Bees, Birds and Butterflies: NYC Eco-School PS6 Hosts Gardening Workshop

Teachers, parents and students attended a gardening for wildlife workshop
Teachers, parents and students attended a gardening for wildlife workshop, hosted by NYC Eco-School PS 6 in Manhattan, June 5, 2013. Photo: NWF
In early June, over two dozen teachers, parent gardeners, and several students attended a free NYC Eco-Schools workshop “How to Create Wildlife-Friendly Schoolyard Habitats,” led by Eliza Russell, Director of National Wildlife Federation’s Education Programs. The workshop was held atop NYC Eco-School PS 6’s spectacular rooftop Eco Center, complete with an 800 square foot greenhouse, solar panels, a weather station, fruit trees, pots of flowering plants and an edible garden.  PS 6 is one of 5,000 NWF Certified Schoolyard Habitats across the U.S., providing a haven for countless bees, butterflies and birds, particularly migratory species, who stop to rest and refuel along their journeys through our urban jungles.

SYH Certified Habitat Sign
NYC Eco-School PS 6 is an NWF Certified Schoolyard Habitat. Photo: NWF
SYH 1 Red Flower
PS 6’s flowering plants, bushes and fruit trees attract a variety of birds and insects. Photo: Tara J. Eisenberg
Indeed, outside the greenhouse during the workshop, dragonflies, bees and birds fittingly whirred by, buzzing and chirping in the glorious sunshine as teachers were busily visioning and sketching out plans for school gardens of their own. This involved understanding the physical structure of the school building, determining an appropriate space for a garden, figuring out where the sunlight hits that spot, at what hours of the day, where water accumulates when it rains and so on. This information determines which plants will thrive in a location. For example, most vegetables need a lot of sun, but certain plants like Andromeda – a native partial shade perennial, ferns, and cold weather vegetables like kale – do not.

Ms. Russell cautioned attendees that, “Any plant or tree that has the name of another country in its name – like English Ivy – means it doesn’t belong here.”  She explained that non-native species, including bamboo for example, can quickly overtake a garden and compete with more desirable native plant species. The latter usually require less maintenance and less water than their exotic alternatives.  Native plants also attract wildlife, serving an important role in the local ecosystem.

The workshop included lively discussion and group work. Photo: Tara J. Eisenberg
The workshop included lively discussion about garden design. Photo: Tara J. Eisenberg
There were lively discussions and several questions such as how to provide the four criteria for a wildlife habitat without attracting mosquitos to standing water for example.  Workshop participant Sharon Kimmelman, a master composter who leads school gardening programs for the WestSide Community Garden in Manhattan, suggested a solar-powered pond pump – a maintenance-free way to create an aerated water source.  Kimmelman also discouraged her fellow gardeners from using peat moss which she said is ‘mined’ from fragile ecosystems called bogs.  Another gardener warned against using cypress wood chip mulch, which is harvested from cypress swamps and forests in Louisiana that provide habitat for threatened and endangered wildlife.

Bronx Guild High School science teacher Bill Lynam attended the workshop with several students. Photo: Tara J. Eisenberg
Bronx Guild High School science teacher Bill Lynam attended the workshop with several of his students. Photo: Tara J. Eisenberg
Bronx Guild High School’s science teacher Bill Lynam attended the workshop with four of his students. “I really like to expose my students to the ‘outside world’ and I wanted them to see PS 6’s space,” says Lynam. “They like this kind of work and seemed really engaged at the workshop,” he said.  For the past three and a half years, Lynam and his students have been cultivating organic vegetables and herbs in a one-acre garden on the side of the school. They’re raising bees and have a chicken coop with a green roof.  Last April, they reclaimed two acres of unused DOE land across the street from the school and turned it into a “wild zone” and orchard with 142 fruit and nut trees. Lynam said he hoped to tap into possibilities for funding that were discussed at the workshop so that he and his students can plant more trees as well as start building a greenhouse and a pond.

Parent Simone Braga, volunteer garden coordinator at NYC Eco-School PS 166 in Queens, attended the workshop with her husband and young daughter Luiza. “I loved the workshop. It showed me that I am doing things right and I have a lot to do still,” she said. “We were very interested in the rain catching system and the compost tumblers, which we will look into buying for our school. The pond was such a special addition to the garden. The flowers, the water dripping inside vases, birds drinking from everywhere, and grapes too! I forgot that I was in a very busy city,” said Braga.

SYH Two Teachers
Teachers connected and shared ideas. Photo: Tara J. Eisenberg
A highlight of the workshop were some of the special connections that were made. Two teachers from the Dual Language Middle School on Manhattan’s Upper West Side attended the workshop together. Their school shares a space with NYC Eco-School PS 84 – an elementary school with a dedicated parent Gardening Committee. Though they shared the same building, Dual Middle’s teachers and PS 84’s gardeners had never met each other.  They found each other at the workshop and decided to collaborate on greening their shared spaces: a downstairs courtyard and the roof. Braga also connected with workshop participants through Facebook. “Hopefully we will visit each others’ gardens in the near future,” she says.

Need some inspiration? National Pollinator Week is June 17-23 – a great time to turn your school garden into a wildlife habitat for bees, butterflies and birds.  Does your NYC school have a garden that could become an NWF Certified Schoolyard Habitat?  If so, email me at to let me know about it.  Better yet, join the NYC Eco-Schools Facebook group and post pictures of your school garden there!