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May 27, 2016

Sustainable Classroom Farming

By John DePasquale
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    From the first signs of daffodils to the brilliant greens that seem to explode from a mighty oak, spring is a magical time of year when I become keenly aware of the new life budding all around me in the great outdoors. I tap into the energy of the season by using different sustainable techniques to grow plants with students inside the classroom. 

    I am fortunate to work with a phenomenal team of environmental and agricultural educators from City Growers at my school in Brooklyn, N.Y.  I’ve worked with City Growers for two years through an after-school program that engages middle school students in workshops and programs about nutrition, farming, and environmental sustainability. I’m sure you might be wondering exactly how we farm in New York City. Our farms may look different, but we farm just like anywhere else.

    Twice a week my students walk to a fully operational farm high atop a building in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. The farmers at Brooklyn Grange welcome the students to this rooftop farm, and allow them to experience, firsthand, the agricultural process that is an important part of our lives. As an urban dweller, I oftentimes feel disconnected from the source of the food I consume. Many of my students also share this feeling, but when they are on the farm seeing vegetables grow, collecting eggs from a chicken coop, or honey from a hive, this disconnect fades.  

    If you would like to reconnect your students to the agricultural process, here are some ideas you can use to promote sustainable growing techniques and environmental education all from inside your own classroom.

    Worm Composting

    The nutrient rich soil classroom plants need to be successful can be made with a little assistance from the continuous toil of some wiggly helpers. Vermicompost, or composting with worms, is an easy way to transform fruit and vegetable food scraps into rich and nutritious soil. 

    If the thought of worms crawling around your classroom makes you squirm, you are certainly not alone. I pride myself on a neat and tidy classroom, and the idea of bringing worms and dirt into the room was certainly not appealing. However, it didn't take long to make me a true believer in the power of vermicomposting. 

    Setting up composting bins in your classroom is easy to do. The team at City Growers put together simple-to-follow instructions to help guide you through the process of setting up vermicompost bins in your classroom. 

    Red Wigger worms are the true stars of the composting show. Ask for these worms at your local gardening supply store. If the store does not supply them, I am sure they will be able to point you in the right direction. You can also search for them online and have them shipped directly to you at school. 

    Once the bin is set up, enlist the help of your students to feed the worms and to monitor the bin’s progress. Feed worms scraps from fruits and vegetables, but DO NOT feed them meat, dairy products, or anything cooked with oil.   

    One pound of worms feed on 3.5 pounds of food scraps each week. We usually feed the worms new food scraps once we notice no old scraps remaining in the bin. You will also want students to monitor the moisture level of the bin. It should not be too wet or too dry. You can use a spray misting bottle to add moisture if it is too dry. 

    After that, just let compost happen! The compost is ready to use once it reaches a dark color.  Since it takes about three months before compost is ready to be harvested, we usually start our bins in the winter so they are ready for our spring planting.  

    For more detailed information, I recommend this guide to setting up an indoor vermicomposting bin created by the New York City Department of Sanitation. 

    Are you still not convinced to start composting with worms? City Growers put together a list of the top ten reasons to compost that is sure to help convert you.    

    The harvested compost can now be added to window planters to create your very own window farm.

    Window Planters

    The team at City Growers supplied the students with a set of vertical planters to transform our classroom windows into a farm. As a DIY alternative, you can create your own window planters using repurposed plastic bottles and some string. Follow these steps to build planters for your classroom windows. 

    • Step 1: Cut a plastic bottle in half to separate the top from the bottom

    • Step 2: Use scissors to poke a hole into the bottle’s cap

    • Step 3: Thread a piece of string or twine through the hole in the bottle cap

    • Step 4: Fill the bottom half of the bottle with water and invert the top half into the bottom so the string touches the water

    • Step 5: Fill the top of the planters with soil and then add seeds.


    I placed the planters in small baskets and used binder clips to attach them to the window frames in my classroom.  Since the string wicks water up into the soil, it's important to make sure that there is enough water in the bottom of the planters to ensure uninterrupted watering.


    Additional Ideas

    Despite her self-identified lack of a green thumb, fellow New York City teacher and blogger Alycia Zimmerman offers additional school gardening ideas. Visit her post "How Does Our School Garden Grow Part 1" and Part 2 to learn more. 

    As you can see, farming in the classroom is not difficult at all. I hope you take advantage of the magic of spring, and bring new life into your classroom by farming with your students.  

