Sea change

Michael Leapman

Portobello is a once-thriving seaside resort some three miles from the heart of Edinburgh, and is proud of its status as a separate community. But it has long been engulfed by the urban sprawl of the Scottish capital. The 1,456-pupil school is a harsh, featureless, nine-storey high-rise standing a few hundred yards from the main east coast railway.

The grounds appear drab and neglected. A wildlife garden had become so unkempt and litter-strewn that it was razed two years ago, just before an official inspection. When Mike Farrell arrived at Portobello as head of geography in 1997, he identified the need for a new culture of environmental awareness and enthusiasm.

One of his first moves was to gain permission to introduce environmental studies as one of the discretionary courses, not directly linked with the curriculum, that are offered to students for an hour every week. He decided that gardening would provide a suitable focus for the course.

There had been previous attempts to introduce horticulture into the school, and a big asset that Mr Farrell inherited was a greenhouse in a well on the eighth floor. He began to introduce his environmental group to raising seed, and early last summer had another stroke of luck when the local allotment association offered him a plot less than a mile from the school.

They set about clearing and digging it, creating raised beds and covering part with an old carpet to dissuade the mares'-tail and other weeds from returning. In the first year, they managed to raise late crops of potatoes and lettuces. This year, they began sowing a much wider of range of seeds in the greenhouse - and that is when disaster struck. In a gale, the greenhouse door blew off and for safety reasons the whole structure was declared out of bounds. With the students unable to gain access at this critical time, all the seedlings died.

The sparseness of crops is due mainly to the greenhouse mishap as well as to an unusually dry early summer. All the same, the enthusiasts have planted three varieties of potato, plus quick-growing vegetables such as pumpkins, radishes, beetroot and lettuce. And they have nurtured the raspberry canes that were already there when they took over.

Everything is grown organically, and Mr Farrell gets valuable help from the Henry Doubleday Research Association, the champion of organic gardening based at Ryton, near Coventry.

The Henry Doubleday Organic Network for Schools includes primary and secondary schools and outdoor education centres among its members. Details from Bridgette Barrett, Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry CV8 3LG. Tel: 024 7630 8238. Website: .
HDRA's organic gardens at Ryton near Coventry, Yalding in Kent and Audley End in Essex are open to members free. Details on

A longer version of this feature appears in this week's TES

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Michael Leapman

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