School gardening

Last week I ventured into new territory – literal and metaphorical.  I became a volunteer with the school gardening club at the local primary school.   I’d never been to their garden – the literal new territory for me.  It wasn’t quite what I imagined. It’s in the embryonic stages, currently comprising a ring of double stacked tyres and one oblong wooden planter, none with any soil, well rotted organic matter, plants, weeds, or anything else in them.  There is a garden bench, that the children proudly showed me.

It is a bit of a way from being a garden, but we’ll see what it becomes in the course of the weeks to July, when the school breaks up for the summer holidays. The new metaphorical territory is working with a school garden.  I’ve never done that before.  It was unnerving to be introduced to the 12 or so children as a gardening ‘expert’ .  Imposter syndrome felt close by.

What we did that first 45 minutes was start to randomly fill the tyres with soil, from a huge builder’s bag of it on the other side of a football pitch.  Each child had a small bucket and spade.  I felt this exercise would take the whole term – when would we get to garden?   I went home and had a think!

Step one was to search for info on school gardening.  There’s lots out there.  Food Growing Schools, London has brilliant resources and information.   Its aim is to ‘bring together the very best of London’s food growing expertise, information and support, with the ambition to inspire and equip every school in London to grow their own food’. I loved the idea of growing our own picnic, with full instructions in a downloadable pdf.  Though, sadly, when I tried,  it wasn’t downloadable, and I’ve asked the organisation to send it to me. 

Following the links to their partner organisations: Garden Organic, Capital Growth, the Soil Association’s Food For Life project, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Campaign for School Gardening, School Food Matters and Trees for Cities, yielded so much info I didn’t know where to start.  So I started by subscribing to their email newsletters.  (Is this a good idea, I wonder?)

Step two was to try and organise the info into something usable, just random picking (as the grow your own picnic) and newsletter subscriptions didn’t seem the way to go.   I searched again – this time under school gardening term calendar.  I got a great result (from the RHS campaign) a year planner by term.  This gives me week by week activities.  So this week we’ll divide into four groups and chit potatoes, sow peas in pots, and sow carrots and radishes in seed trays.  Yes, those are four weeks of activities, but if we do all those four this week, then we’ll be in sync with the calendar.

Step three is to get everything I need for the activities and take them in with me. I think a trip to the garden centre tomorrow  morning is on the cards as although I have some of the stuff I need, I don’t have all e.g. seed potatoes. 

Step four is to make what I am doing mesh with the permaculture assignment that I must get done in the next couple of weeks to satisfy the course requirements for award of a certificate.  I did ask the instructor last week if a school gardening project would be suitable. Answer, yes.  Just to recap, permaculture is ‘an ecological design process – we are learning from nature. Design methods are used in conjunction with permaculture principles to create an overall pattern or plan of action.’  It is based in three ethical principles – earth care, fair shares, people care – without these, a project or system cannot be called permaculture.

So is permaculture school gardening different from other school gardening?  Yes, there are many considerations that we’ve covered in our programme, and these I’ll have to include in the assignment.  I can’t just submit the RHS term calendar.  I’ve just found a perfect template for my assignment in Designing a School Garden that Emphasises Permaculture Principles.   It’s very detailed and too heavy duty for the tiny tyre garden I am working with, but it provides a structure I can adapt to suit my school’s garden. 

Petworth Community Garden has a garden education coordinator who has  created permaculture designs for Petworth Primary Eco garden.  They say ‘She now runs a weekly gardening club there, and it is used by all classes for learning across the curriculum.’  Again a bit out of my league at the moment, but reassuringly, further down the page they say,  ‘Any area in a school can be transformed just by the addition of tubs or raised beds, even window boxes, and children love to grow food and flowers and be engaged in wildlife and eco activities.

Each design will be unique to the school, its available area and needs; however the theme running through most is likely to be low maintenance, as staff are often extremely busy and stretched for time. It is better to start small and be able to manage the area well and safely, than become overwhelmed.’  Good – I definitely don’t want to be over-ambitious or overwhelmed.

This Petworth site has also answered my question – what about the school holidays?  They say, ‘The other major consideration is the term time schedule. School gardens are likely to be left from the end of July until September, when many fruit and vegetables are ready to pick. The trick here is to choose your crops and varieties carefully. It is also a great idea to have a rota of parents and pupils to keep an eye on the garden through holiday times, and many permaculture design and organic gardening techniques such as good mulching, can greatly help reduce weeding and watering needs.’ 

This info gives me some more to go on. Now I can look at the RHS school garden year calendar and through the lens of permaculture methods develop the assignment, and start to apply permaculture principles into the school garden that I’m working with.  

It also gives me ideas on how to plan for the coming school year(s) – choice of crops and planting times are important, and so are other considerations.  In my mind I’ve focused on crops, but we could also be looking at a wildlife/insect area ‘however small, planted with native wildflowers or insect attractant shrubs and plants such as butterfly bush (Buddleja), honeysuckle, wild rose species etc.’  or a pond.  We also need to recognise health and safety aspects of school gardening. On this Petworth has a useful list of ‘Rules of the Tools’. 

Step five, now, with all this information in mind, my task is to apply it to the school garden and to the assignment.

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