The Pumpkin Smash at Zoller Garden

For nearly seven years, the garden at Jessie T. Zoller Elementary School in Schenectady, NY, has been a classroom, a laboratory, a pizzeria, a confectionery, a composting center, and much more. "We work with around 500 students each year at the school, ranging in age from three (pre-K) to eleven years old (5th grade),” says garden coordinator and Farm-to-School Manager for the district Rebekka Henriksen. “Our weekly garden club averages twenty students, and meets after school for forty-five minutes from October through June, alternating outdoor activities with indoor growing, cooking, and tasting lessons.”

The Zoller garden consists of twelve large raised beds, including two accessible table beds, where Rebekka and the kids grow vegetables, fruits like strawberries and lowbush blueberries, edible and medicinal herbs, and edible and ornamental flowers. Zoller Garden also has some in-the-ground growing of various cole crops and raspberries, and an apple orchard containing twenty trees of different varieties. “Our proximity to one of our main building entrances means many of our students pass the garden every day so they get to track the changes in it, and it is easily accessible for classrooms wanting to visit, whether for a lesson or just to relax,” says Rebekka. Being in the Northeast, the school is also home to a sugarbush (grove of sugar maple trees) where students conduct schoolyard sugaring each year, tapping up to nine trees and collecting sap each week that they boil down into maple syrup. “Our favorite thing to do is collect the maple sap and then taste the maple syrup,” exclaims fifth-grader Janaya. Not forgetting about their pollinator pals, Zoller Garden has also created a large monarch waystation garden that contains native plants to support local insects, birds, and other wildlife. 

A teacher holds a drill, about to tap a sugar maple. Kids in winter coats are crowded behind the teacher.

“The goals of our program are to give our students, who are largely food insecure, greater access to fresh produce while providing them with engaging hands-on learning experiences,” Rebekka explains. “Over 80% of our students live below poverty level and we have one grocery store in a city of over 70,000 people. We are a universal free breakfast and lunch district where many of our students get their main meals at school, so food access, food justice, and food resiliency are always in focus for our program. We also wanted to engage our students in outdoor learning opportunities — many of our students don't have regular access to outdoor spaces. Our campus is also used as a greenspace recreational area by the surrounding neighborhood so in many ways our garden is also a community garden.” 

The program shares a variety of food with students, teachers, and the community. Zoller’s gardeners are currently growing sugar snap peas, carrots, radishes, spring onions, a variety of lettuces, kale, tatsoi, pak choi, dragon mustard, collard greens, garlic, strawberries, raspberries, chives, thyme, oregano, chamomile, nasturtium, dill, and calendula, as well as bee balm, yarrow, tulips, sunflowers, catmint, and milkweed. Talk about a springtime smorgasbord! As the month of May wraps up, the students will be preparing for two annual traditions: the planting of their annual Three Sisters bed and their annual pizza bed. “At the end of every school year, the third graders plant a Three Sisters Garden which they then harvest as fourth graders for a Three Sisters Feast connected to their Indigenous Peoples of New York State curriculum that includes a Three Sisters stew with Mohawk cornbread. In the fall, students harvest from the pizza garden and build solar ovens to cook mini-pizzas in,” says Rebekka. That’s not the only cooking the kids at Zoller engage in. “We do classroom cooking: tomato sauce making and cider pressing in the fall, fresh salads and other dishes prepared together in the spring. The Garden Club does even more cooking, from making quick jams to soups to salads and more,” Rebekka shares. 

A student holds their finger up to a metal tap in a tree, feeling the maple sap.

Zoller Garden also functions as a classroom space with a number of curricular crossover activities. “We do many STEM, social studies, and ELA lessons both in the garden and connected to our maple sugaring program. Students maintain observational journals, learn about plant life cycles, collect seeds in the fall to plant in the spring. We collect swallowtail butterfly eggs from the dill we grow each May for second-grade students to raise in their classrooms and release before school ends. We tag monarch butterflies in the fall with fifth graders. Maple sugaring involves lessons around density, percentages, the transformation of matter, seasons, photosynthesis, the history of the slave trade and the abolitionist movement, New York State history, and Indigenous foodways,” says Rebekka. “Some classrooms visit the garden daily on a walk, others visit weekly or monthly for a garden lesson, planting, or harvesting opportunity. I also push into classrooms with hands-on activities and lessons connected to the garden, like vermicomposting, seed anatomy, seed starting, building solar ovens, and more.” 

