A nonprofit urban gardening project has proven that it truly has a green thumb.
Besides growing thousands of pounds of food at parks throughout the city, Roots and Wisdom has nearly tripled in size in just three years.
The agency started in 2006 with 17 teenage workers and an acre of land next to Central Park. This summer, 32 teenagers, dozens of middle-schoolers and even preschool children will work at gardens in five locations. The newest is a pocket park that last year had nothing but a swingset frame and a net-less basketball court.
The agency is also no longer waiting for summer before gathering its troops. Work will begin in May this year — a full two months earlier than normal — and even snowfall won’t stop the workers from harvesting their last crops. They’re building a cheap greenhouse at Central Park so they can continue to harvest vegetables all winter.
But with all its success, Roots And Wisdom is still subsisting on about $50,000 a year, mostly through donations and grants from foundations. Most of the produce is given to food pantries, although the teen gardeners raise a small amount of money for the agency by selling some food at the city’s farmers’ markets.
The agency is only able to pay those workers through Schenectady County’s summer youth employment program. The program pays the salaries of teenagers selected to work at local jobs from July 7 to Aug. 15.
For the rest of the year, volunteers do the work. Even the three women who started the program are working for free.
“We haven’t successfully raised enough for our salaries,” said Christine Horigan, one of the three organizers. “When we have to carve our money up, it’s equipment and paying the college students [who supervise the teenagers].”
While all three women have other jobs, they say the program won’t truly be a success until it can fund a full-time director.
“We want to be economically viable. If something catastrophic happens to one of us, we want this to continue,” Horigan said.
Their goal is a budget of $137,900.
Despite the financial difficulties, the women are thrilled by how far their program has gone in just three years. Roots And Wisdom has gained such a good reputation that the city asked it to take over Orchard Street Park last year, turning the entire playground into a garden.
The women demurred, saying they didn’t want to take a playground away from the children of Mont Pleasant. But then they saw the park.
“There was a swingset with no swings. There were no nets on the basketball court,” Horigan said. “It had fallen into decline. We wanted a place people would feel safe, where they could have fun.”
They asked the city to install nets and swings while letting them turn a portion of the field into a garden. Creating a workable soil took all year — they built the soil last spring and then planted peas and oats as a cover crop last fall.
Since the garden is in a playground, Roots And Wisdom has created a new program to get younger children interested in gardening.
Starting on May 5, middle school students will be welcome every Monday at the Fehr Avenue and Orchard Street Park gardens from 3:15 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Preschoolers can learn about the gardens on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Those programs end the second week of June.
This summer, the nonprofit will also run a summer camp at the Orchard Street Park garden, charging $2 per week for children ages 6 to 11. The camp will run every morning, 9 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., from July 14 to Aug. 8. To register for any of the programs, e-mail [email protected]
During the camp, children will play games, create art and, of course, work in the garden — an essential part of growing up, if you ask Horigan.
“Kids are doing everything one step removed because of technology,” she said. “They know more about the rainforest than what bugs are in their backyard. If you put something in the ground and watch it grow, it has to spark your imagination.”
But even with all her experience in watching things grow, Horigan can’t quite believe her agency has grown this fast.
“We pinch ourselves sometimes,” she said. “I’m amazed.”
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