    From the first signs of daffodils to the brilliant greens that seem to explode from a mighty oak, spring is a magical time of year when I become keenly aware of the new life budding all around me in the great outdoors. I tap into the energy of the season by using different sustainable techniques to grow plants with students inside the classroom. 

    I am fortunate to work with a phenomenal team of environmental and agricultural educators from City Growers at my school in Brooklyn, N.Y.  I’ve worked with City Growers for two years through an after-school program that engages middle school students in workshops and programs about nutrition, farming, and environmental sustainability. I’m sure you might be wondering exactly how we farm in New York City. Our farms may look different, but we farm just like anywhere else.

    Twice a week my students walk to a fully operational farm high atop a building in the historic Brooklyn Navy Yard. The farmers at Brooklyn Grange welcome the students to this rooftop farm, and allow them to experience, firsthand, the agricultural process that is an important part of our lives. As an urban dweller, I oftentimes feel disconnected from the source of the food I consume. Many of my students also share this feeling, but when they are on the farm seeing vegetables grow, collecting eggs from a chicken coop, or honey from a hive, this disconnect fades.  

    If you would like to reconnect your students to the agricultural process, here are some ideas you can use to promote sustainable growing techniques and environmental education all from inside your own classroom.

    Worm Composting

    The nutrient rich soil classroom plants need to be successful can be made with a little assistance from the continuous toil of some wiggly helpers. Vermicompost, or composting with worms, is an easy way to transform fruit and vegetable food scraps into rich and nutritious soil. 

    If the thought of worms crawling around your classroom makes you squirm, you are certainly not alone. I pride myself on a neat and tidy classroom, and the idea of bringing worms and dirt into the room was certainly not appealing. However, it didn't take long to make me a true believer in the power of vermicomposting. 

    Setting up composting bins in your classroom is easy to do. The team at City Growers put together simple-to-follow instructions to help guide you through the process of setting up vermicompost bins in your classroom. 

    Red Wigger worms are the true stars of the composting show. Ask for these worms at your local gardening supply store. If the store does not supply them, I am sure they will be able to point you in the right direction. You can also search for them online and have them shipped directly to you at school. 

    Once the bin is set up, enlist the help of your students to feed the worms and to monitor the bin’s progress. Feed worms scraps from fruits and vegetables, but DO NOT feed them meat, dairy products, or anything cooked with oil.   

    One pound of worms feed on 3.5 pounds of food scraps each week. We usually feed the worms new food scraps once we notice no old scraps remaining in the bin. You will also want students to monitor the moisture level of the bin. It should not be too wet or too dry. You can use a spray misting bottle to add moisture if it is too dry. 

    After that, just let compost happen! The compost is ready to use once it reaches a dark color.  Since it takes about three months before compost is ready to be harvested, we usually start our bins in the winter so they are ready for our spring planting.  

    For more detailed information, I recommend this guide to setting up an indoor vermicomposting bin created by the New York City Department of Sanitation. 

    Are you still not convinced to start composting with worms? City Growers put together a list of the top ten reasons to compost that is sure to help convert you.    

    The harvested compost can now be added to window planters to create your very own window farm.

    Window Planters

    The team at City Growers supplied the students with a set of vertical planters to transform our classroom windows into a farm. As a DIY alternative, you can create your own window planters using repurposed plastic bottles and some string. Follow these steps to build planters for your classroom windows. 

    • Step 1: Cut a plastic bottle in half to separate the top from the bottom

    • Step 2: Use scissors to poke a hole into the bottle’s cap

    • Step 3: Thread a piece of string or twine through the hole in the bottle cap

    • Step 4: Fill the bottom half of the bottle with water and invert the top half into the bottom so the string touches the water

    • Step 5: Fill the top of the planters with soil and then add seeds.


    I placed the planters in small baskets and used binder clips to attach them to the window frames in my classroom.  Since the string wicks water up into the soil, it's important to make sure that there is enough water in the bottom of the planters to ensure uninterrupted watering.


    Additional Ideas

    Despite her self-identified lack of a green thumb, fellow New York City teacher and blogger Alycia Zimmerman offers additional school gardening ideas. Visit her post "How Does Our School Garden Grow Part 1" and Part 2 to learn more. 

    As you can see, farming in the classroom is not difficult at all. I hope you take advantage of the magic of spring, and bring new life into your classroom by farming with your students.  

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