UPPER WEST SIDE — Forty first-graders clambered in the dirt Friday morning, planting so many begonias, marigolds and petunias that there was hardly room to move in the small yard in front of Goddard Riverside's Bernie Wohl Center.
The gardening was part of the Mandell School's first annual Eco Day, in which students work on community beautification projects across the neighborhood.
Max Gerber, 7, was intent on putting in as many flowers as time would allow.
"I like digging and putting in flowers," he said, estimating that he'd already planted five flowers, helped by his dad, Adam Gerber, who along with about 20 other parents joined in the effort.
"I think it's wonderful that the kids are out helping the neighborhood look good and it's always great to help clean up," Adam Gerber said.
The 74-year-old private school has had a relationship with nonprofit service organization Goddard Riverside for years, said parent Alison Devore, 41, chair of community outreach at the school.
"Our goal is to enable families...to learn through hands-on experience," Devore said.
The students got some help at the site on Columbus Avenue and West 91st Street from Goddard's Greenkeepers, a group of formerly homeless people who are now enlisted in part-time gardening and beautification work throughout the neighborhood, contracted by the Broadway Malls Association, the Columbus Avenue BID and the Lincoln Square BID, among others.
Leslie Ware, 59, is the leader of the Greenkeepers team. He said he often recruits homeless people he sees in the neighborhood to join his crew, handing them his card and encouraging them to get in touch.
For Ware, improving the lot in front of the Bernie Wohl Center, which was previously vacant except for a few shrubs, "is like being in heaven."
And teaching kids to garden is icing on the cake.
"This is my utopia," Ware said.
Some Greenkeepers, like Ashley Smith, 33, stay for years, while others leave more quickly, with a new set of skills.
"I joined because I was out of work and I thought it was a perfect way to get some work and join the community," he said. "People give us compliments every time we're out. I get peace out of it."
Ware predicted that the new garden would thrive.
"It's the ideal spot," he said. "It's shady in the morning and gets full sun in the afternoon."