If I told you there was a magic potion that would boost your kids’ self-esteem, concentration levels, physical health, cognitive development and resilience to stress, you’d be desperate to get that potion down their necks, wouldn’t you?
Turns out, there is such a thing. Only it’s not a magic potion but gardening!
Recognising its value, schools all over the UK are kick-starting gardening projects to teach children how to propagate plants, support wildlife, grow their own food and compost waste.
They are using gardening activities to support learning in core subjects and transform them into fun, interactive classes in which children learn through active engagement with nature.
Every year, my Cultivation Street competition seeks to reward school gardening projects that are having the biggest impact on the children of our nation.
This year, the three winners and four runners up will be sharing a total of £5200 and 700 Calliope® geraniums between them. Their stories are truly inspiring.
1st place: Hammersmith Academy, London
Starting off with a single greenhouse and a handful of raised beds in September 2015, the team at Hammersmith Academy have now changed the face of their garden and increased student engagement from 30 to over 500 students per year. The garden features an orchard planted by the children, large growing areas for homegrown produce and pollinator-friendly flowers, and has its own brood of chickens that are looked after by the students.
Recycled materials have been turned into spectacular planters, while bug hotels and container ponds attract local wildlife. Patrick Kirwan, who heads up the project, said: “Our students run our school garden—this is their project. The garden is a conduit for teaching students about nature, promoting mental health and fostering community.”
JUDGES’ VERDICT: Hammersmith Academy are a multi-cultural secondary school who have completely transformed a neglected area into a productive garden in a very short space of time. Everything in the garden is tended by the pupils, many of whom are from deprived backgrounds and would be unable to garden at home. We loved how much the school have managed to engage older students and give them ownership over the garden.
On learning that they had won a prize of £2500 and 100 Calliope® geraniums, teacher Harriet Silcocks, said: “We are absolutely delighted here at Hammersmith Academy. Winning means that we’ll be able to extend the garden, start more projects and get more students involved, boosting their mental health and well-being. I’m absolutely thrilled!”
2nd place: Damers First School, Dorchester
Another one for a giant transformation, Damers First School have created a thriving garden in a single year. The result of a huge cross-section of locals pulling together, the garden now features a recycled plastic bottle greenhouse, hand-built food waste composter and large allotment for growing produce that is in Food Technology classes.
Their wild flower meadow, bird boxes, bug hotels and bird hide were all made by the children to support wildlife. They have an on-site shepherd’s hut with running water and a working cooker where children can cook food straight from the bush.
Edd Moore, a teacher at the school, said: “The whole school and a bank of volunteers have worked so hard to ensure that every child gets an opportunity to get outside and learn in our garden. Many children have taken what they have learned home and started growing vegetables together with their parents. The school garden is having an amazing impact beyond the school, affecting the wider lives of all the children in our care.”
JUDGES’ VERDICT: The immense transformation is nothing short of incredible. We loved that the children get out gardening in all weathers and get the benefits year-round. The school also composts all its food waste, so the garden is very eco-friendly. Prize: £1,500 and 100 Calliope® geraniums.
3rd place: Green Lane Primary School & Nursery, London
Created by staff, students, parents and local construction workers working together, this beautiful garden features a wildlife pond, an allotment for growing produce, polytunnels for saving money by growing plants from seed, a chicken coup and a woodland area for use in forest school sessions. The garden is used creatively to support work in core subjects and children at the school are eating a greater range of vegetables because they’ve been involved in the growing process.
Teacher, Alison Reed, said: “We have plans to enhance the area to enable more children to benefit from it. Our prize money will enable us to turn the designs we have drawn up into a reality
JUDGES’ VERDICT: We were delighted to see a school garden whose reach extends outside of school hours. Open during the 6 week summer holidays, we thought this showed real dedication and commitment to the pupils at the school. Prize: £1,000 and 100 Calliope® geraniums.
The four runners up, who will each be receiving £500 and 100 Calliope® geraniums in recognition of their marvellous gardens, are: Goldthorpe Primary School, Rotherham, Yorkshire, whose practice of offering a free snack of garden-grown produce to children at break time wowed the judges; The Clare School, Norwich, Norfolk, who went out of their way to provide specialist equipment to make sure disabled students could get gardening; Northgate High School, Dereham, Norfolk, whose unique garden devoted to raising awareness of dementia really stood out; Chaucer Junior School, Ilkeston, Derbyshire, whose moveable pot plants make the garden design flexible.
Next week, I’ll be announcing the overall winner from our community gardens regional winners categories, who get to call themselves the Cultivation Street Community Garden of the Year.
Top 10 tips from the winners on starting and running a school garden
1. Start small and grow with your garden. A few pots or small plot is all you need to get started and will ensure you’re not overwhelmed.
2. Give the kids ownership. Let them make decisions about garden design and planting schemes and task them with maintaining their own patch.
3. Ask the locals for donations of spare tools, pots, plants and compost to support your garden for free.
4. Make your own compost out of all the food waste from the school kitchen. It’s free, eco-friendly and marvellous for the plants!
5. Ask parents, community members and local businesses for help by having a weekend gardening morning or hosting a community volunteering day. You’ll be surprised how many people will enjoy coming and how much impact this will have on the garden.
6. Use the garden to support core learning—have kids work out what percentage of seeds germinated as hand-on maths or get them to track the lifecycles of frogs in the pond for science.
7. Designate a passionate individual to be the driving force behind the garden to engage staff and children and ensure it keeps moving ahead.
8. Choose plants for maximum impact. Grow tactile plants, like furry lamb’s ear, tasty ones like chocolate mint and strawberries, and easy, heavy-fruiting ones, like courgettes and raspberries, to get children enthusiastic about gardening.
9. Take photos of your journey! Kids can look back on pictures from last year and see what a difference they’ve made.
10. Join structured programmes aimed at supporting school gardening projects, such as Cultivation Street. The practical advice and funding will help grow your garden and support you on your journey.
I’ve heard you can get Amaryllis bulbs to flower in time for Christmas. How?
Amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs are the easiest to get to flower in time for Christmas. Plant them at the end of September/early October in a pot just big enough to contain their roots and use bulb compost for extra drainage. Leave the top third of the bulb uncovered and water thoroughly. Then, mimic an early winter by putting them in a dark place for about two weeks. When a shoot emerges, create an artificial spring by bringing into a bright, warm place. It should flower six to eight weeks later.
I want to make my own terrarium. Which plants should I choose?
Mind your own business (Soleirolia soleirolii), Mother-in-law’s tongue (Sansevieria trifasciata), Spiderwort (Tradescanita) and Widow’s thrill (Kalanchoe) are unfussy plants that are perfect for planting together in tropical-looking terrariums.
They love bright, indirect light and well-drained soil. Careful not to over-water as terrariums don’t have drainage holes and none of these plants enjoy having soggy roots!