This urban agriculture association grows learning gardens at schools in the 20th – and beyond
It’s lunch break on a sunny Friday, time for the Club Jardin at the Flora Tristan Middle School, rue Galleron. One by one, the club members clamor up the two flights of stairs to the rooftop garden and swing open the door. Stepping onto the roof, they greet classmates with a “Wesh Billie!” or the garden’s coordinator with a “Salut Corentin!” and then begin to inspect their garden plots.
“I never know what I’m going to do when I get on the roof. It’s a surprise. First, I’ll take a tour of my vegetable garden, and then I’ll pull out weeds,like this one for example,” 11-year-old Billie says, tugging out a blade of grass, “Otherwise, it’ll invade.”
At a neighboring patch, Timéo considers the day’s activities: “Today, I’m going to pick radishes, mint, chives. If there’s lettuce, I’ll pick one.” The 11-year-old, who joined the Club Jardin at the beginning of the school year, says, “My parents are a bit impressed when I come home at night with my arms full. It makes me feel responsible. It’s also good to be in the open air and to be in touch with nature, because it’s not in our apartments that we’re going to be in touch with nature!”
The 2,100m2 rooftop garden at Flora Tristan is one of some 10 learning gardens created by Veni Verdi. The association has two more sites in the 20th arrondissement: a 165 m2 rooftop garden at Henri Matisse Middle School, and a 4,500m2 urban farm at Pierre Mendès France Middle School. Each garden serves as an alternative to the playground for students, an educational tool for teachers, a haven for biodiversity in Paris’s dense urban landscape, and a source for local, organic produce.
Long-time resident of the 20th, Nadine Lahoud, founded Veni Verdi in 2010 to educate children through gardening about the problems facing our planet. “It’s as important to read, write and count as it is to understand our home, our planet. Nature is what allows us to live and is what nourishes us. We have completely disconnected from that, and that’s not normal,” she says.
Growing the association
Veni Verdi planted its first urban farming site in April 2014 on a tiny rooftop at Henri Matisse overlooking the intersection of rue des Orteaux and rue Vitruve. Today, the “Jardin d’Haricot Poteur”, as the handmade sign announces at the entry, is flourishing, with rich fragrant soil and a thriving ladybug population.
Over the past seven years, Veni Verdi expanded in the working class neighborhoods of Eastern Paris for several reasons, Nadine explains: “because they’re places where people are much more willing to work and exchange on this kind of thing. Because people in these neighborhoods have survival on their minds. Because I feel more at ease in working class neighborhoods. And finally because there is not much space in so-called affluent neighborhoods, no space on the ground or on roofs.”
In September 2014, Veni Verdi undertook its largest project to date: reclaiming the unkept green spaces around Pierre Mendès France (PMF), situated between rue Le Vau and the boulevard Périphérique. An impressive urban farm now surrounds the school, complete with a small pond and a 100m2 chicken coop (built by neighborhood associations Feu Vert and ExtraMuros).
In 2017, Veni Verdi began transforming the abandoned rooftop recess yard at Flora Tristan into a showcase of different urban agriculture techniques, including technosol, hydroponics and aquaponics. “We’re really lucky to have a rooftop like this. And it’s two flights of stairs for the kids to climb, so it’s super convenient. It’s a space in the school but not really at school,” Flora Tristan Coordinator Corentin says. “It gives the kids a real change of pace in the day. But at the same time they’re learning, doing things on their own.”
Teaching future eco-citizens
Veni Verdi’s pedagogical approach appealed to PMF Coordinator Margot-Lys, who joined the site in 2018 as a service civique volunteer. “I wanted to work with Veni Verdi because it’s based on transmission, education and social issues. Our objective is to transmit knowledge and know-how about gardening but more globally about agriculture, food and environmental issues to children, teenagers, and the adult volunteers who come to help us. We’re also beginning to do professional reorientation training. For me, it’s essential to do urban agriculture that is open to others. I didn’t see the point in urban agriculture for production because it’s not urban agriculture in itself that will feed our cities.” Margot-Lys says.
Students can join the Club Jardin, which grants members a small plot to care for on their lunch break and reap the fruits of their labor. “We’re just there to advise them, help them, give them seeds and tools,” Margot-Lys explains. Teachers of all subject areas can work with Veni Verdi to create workshops for their students in the garden. “With the SEGPA [Sections of Adapted General Education and Professional Training] Hygiene Alimentation Service classes, we do harvest to plate cooking workshops. Or with Earth Sciences Classes, we count worm populations,” Margot-Lys says. “We have no limit in terms of subject matter; we always find things to do. And every year we try to diversify our workshops and to reach more and more students.” Her team is also helping class eco-delegates on projects to recycle plastics and reduce food waste in the cafeteria. At Flora Tristan, the team is helping the Manga Club design a Japanese garden.
The gardens also serve as an alternative to exclusion for students with disciplinary issues. Corentin says he’ll often work with such students on building projects, like making benches out of pallets. “In the end, they’re rather proud of what they’ve done. Every time I’m surprised they’re student’s who’ve been excluded because here they are adorable,” he says.
Feeding bodies and souls
Between activities for students, the Veni Verdi staff and adult volunteers tend the market garden. Retirees, unemployed people or people considering a new career path, these volunteers learn to sow seeds, transplant seedlings, tend the gardens, and harvest the produce. The fruits, vegetables, fresh and dried aromatic herbs, and flowers are sold at neighborhood shops including Saveurs en Partage, Natema café, SUPER Café or Brindille flower shop.
The revenues are “a small source of money, which is no longer negligible,” Corentin says, stressing that the sales are an important way to show Veni Verdi’s involvement in the neighborhood and what urban organic gardens are capable of. “The goal is to increase production as best we can. But these remain educational gardens,” he says.
Back at the Club Jardin, while some members finish weeding and watering their plots, others, including 14-year-old Mohamed, begin woodworking projects. “I started with Veni Verdi because I liked letting off steam by breaking up soil with a pickaxe. And in fact, I like to plant or to taste new things. So I’ve continued, and I love it. Whenever I have free time, I come. I do some gardening, and I do a lot of woodcrafting. Corentin showed me how to make a birdhouse, a bird feeder and a terrarium for insects, and now I can make them by myself. In a short amount of time, I’ve really learned a lot here,” he says.