Creating this vibrant garden program hasn’t always been easy, and Rebekka shares that it’s been a labor of love. “Our garden is surrounded by a concrete walkway off of a parking lot, built against the school, which is brick. This creates a microclimate that has the advantage of a slightly extended growing season in our Zone 5b but also means things get really, really hot and dry in the summer so consistent watering is a must and some of our leaf crops bolt quicker than we would like. When it was originally built, the garden spigot was nonfunctional, which meant for the first two years, we had to hand port water halfway around the building or even from our houses on the weekends. Now we have a working spigot, and that’s ensured the sustainability of the garden. But the first two years, it truly was a labor of love to keep it going and growing.” 

Kids stand behind a three part structure made of wood and screen.

Composting, and a Pumpkin Smash!

One of the pillars of Zoller Garden’s program is their composting program. “Outdoors, we have four different kinds of composters on campus, including Earth Machine enclosed composter bins, a large tumbler composter that the kids love to turn, a cold composter, and a three-bin system we just installed with a community partner located next to our monarch waystation. That composter is also used by surrounding community members to compost produce scraps.” 

The school has seven vermicompost bins in the building, in kindergarten through fifth-grade classrooms. Each bin lives in a classroom during the school year, and students maintain them. “Worms are my favorite pets! They make good soil for our garden,” shares kindergartener Phoenix. “We usually set these bins up with them in September or early October, teaching students about the FBI: fungi, bacteria, and invertebrates — the critters that create compost,” says Rebekka. “Our bins are populated by red wrigglers and are fed with classroom food waste from snacks and our Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program, along with some scraps students bring from home. In the spring, students help harvest the compost and spread it in our garden beds.”  

This May, a big change is coming to the Zoller composting program. “We are beginning school-wide composting! We are partnering with Schenectady County Recycles!, Schenectady County Soil & Water Conservation District, and our local Schenectady Urban Farm to divert our cafeteria waste to a newly built solar-powered community facility located at one of the Schenectady Urban Farm sites,” shared Rebekka. “This is a pilot program that began with a two-day waste audit in our cafeteria that students helped with. The data collected was shared with all our faculty and students. Fifth graders will help train the younger grades in separating waste to be diverted. We are really excited and hope this will eventually lead to district-wide composting.” 

Rebekka and the Zoller Garden community started this new initiative off with a smash! (A pumpkin smash that is.) “This past fall, we held a fun event to begin the conversation around composting with the larger school community — a Pumpkin Smash where families brought their Halloween/fall pumpkins to school to smash, with Schenectady County Soil & Water Conservation District collecting over 500 pounds of material that was brought to their county facility for composting. They will soon be bringing compost to a spring workday event, where it will be distributed along with seedlings to families who attend,” Rebekka shares.

A child sits near a blue tarp with a line of pumpkins on the tarp.

The Zoller gardeners sure have a lot to enjoy at the moment, but Rebekka has some immediate plans and some long-term goals for the garden. First up is expanding access to other areas of the school. “Currently, we are planning to install additional beds outside our kindergarten, pre-k, and special needs classrooms for easier access for them,” she shares. But her long-term vision is to expand the program to be a resource for older kids and more community members in the future. “Our long-term goal is to have an actual working farm on our school campus where high school students can intern, and which provides fresh produce shares free of charge to our school families in exchange for a couple of hours of garden work each week. We would also like to do a school-based farmer’s market run by our students and have more of our garden produce brought into the cafeteria for inclusion in our lunch menus.” It sounds like Zoller’s hands-on experiences will bring joy to many more in the future. Way to grow Zoller Garden!