Harvey McGavin describes how schools are taking advantage of the growing popularity of vegetables
The only place you used to find vegetables in a school was the kitchen.
Tinned, frozen and occasionally fresh, they were prepared and cooked behind closed doors. When a portion of veg was served on a plate, it was hard to find a child who could tell you where it had come from or what it had looked like when it was in the ground.
Now vegetables are cropping up all over the place, in corners of playgrounds and dedicated patches, as more and more schools are beginning to realise the physical, nutritional and educational benefits of growing and eating their own.
In the past 12 months, the Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), the organisation that promotes organic gardening, farming and food, has seen membership of its Organic Gardens for Schools club shoot up from 350 to about 825. At the HDRA's headquarters in Ryton in Warwickshire, there is even a permanent exhibition area now devoted to all things leguminous. The Vegetable Kingdom takes a fresh approach to the fascinating world of edible plants, looking at the history, geography and economics of everything from artichokes to zucchini in a range of fun and informative exhibits.
Maggi Brown of the HDRA says: "The idea of the Vegetable Kingdom was to say to people that actually, vegetables are interesting and easy to grow as well as being important to our health and well being."
The exhibition - and the wealth of accompanying material the HDRA produces for teachers - should whet the appetite of any teachers looking for outdoor additions to the curriculum. Even teachers who are novice gardeners should be able to get growing.
"You don't need huge plots of land. If you are a school even a little strip of land can produce an amazing array of crops quite easily," Maggi says.
She knows of schools that have not looked back since turning their ornamental rose beds into vegetable patches. And neglected wildlife gardens can be converted into kitchen gardens and still attract just as many minibeasts, she says. The advantage of a vegetable garden is that it provides (almost) all-year-round activity, whether preparing the ground, planting, tending or harvesting.
"The first thing to do is grow potatoes," Maggi advises. Once planted they need very little in the way of attention, apart from earthing up, and a couple of tubers can produce enough spuds for a whole class to enjoy. Even schools without much space can join in - potatoes will grow happily in a large pot, a dustbin, or even a couple of old tyres stacked up and filled with compost.
It might not be too late to find a few seed potatoes left in the shops (although ideally they should have gone in around Easter). "For children, the experience of digging them up, cooking them and eating them is quite miraculous," says Maggi.
Whatever you want to grow, you need to think before you plant. Runner beans and tomatoes, for example, are easy to grow and most children like to eat them, but because they tend to crop during the summer holidays they are not always a good choice. Maggi suggests radishes and peas (fast croppers that don't take up much room) and lettuce (colourful and unusual varieties for added interest), while carrots should provide some fun-sized specimens by the end of term. Strawberries are compact, easily maintained and liked by nearly all children. Perennial favourites, such as pumpkins and squash, if planted now (and watered during dry spells in the holidays) will give children a surprise when they come back to school in the autumn.
While gardening is good exercise, and the produce is good to eat, nearly all vegetables can be used in aspects of the curriculum. The mathematical possibilities of pumpkins are endless - their weight, measurement and growth can be plotted on graphs, and for younger pupils, there are lots of leaves and fruits for counting games. The HDRA produces a wide range of leaflets on the practical and educational aspects of vegetable growing.
Growing vegetables is one of the easiest skills in the garden to learn, for teachers and pupils alike, but for those who are unsure about growing from seed or who simply want a head start, Maggi recommends buying young plants from garden centres. The end result will have children coming back for more, she says.
"If you are growing food at school you know it tastes nice, it's not some foreign object on your plate. Kids like vegetables, it's just that some of them have got out of the habit."
Projects such as the HDRA's schools network seem to have tapped into a demand from schools for practical, edible gardening. When Learning Through Landscapes (LTL) advertised for London schools that wanted to be involved in the Growing Clubs, a joint venture between the Department of Health and the DfES that started this term, they were astonished by the response - within a week 150 schools had applied for the 15 places available.
"There's a really massive interest and enthusiasm out there," says Zoe Elford, project manager at LTL, which is running the project with the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens. "There's a real therapeutic value to gardening, particularly for children who don't have that access to nature and natural processes. There's a need there and gardening projects like this provide that," she says.
* Details of the HDRA Organic Gardens for Schools Club from Maggi Brown, HDRA Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry CV8 3LG Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Children's Organic Adventure Garden will be on display at the Chelsea Flower Show from May 25-28. Following Chelsea, HDRA will open a permanent children's garden at its Ryton site.
* The Schools Membership Scheme of the Royal Horticultural Society offers advice on school gardening in addition to a termly newsletter and support materials. www.rhs.org.ukeducation
* The DfES has launched the Growing Schools website at www.teachernet.gov.ukgrowingschools
* Learning Through Landscapes www.ltl.orgukprogrammes