This article was submitted and written by Elizabeth Gillen, Girl Scout Gold. All photos by Elizabeth Gillen and student photo releases comply with Craig School policy confirmed by Niles Furlong, Craig School.
MOUNTAIN LAKES — Imagine attending school where you can pick fresh vegetables with your classmates and teachers, or observe the graceful flight of Monarch butterflies just outside your classroom windows. Since 2019, this has been a reality for students at The Craig School in Mountain Lakes. They have been actively involved in planting and harvesting a variety of vegetables, generously sharing their produce with groundhogs, birds, and other wildlife that frequent their school grounds. One dedicated 7th grader, G.C., has been nurturing his gardening skills since the 4th grade, thanks to guidance from his grandpa.
The inspiration for The Craig School’s garden came from Steven Ritz’s Green Bronx Machine program in New York. Niles Furlong, the Director of Student Affairs and Athletics at The Craig School, took the lead in transforming a green space at the school’s entrance into a thriving vegetable garden. What initially began as an Eagle Scout project has now become an integral part of the school’s science and social studies curriculum.
D.S., another 7th grader, has been an active member of the Garden Club for four years, alongside her friends. The garden, adorned with plants and flowers that attract pollinators like Monarch butterflies through the presence of milkweed, has become a comforting outdoor sanctuary for students like K.S. and K.M., both 7th graders who cherish their time spent there. The garden’s National Wildlife Federation certification attests to its provision of a water source, shelter, and food for native wildlife, a place for wildlife to raise their young, and the use of natural gardening methods. The NWF’s certification is attainable for any outdoor space that incorporates these essential elements, whether it be a patio, balcony, or schoolyard.
Recently, The Craig School’s Certified Schoolyard Habitat garnered the attention of Elizabeth Gillen, a Mountain Lakes resident and high school junior at the Morris County School of Technology Multimedia Academy. Gillen is working towards her Girl Scout Gold Award, focusing on raising awareness for local wildlife, abundant in Mountain Lakes and nearby Tourne Park. She registered Mountain Lakes with the National Wildlife Federation and is collaborating with the Borough’s Woodlands Sub-Committee and Gardening Club to educate the community about wildlife protection and creating wildlife-friendly spaces on public and private property. Gillen’s ambitious goal is to certify the entire Borough of Mountain Lakes through a combination of educational outreach and wildlife habitat certifications for backyards, schools, businesses, and pocket parks.
At The Craig School, the student-run Garden Club takes care of planting, weeding, and harvesting, and the harvested vegetables are sent home with students. For 5th grader M.B., picking vegetables, especially peppers, is a favorite pastime. The school’s Science Department oversees the growth of milkweed, essential for Monarch butterflies, as their caterpillars rely on native milkweed before undergoing their transformation. Additionally, the Social Studies department plays a pivotal role in managing the vegetable garden.
In 2023, the Birchwood Lake Rain Garden and Thorleif Fiflet Bird Sanctuary in Mountain Lakes achieved NWF Certified Wildlife Habitat status, adding to the community’s commitment to wildlife conservation. The Craig School is one of only nine certified schools in Morris County. Gillen hopes that other schools will draw inspiration from The Craig School’s success and empower their students to make a difference for wildlife in their school vicinity and backyards.
Mr. Furlong shared his observation, stating, “It never ceases to amaze me the amount of wildlife our students experience firsthand right outside our classrooms here in Mountain Lakes. We are firm believers in the mission of the National Wildlife Federation and are proud to be part of this important initiative.”