role in caring for our environment.”  The greenhouse at the school offers the opportunity for every student to know and experience the science involved with growing from seed to harvest and how the greenhouse uses the power of the sun to keep the earth green.

Cronin reports that the classes visit the greenhouse on a rotating basis, and they work with volunteer Perkins to plant crops that will be transplanted into the garden on the school grounds and shared with the community. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) classes also use the greenhouse and the garden, and all teachers are welcome to use the garden and greenhouse at any time throughout the day with their classes.

Second and third graders have ready access to the community vegetable garden, which is called Regeneration Farm and and sits adjacent to the school at Lepore Park. It’s not hard to imagine some current math lessons in the garden, as students chart the growth measurements of plants.  They’d better have yardsticks available, if they are following the progress of the garlic crop, which is currently higher than an elephant’s eye!

Dan Calebro  at Hillcrest facilitates the horticulture experiences for the fourth and fifth graders and when these experienced gardeners enter the Peekskill Middle School in sixth grade they have more planting lessons with long time community volunteers, Jessica Dubin and Lisa Prown. The raised bed gardens of PMS can be seen on the Washington Street border of the school.

Woodside students will be joining members of the Garden Club of Peekskill at their annual Mother’s Day Plant Sale, this Saturday, May 13th from 9 to 3 p.m. at the Riverfront Green Park Gazebo.  Students have been growing a variety of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, eggplant and flowers like cosmos and calendula, which they will be selling on Saturday. They will donate the  profits to the Garden Club Scholarship Fund.

This past weekend Perkins and Cronin, along with students, had a booth at the Rotary Cherry Blossom Festival and donated their profits back to the Rotary, in thanks for the Club’s past support. Garden Club of Peekskill members are eager to meet these young gardeners and hopeful to continue some community garden projects with the students over the summer.

Retired teachers, Marj Trainor and Wallis, have spent lots of hours in school district greenhouses. Both have joined the Garden Club of Peekskill and look forward to working with the youthful gardeners.

Perkins, a longtime resident of Peekskill, works full time in the kitchen gardens at Stone Barns and has volunteered her expertise and muscle to community garden projects throughout Peekskill.  In Perkins philosophy, “Gardening is Community! Civic gardening is community building and that’s what we want for these children.”

Perkins’ face lit up, when she shared her hopes for the students.  “I dream of instilling in these students experiences and interests in the garden, which will lead them to pursue careers in science, civics, communications, education, technology, city planning.  Should I go on?”  She’s been volunteering for years and years, so it’s safe to bet that she’ll “go on.”  Anyone interested in knowing more about these community gardens and seeing the “fruits” of their labors is invited to drop by.  Stop by and shake the hand of a young gardener or two, it’s guaranteed that the dirt under their nails is just some good old soil!