Let’s get all schools gardening

Last week the Royal Horticultural Society warned that the country is facing a green skills crisis unless more people learn to garden.

As reported in last Sunday’s Observer the society’s director general, Sue Biggs, says that generations of children are growing up disconnected from nature because they are not being taught about gardening at school. “In a few years’ time, we won’t have enough gardeners to keep the 22 million gardens in this country going, and that will only make environmental issues worse,” she said.

Now this is a subject close to my heart. Two years ago, myself and two other school mum friends set up a school garden at our children’s school in St Albans. We turned an area of neglected wasteland on the school grounds into a thriving edible and wildlife garden.  Come wind or shine we’re out there with the infants every Wednesday, planting seeds and bulbs, making bird feeders, identifying bugs or harvesting the fruits of our labour. The kids love it.

We all know that teachers are already under enormous pressure and setting up and running a school garden will no doubt be towards the bottom of the priority list for many.  So I was surprised to see that at no point in the article were parents and the wider community positioned as a potential solution to the problem.

The only way we’re going to get children to care about nature and the environment is to get them closer to it. I strongly believe EVERY school should have an allotment and wildlife garden.  My children’s school isn’t privileged. We have no budget for this. We beg garden centres for plants and seeds; the council gives us free compost from the green bin collections; we organise plant sales, we raid skips for wooden pallets and we run “lend a hand” days where parents turn up with pitch forks and drills and get stuck in. It’s a real community effort that could quite easily be replicated across the country.

Of course I’m very lucky that Barley’s flexible working model means that Wednesday afternoons is my school gardening time and I appreciate that many parents work full-time. However, perhaps now is the time for employers to allow and encourage staff to pursue such activities that ultimately benefit the environment and our children’s future.

Our gardening sessions are a gateway to engaging with the children on a range of environmental topics – litter, composting, recycling, food waste, saving water, protecting bees. Collecting apple cores and banana skins for the compost bins after morning snack is now a sought-after role at the school!

I’ve participated in assemblies to talk about environmental issues, arranged for our local Wildlife Trust to come in to school and recently wrote a two-week series of daily tips emailed out to parents on topics such as food waste, saving water and eating less meat. I’m seeing direct results of this engagement at the school gates…

“Bella won’t let me wash her onesie because of the microfibre shedding” laughs one mum.  “Katy is writing to the makers of LOL dolls about their ridiculous packaging” says another.   “We’ve just made a raised bed in the garden as the kids are desperate to grow their own veg.”

My heart sings with every comment.

We now have to work on the parents. Whilst the single-use plastics movement continues to engage consumers, gardening-related behaviours such as buying peat-based compost, astroturfing gardens, using weed killer and pesticides and paving over driveways are also having devastating effects on the environment. From what I can see, these issues are barely on the radar of even the most well-meaning people in my local community. Retailers and manufacturers in the gardening sector need to make some radical changes and like we’ve seen with the plastics movement, there must be pressure from the bottom up.

I’d like to see the whole gardening industry – from garden centres and manufacturers to landscape gardeners and carpenters to collaborate, support and fund more school gardens by providing grants, materials and expertise.  Let’s get more parents involved in school gardening. Let’s also utilise and embrace the knowledge and skills of the retired members of our society. Let’s inspire the next generation so that the RHS are inundated with applicants and we can help meet the pressing environmental and biodiversity challenges ahead.

By Laura Harrison, Associate at Barley Communications