Michael Holland, Head of Education at London’s Chelsea Physic Garden writes about his work with schools and young people.

When working with visiting school groups, one of the first questions I ask of them is “Did anyone eat any plants for breakfast?” Often, the response is laughter and disbelief that a grown man would ask such a silly question.  However, when I fetch the box of Weetabix with Triticum aestivum(wheat) growing out of it, or a tin of coffee powder containing Coffea arabica the penny starts to drop.  These plants and products are relevant to their lives and this is a visual way of pointing this out.  It is also useful for demonstrating the concept of biodiversity – both within and between plant families.  Other educational offshoots include nutrition; labels and their typography; multiculturalism and geography (some of the items might only be used by specific cultural groups and the countries of origin of the plants are diverse); and, of course, recycling.

The initial idea came after seeing an old Hovis bread baking tin for sale in a Chelsea antique shop several years ago and thinking that growing wheat plants in it would be both visually stunning and educationally effective.  I’ve had an interest in growing everyday kitchen plants from seed since I was about 8 years old, when my parents gave me Keith Mossman’s The Pip Book, which is a must for anyone interested in saving and germinating seeds from kitchen ‘waste’.

In March 2003, I began collecting food packaging as well as material to propagate (seeds, cuttings, rhizomes, runners and tubers) of a selection of foods and food plants.  The plan was to use the product packages (jars, boxes, bottles, wrappers and bags) as containers in which to grow those plants that make up the products’ ingredients.  It is a bit of a mouthful, but two simple examples include a potato plant growing in a bag of potato crisps and wheat growing in a bag of bread.  This collection of plants is something that will be expanded upon in various directions as an educational resource aimed at allvisitors to the Garden.

At the 2004 Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Chelsea Flower Show, we created a small ‘shop’ with shelves showing 90 different ‘living’ products, including a top shelf booze selection, cleaning products and a medicine section.  Cotton was growing from the cash register, since our bank notes are woven with it.  We were awarded a Silver-Gilt medal for this display.  Other non-food products include cotton wool, pine cleaner and printing ink (soya and linseed) as well as many plant-based medicines (morphine, taxol, aspirin, hyoscine, and various essential oils).

Part of the purpose of ‘Shelf Life’ was to encourage recycling, so collect seeds from the food you eat and save relevant packaging that would otherwise be thrown away.  Fill the packaging with soil or potting compost and plant the seeds (or rhizomes) inside. When planting, remember that drainage is important, so fill the bottom of any packaging that you are using with gravel or horticultural grit.  This will provide drainage and also weight the plants and stop them from toppling over.  When deciding what to grow, remember that choosing foods and products that are relevant to the lives of the people who will be seeing them is the key to success.

We still have an ongoing Shelf Life display at the Garden and have recently commissioned an extensive set of accompanying learning resources which can be viewed on the CPG website: chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk/teaching-resources

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This article was published in NAEE’s journal, Environmental Education [Vol 117], which was distributed to members in April 2018.  To read more articles like this, you can join the Association and receive three journals a year.