Growing diversity in school gardens

The narrow bed that runs along the verandah at school has a diverse amount of planting.

The narrow bed that runs along the verandah at school has a diverse amount of planting.

Since the February 2011 earthquakes I've been helping to look after my son's school grounds as they wait, on temporary grounds, to go back in to the city centre.  When we first arrived at the site we planted lots of donated natives to the borders and beds just so there were some plants in the empty paddock.  As the years have gone on we've added lots more edibles, plants to attract beneficial insects and plants with interesting textures and smells.  

The children are welcome to pick, eat and play with whatever the plants produce.  Without the need for much direct instruction they seem to know that the ones like the gorgeous Dahlias, which only produce a few blooms once a year, or the daffodils and tulips that only sprout up in spring should be left for others to enjoy whilst the ones like the calendula, dianthus and poppies which have self-seeded all over the grounds can be picked and used freely.

Over the past few years I've attended the Edible Schools workshops organised by the Christchurch Food Resiliency network and Healthy Families and have found it inspiring to hear what other schools are doing - many have introduced programmes like Garden to Table into their school days.

As well as having a set vegetable garden area in schools, which are often out of bounds unless children are accompanied by an adult, I think there is also room to introduce more edibles and plants of interest into all areas of schools and preschools and encourage children to interact with them.

Up until a couple of years ago we had a long bed along the veranda at school that just grew a few small flaxes.  We've slowly added more edibles and flowers and now have a large variety which attracts interest from insects and children.

In this narrow bed (approximately 40cm wide x 15 metres long) we have (at different times of the year) all the below and more:

  • Tulips
  • Strawberries
  • Fennel
  • Calendula
  • Anise Hyssop
  • Miner's lettuce
  • A grape vine
  • Dahlias
  • Chives
  • Garlic
  • Mint
  • Pineapple sage
  • Dianthus
  • Ranunculus
  • Iceland poppies
  • Allysum
  • Marguerite Daisy 
  • A climbing rose
  • Artichoke
  • Dyers Chamomile
  • Thornless Blackberry
  • Sunflowers
  • Tomatoes 
  • Pumpkin
  • Lettuces

Many of these plants haven't been purchased - they've been cuttings or divisions brought from other places, transplanted from different places in the school garden or donated by other families at school.  These types of beds don't have to be expensive to make and they don't have to be done all at once.  Just keep slowly adding more diversity and let things self-seed.  The tomatoes we grew this past year were amazing but I didn't plant them - hey must have come in with the compost we put on late last year - but we let them grow instead of fastidiously weeding the beds.




Just by walking along the verandah the children are learning about the plants - I had one student whisper to me, "Do you know this plant (Pineapple sage) has honey in its flowers that you can suck out? He took great delight in showing me how to pull the flower off and suck the nectar from the base of it.  His eyes were sparkling with the knowledge and his ability to share it.

I showed one girl how the Miner's lettuce was edible and watched as she called over passing children to share the knowledge.  Of course I always remind the students that they shouldn't eat any plant unless they know they are edible and I make sure there are no toxic ones growing at school.  When I'm gardening at school I often have students come up to check with me what a plant is and if it's ok to eat.  They all seem to know, from years of being told, not to eat things that are growing unless they know what it is but it's nice to empower them to see that food is all around us and doesn't just have to be purchased.

I would love to see more schools move beyond landscaping with just easy-care borders and introduce plants that will encourage interest, biodiversity and a little nibbling from the students.

Pineapple Sage - the children love discovering the gorgeous smell of the leaves and the sweet nectar in the flowers.

Pineapple Sage - the children love discovering the gorgeous smell of the leaves and the sweet nectar in the flowers.