Gardening scheme puts food awareness on firmer ground

16th October 2009 at 01:00
Horticultural campaign is fast growing in popularity among young sowers and reapers

Alan Titchmarsh recently said that children should be taught gardening as one of the "basic skills of life", commenting that many children do not know where a potato comes from. With children believing that tomatoes come from Tesco's, the link between food and its source is all but lost on many.

This has certainly been the experience of the Royal Horticultural Society in its Campaign for School Gardening, which has been running since 2007.

The campaign is a nationwide scheme designed to encourage schools to create gardens, teach the skills of growing plants and gardening, and in turn enable their pupils to learn outside the classroom. It aims to support schools in the development and use of their school garden, providing them with resources and a selection of continuing professional development days, as well as a benchmark scheme.

Bothkennar Primary School, near Falkirk, signed up to the campaign in May 2008. Since then, the children have planted strawberries, parsley, tomatoes, green beans, cabbage, salad leaves and potatoes, and salad pots will soon to be sold at the school tuck shop.

"The newsletters from the Royal Horticultural Society have been a lifeline," said headteacher Morna McFadyen. "They have been making us aware of what is going on and keeping us up to date with initiatives in other schools."

Karen Mitchell, Bothkennar's eco-schools co-ordinator, said: "We take the children right through every process, up to cooking and eating the food. With only 28 children in the school, we have been able to include all of them, and the older children pair up with the younger ones.

"The day we harvest the crop, the excitement is electrifying. They treat the picking of the potatoes like a lucky dip, searching through the soil. Now they keep asking if it is time to put the potatoes in the ground again."

The strawberries from the garden sold out in a day, and some children have even been persuaded to try potatoes with parsley.

"Often, at first, the children are reluctant to try new things but, because they have been actively involved in the growing, and from observing their peers, they will often give things a go," Ms Mitchell said. "Many commented that the vegetables tasted better than the ones they get at home. This could be because they are organically grown or because it is all their own effort."

Some have also started planting at home. "Children have asked us for bulbs and this has encouraged links with home," she said. "Parents have donated gardening equipment, and even some grandparents have offered to help.

"We also have professionals to turn to for advice. The manager of the local wildlife centre came along to speak to the children, and the ranger at the local nature reserve."

The focus of the whole project has been on promoting health in the school, but it has also introduced the children to an almost forgotten world.

"Children think of food coming from supermarkets and don't think about how it gets there," said Ms Mitchell. "Some don't make the connection between potatoes and the chips they eat."

The gardening has proved to be an excellent cross-curricular resource, taking in maths, geography, literacy, even physical education.

"Before we planted the potatoes, we weighed the seed potatoes and did a comparison with the weight of the potatoes they grew into," said Ms Mitchell. "We looked at different varieties of potatoes and compiled menus."

As well as incorporating maths, the vegetable garden was used as part of an environment project. The older ones used the internet to research the type of plants found in the rainforest.

"We found it to be a basis for lots of different areas of the curriculum. We wrote letters to local garden centres asking for help and advice, improving the children's functional writing," said Ms Mitchell. "When we grew mushrooms, we used them in an art project."

Mrs McFadyen is also convinced of the benefits. "Gardening has been a great tool for taking A Curriculum for Excellence all through the school, encompassing the four capacities in an engaging way," she said.

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