WEST ORANGE, NJ — Middle School students at Golda Och Academy were able to test their green thumbs this spring as part of a new gardening club.

Upper School Judaics teacher Rabbi Shira Johnston created a vegetable and flower garden with Middle School students that not only builds on the sixth grade Teva experience, but is also integrated into the environmental unit of the sixth grade Rabbinics curriculum.

“When the students are out in nature you see a different side of them,” said Rabbi Johnston. “They are calmer, more relaxed, and you see the creativity and soul of the person. It’s important for the students to be immersed in nature and have a hands-on experience that is not computer-based or restricted to an indoor classroom setting.”

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The project also further enhances science and environmental studies lessons, teaching students how to test pH levels of the soil prior to planting along with educating them about water conservation.

Middle School Director Jamie Himmelstein, who was at the forefront of the idea for the garden, said she was looking for a unique program for the 6th, 7th and 8th grade students.

“Adding a garden at the Middle School allows students to expand upon their experience with the outdoor garden at the Lower School and see the process of growing food firsthand,” said Himmelstein. “Once the students return in the fall, they will have a chance to see the fruits of their labors.”

To prepare for the garden, the club researched the types of flowers and vegetables appropriate for the summer climate in this part of New Jersey. Once the selections were made, the group calculated the pH, nitrogen, potassium, potash, and calcium requirements for each plant. Students also researched the light and shade requirements for each flower and vegetable as well as space, depth and water needs.

In the spring, the club planted zinnias, sunflowers, milkweed (for butterflies), marigold, vincas, various tomatoes varieties, cucumbers, hot red peppers, sweet Hungarian peppers, rosemary, basil, chives and dill.

During the summer months, the garden is being cared for by GOA’s facilities and maintenance staff as well as Harbor Haven campers who are watering the garden as part of their summer camp program. 

The Middle School Garden was made possible by a generous grant from the Fund for Faculty Innovation and Excellence, created by GOA parents Elizabeth and Gerald Cohen, to award teachers with unique and cutting-edge plans for the classroom and provide them with the resources to put their plans into action.