Part sanctuary and part outdoor lab, the Courtyard Gardens at New Paltz High School are made up of 15 themed gardens connected within the larger space, each a vignette of self-contained beauty and each with its own focus.
The medicinal garden has healing plants, and the culinary garden edible herbs. The butterfly garden and bird thicket attract wildlife, and a Zen garden provides a place for reflection. The scented and “touch” gardens appeal to the senses, and a children’s garden contains miniature plants, baby’s breath and seashells. There’s even a “hidden” garden, shielded by miscanthus gigantes, a tall silver grass that conceals a path leading to a collection of mineral specimens.
In fact, tucked away as the entirety of the Courtyard Gardens are inside the high school grounds, the whole place is really a hidden gem.
It was initiated in 2007 by Cathy Law, AP environmental science teacher at New Paltz High School. When she first saw the courtyard area at the center of the school, it was nothing but paving stones and “I wouldn’t even call it soil,” she says. “It was fill, of the most horrific type; everything from plastic bottles to clay to lots of rocks and putrid red bark mulch. We had to remove everything, even using a hacksaw to get up the landscaping fabric covering it all.”
The initial design inspiration came from the High Line elevated park in New York City, which took a disused section of old railway on the West Side and converted it to a neighborhood-enhancing linear park with naturalized xeriscape (low maintenance) plantings. Law chooses plants for the high school gardens that will be similarly hardy and adaptable, bringing the students in on the selection process. “I try as much as possible to get native plants,” she says, “because that will support more native animals in this habitat. The idea is to make it sustainable as time goes on, to get more and more plantings that can really hold their own.”
The gardens serve as a “green” classroom for her students, with obvious benefits for science classes. Biology students can collect and identify insects and study ecological communities and bird behavior. Environmental labs use the gardens for scientific inquiry and research, making observations to investigate and interpret data before developing conclusions. “You can lecture in the classroom all you want,” Law says, “but until the kids get their hands dirty, it’s just hypothetical.”
Project-based learning — building a new garden bed or stone wall — also allows students to learn how to work in teams to solve problems.
The gardens provide a number of benefits for interdisciplinary studies, as well. “One of my missions is to get more and more different kinds of classes out here,” says Law. (She likes to say that the Courtyard Gardens help ensure that “No Child is Left Inside.”) Former AP art student Mikki Flores-Amper (class of 2011) created an environmental sculpture (still there) incorporating a slab of granite and thyme, called “Don’t Take Thyme for Granite.” Photography students utilize the gardens, as do writing classes and foreign language studies.
And the Courtyard Gardens promote a positive school environment in general, hosting events that benefit the entire student population. Last year’s “Snacks in the Courtyard” featured a selection of international finger foods created by students using the bounty of the culinary garden. In addition to the camaraderie something like that affords, it educates students about food literacy and promotes healthy eating habits.
Not least of all, spending time in the gardens helps promote environmental stewardship by instilling a love of nature, says Law. “I like to see kids learn how to enjoy growing plants for themselves, because you have to love it and enjoy it to protect it, right?”
The Courtyard Gardens fill an area measuring 140 by 80 feet. (The culinary garden is actually off in an area of its own by the ball field.) Under Law’s guidance, the students construct and maintain the gardens. They’re taught basic garden design principles — Law favors Japanese concepts, emulating running water, for example, with dry pebble streams — and there’s a sense of discovery as one wanders throughout. There are many layers involved, from the textures and colors of more than 200 species of (mostly) perennials and grasses to cerebral details like the incorporation of the golden ratio into the design of the culinary garden.
The students get very invested in the gardens after working on them all year, Law says, with some alumni even coming back to help out. Matt Shelley-Reade and Josh DeJoy (class of 2013) have been working in the gardens all month long while home on break from college. Last year the two built a 30-foot-long curved stone wall there with another student.
“We both took AP environmental science here and liked Ms. Law a lot,” says Shelley-Reade about their return to help out. “We really enjoyed the gardens, so after we graduated, we wanted to keep up on it.”
“You learned a lot in the classroom up to the AP exam,” adds DeJoy, “but it was always great to be outside and see the fruits of your labor.”
Both say they see a big difference in the development of the garden since they were students in New Paltz. “It’s taken a huge leap forward,” says DeJoy. “It’s incredible right now, and it’s only going to get better. Ms. Law has done a great job with the themes and it’s pretty amazing how much time and thought goes into each garden; just the planning part, let alone the labor.”
Carmen Chu, currently a sophomore student in AP environmental science, says she thinks the hands-on experience working in the gardens offers a great way to get in touch with nature. “It’s a really good experience,” she says. “Good for the environment and the school community.” At the beginning of the school year, she wasn’t so excited about digging in the ground and gardening, she says, “because I hadn’t really done it before, but I really enjoyed it.”
Law takes care of the gardens herself over the summer with the help of volunteers who come twice a week to help out. (Volunteering is open to anyone, with that being one way the public can come inside the school to experience the gardens.) “A lot of parents do it, and friends and students who come by,” says Law. “The whole day is chatting and working together; it’s fun.” The Courtyard Gardens will also be open to the public on Friday, July 1 from 6:30-8 p.m.
Funding for the gardens is provided by the Foundation for Student Enhancement, the PTSA and Hudson Valley Federal Credit Union. Local landscaper Mark Masseo has donated a great deal of plants, says Law, and she also recently founded “Friends of Courtyard Gardens” to help support the project. Donations are tax deductible.
With a horticultural degree from Cornell, where she had a double major in geology and biology, Law has taught science at New Paltz High School for 15 years now. In addition to teaching AP environmental science, she serves as advisor to the Environmental Club and teaches Regent’s biology, astronomy, earth science and field biology classes. The design of the Courtyard Gardens has been influenced by her travels to botanical gardens in 56 different countries. The “silver garden,” for example, was inspired by a similar garden in Melbourne, Australia.
With the focus on native plants, Law gets many of the varieties from Catskill Native Nursery in Kerhonkson. She also grows many of the plants from seed in her garage, an effort that allows her to get the most plantings out of the funding available.
New in the gardens this year is a phenology trail, the first to be established at any high school in the state. Winding around the perimeter, the phenology trail allows students to record the life cycle of plants and butterflies to generate long-term data sets tracking climate change, a citizen-science program much like that at Mohonk Preserve.
Law hopes to get engraved plant labels this year for the phenology trail as well as for the culinary and medicinal gardens. Other goals include the acquisition of eight large igneous and metamorphic boulders for the geology garden and enhancing the butterfly garden to include more native plants. She’d also like to offer horticultural education on sustainable gardening techniques and teach Native American concepts of using plants for medicinal purposes.