Among the many visual aids they’ve created for the workshop is a large poster board titled “School Compost: Our Story.” It includes the key talking points, “Why do we compost?” “How do we compost?” and “Why is composting at school awesome?” As they proceed to answer these questions, the person who has taught them just how awesome composting is, 6th-grade English and philosophy teacher Meredith Hill—“Professor Hill” to her students—beams proudly as she wanders among four teaching teams earnestly showing and telling before a rapt audience of parents, gardeners, and educators.
The garden got its start in 2011, when school community members noticed a neglected parks-department site not far from the school. Hill and her charges have transformed it into an urban oasis brimming with several dozen types of vegetables and herbs, including kale, mint, basil, tomatoes, eggplant, and Swiss chard, as well as a number of pollinator-attracting perennials such as roses, echinacea, daisies, and bee balm. The CSS garden is one of almost 900 school and community gardens in the city that are part of the NYC Parks GreenThumb community gardening program—the largest in the nation. Hill also registered the garden with Grow to Learn, a citywide public-private partnership that supports public and charter school gardens in New York City.
Hill’s students started their adventure in composting in the classroom with eight worm-filled bins procured from the city sanitation department’s NYC Compost Project and the community-based Lower East Side Ecology Center. They began outdoor composting along with the outdoor garden, and are working toward the goal of eventually collecting and composting all the school’s waste.
Gardening provides many teachable moments, and teachers today need the support and encouragement of us all to create outdoor classrooms where students can learn that they are part of nature’s fabric. Recognizing this, Meredith Hill and Sarah Ohana have teamed up with Organic Gardening to produce Dig, Plant, Grow: An Organic Gardening Guide to Planning Your Own Garden Curriculum. We can’t wait to hear about the school gardens that will grow from this endeavor—the latest in our 70-plus-year tradition as the trusted guide to organic gardening and living! —Ethne Clarke, Editor in Chief
Back at the workshop, a kid teaching team introduces the galvanized metal trash bins for maturing compost and demonstrates the hand turners used to aerate and mix the compost. Once finished, the rich black gold the class has made is used to fertilize the raised beds of their garden. Having read as a class assignment the young readers edition of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 6th-grader Niagale knows that their lovingly tended mix is “a lot healthier than store-bought” chemical fertilizers, or those used on large-scale commercial farms, which she calls “disturbing.”
The garden and compost project has been a collaborative effort; in addition to many of Hill’s past and current 6th-graders, a sustainably focused school “Green Team” and a number of community volunteers participate in open gardening hours held Friday afternoons during the growing season. Students and teachers from CSS’s engineering program built raised beds and hoops for the garden, too.
Every year, Hill’s experiment in sustainable gardening has grown. To cut down on the huge amount of food waste at CSS, Hill and her students researched and wrote a grant proposal to the Citizens Committee of New York City, Manhattan Solid Waste Advisory Board, and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, netting $450 from the city to purchase a 14.7-cubic-foot freezer in which to store food scraps in the classroom until they have a chance to haul them to their garden, a 20-minute walk from school. “We were the group of middle-schoolers walking down the street with a big wheelbarrow and a freezerful of frozen food scraps,” says Maya. To which Hill adds, “It’s way cooler than it sounds.”
Laura Norwitz says that through Hill’s gardening elective and her reading of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, her daughter Ellie is “more aware of the social and political issues of large-scale farming and the food industry.” Ellie has educated the family, too. “For years, we were getting the cheapest version of eggs labeled ‘cage-free,’” says Norwitz, “but Ellie told us, ‘cage-free doesn’t mean the chickens were well raised.’” The family has started buying eggs at the farmers’ market. Another parent, Hiroko Suzuki, says of her son, Ami, “On his first day of gardening, he ate five kinds of vegetables! He doesn’t want to buy regular vegetables; he wants to buy organic.”
It’s clear that these young people’s passion for sustainability, gardening, and composting is due to Hill, who has given students “the opportunity to learn about the impact their lives have on the environment, and what they can do about it.” They know, she says, that “‘Going green’ is about being agents of change.”
How to Start Your Own Community Compost Group
- Organize a dedicated group of volunteers interested in the project. Managing a community compost project is no small task, so the more help, the better!
- Reach out to your city’s sanitation department to see if it can offer support or information or link you to similar projects.
- Identify a location for the project. Check with your local community garden network. If it doesn’t already have an onsite compost project, it may be interested in starting one with you.
- Before you begin, be sure to reach out to neighbors, local officials, and parties that might be affected. Many people fear that compost attracts rodents and creates odors, and accidents will probably happen. To help avoid future conflicts, you should share stories, provide examples, and discuss the potential challenges and benefits of your project with the community from the start.
- Master the art of making compost so that you prevent problems. Make sure you have enough brown materials, such as dry leaves, and adequately aerate the compost. (Our e-book Compostology 1-2-3 explains the whole process.)
- Use signs, open hours, workshops, and community events to let people know what you are doing, to educate others about compost, and to get more people involved.
Photography by Valery Rizzo
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, February/March 2014