Martin Whittaker meets a group of Somerset children who have become keen gardeners at a 16th century manor house
Persuading children to eat their greens may well be one of the great challenges of parenthood, but pupils at one primary school are not only happily eating them - they're also growing them.
Every fortnight Year 3 and 4 children from St Mary and St Peter's First School in the heart of Somerset walk to nearby Barrington Court, a Tudor manor house set in acres of gardens. There, in the walled kitchen garden, armed with child-sized hoes and spades, they tend their own plot with help from the estate's gardeners.
Last year the children grew a range of vegetables, including lettuce, carrots, squash, beetroot, marrow, beans and potatoes. In the autumn they gathered the harvest and cooked a meal in the kitchens of Barrington Court house with the ingredients they had nurtured.
"We did the whole process of growing the vegetables, weeding and keeping the plot tidy," says their teacher Alison Tulloch. "They see the whole cycle and they realise the work that goes into it. Then we harvested the vegetables and spent a morning in the kitchen helping to cook vegetable soup.
"While it was cooking we came back out into the gardens to do some sketching. And later they made a crumble with the apples they had picked.
They have tried so many different foods they wouldn't normally eat. Also, they're out in the fresh air and they're working together. It's good for them in so many ways."
Christine Brain, the estate's head gardener, agrees: "They can see a project right through from a seed to the gathering, which is excellent.
It's probably something we all did as kids, perhaps helping your dad in the garden. But nowadays children don't always get the chance."
The children can decide what they would like to grow and they begin planting in pots in April. The kitchen garden is organic and this year the emphasis is on encouraging beneficial wildlife, such as birds, bees, lacewings, butterflies, frogs and toads.
On the day I visited, gardener Peter Belben was gathering the pupils around the potting sheds and talking to them about how to attract "friendly" insects as alternatives to pesticides. He wants to broaden the range of what they grow, perhaps including tomatoes or strawberries raised in bell jars. The children are already trying to grow oyster mushrooms: Peter has drilled holes into logs and the children hammer in pegs containing spores that came in a mushroom growing kit. Peter helps the children to build a compost bin. He also helps them to assemble wooden houses for frogs and hedgehogs, which eat slugs and snails.
The gardening project has strong links to citizenship. One connection is the way children become involved with the community; another is the emphasis on sustainable development. Gardening also gives children a chance to work co-operatively and a sense of responsibility: after a hard hour's digging, for example, they have to clean off their muddy tools. But other links with the classroom go across the curriculum. For science they see life cycles of plants, and observe wildlife and its links to plant growth.
The children have measured and compared the height of the sunflowers they grew around the garden's tall Ham stone walls last summer, and they drew plans of their plot. They have written reports of their cooking day in the kitchens of Barrington Court and used a digital camera to record the event.
They have grown pumpkins for Halloween, picked redcurrants for the estate restaurant and even made a scarecrow.
St Mary and St Peter's head Pat Ferguson started the gardening project four years ago, in partnership with the National Trust. She says: "There are good links with lots of areas in numeracy, literacy and science. But also I felt it was a good thing to do because children enjoy gardening, and this was an activity that we could offer that perhaps they didn't do at home."
Barrington Court. Barrington, Near Ilminster, Somerset TA19 0NQ. Tel 01460 241938. Opening times: Garden is open from April 1 to September 30, 11.00am to 5:30pm every day except Wednesdays. Contact the visitor services manager on 01460 241938.
* Developing good relationships and working co-operatively
* Finding out where food comes from
* Recycling and environment Skills
* Sharing responsibility
* Making real choices
* Identifying beneficial wildlife