How did it go?
The Head wanted the entire school involved, so I did one hour with each class over two days in March. I planned to take more full lessons but the school schedule would not allow that (they had an OFSTED inspection that term too – but I think the veggie project helped!)
So not all the details in the plan actually happened, and the Head did not want to do the Stone Soup play or let me make the vegetable soup at the end of term. Some of the children told me they had not tasted any of the vegetables because they had been sold for school funds. This was a shame, I felt; one of the main aims should have been to get kids trying new vegetables – I know growing their own got my kids to try new tastes they would never do otherwise. But the talk at the beginning with the basket full of vegetables, and the songs while planting out the seeds were the most successful parts for me and the children.
Problems I have experienced with school gardens
Very often the main problem with a school garden is not the funding, preparation work or the planting, but the maintenance afterwards. Bear in mind that there will often be no-one there to water, harvest or see the plants from the end of July until the beginning of September (in the UK). This should dictate which plants you choose as there is no point growing vegetables and flowers that the children are not going to see, also there are not many plants you would wish to grow that can cope with long periods of drought.
Long term maintenance is even more of a problem. Going back to visit some of my school gardens after a couple of years can be depressing. Either the teacher who was the main driving force has moved elsewhere, the Head did not prioritise using the garden or other teachers did not have the enthusiasm or background knowledge to help them make use of the garden.
In one crazy case, the garden was so successful that it attracted a protected species – Great Crested newt. Unfortunately, as a result the Council Biodiversity officer declared it out of bounds to the school staff and children! The teacher booked a coach trip to the nearest nature reserve (over half an hour away) to take the children pond-dipping because they were not allowed to use their own school pond! To get round this problem one of the teachers has to apply for a Great Crested Newt handling licence every year.
Gardens can get badly overgrown in one season if no-one looks after them. Often the contractors employed to prepare the ground for a new garden had just strimmed back brambles at the edge of a playing field – I could see new bramble and nettle shoots sprouting up as we planted our new garden. Of course they easily took over again by the end of the year if no teacher or parent was vigilant. Laying down a water-permeable membrane can help to control this.
Another problem is ponds – most people who want to encourage wildlife want a pond, but in school grounds this makes staff and parents very nervous about young children accidentally drowning. So what tends to happen, if you insist on a pond, is that the school requires the whole wildlife garden be fenced off with a locked gate. No children are allowed in it without supervision. Many of the ponds that contractors had been paid to make with butyl liners had been deliberately punctured later. One school I went back to after a couple of years had even lost the key to the gate padlock – so you can guess how much use they had made of the garden – but then maybe the wildlife had been left in peace to use the habitat.
I think it would be far more useful from an educational point of view to have an unfenced wildlife garden that children can wander round, play in and observe and record creatures and plants in their lunchbreak. It doesn’t matter if they break a new pathway through the plants, as one teacher complained to me – at least the kids have been using it! And having just a boggy area (also with a butyl liner) or a small raised pond in a container, perhaps with a plastic or metal grid over the top, would make it safer.