Today’s post is by actively-retired teacher, Mick Haining. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily endorsed by the Association.

Unlike a school, a garden has a timetable that doesn’t use a clock. It hurries or delays events until the occasion is as right as it can be for something to germinate, flower, fruit or fall. What really matters is a combination of light, temperature, moisture, nutrition and the other life forms present nearby. There’s jostling for light and nutrients, bullying by bigger plants and victimisation by things that fly, slither and scamper. But nobody gets told off and you can’t really give detention to an aphid. You learn without coercion in a garden and it has a kind of peace that teachers on bus duty would gladly embrace. 

There’s a lesson for us right there – our own natures may flourish better when not governed by a clock. We, too, are products of nature and thus gardens and gardening show us how to be natural. 

Nature is patient and gardening requires us to develop a matching patience otherwise we will be doomed to disappointment. A good gardener has to be both proactive and humble, too – the garden teaches us that we can have an impact on the world but that there are forces in play much greater than ourselves. A garden brings us face to face with not imagined but real life and death.

Gardening requires us to develop nurturing skills – you cannot nurture a verb, a quadratic equation, an historical date, a geographical location. But our plants can become almost like our children – they can need daily monitoring and they sometimes need handling with care… but they don’t have tantrums. Gardening is thus an exercise in responsibility for something other than ourselves, a quality clearly needed when considering the state of the planet. Gardening teaches us that when and where you plant counts – it can literally be a matter of life and death for whatever you are trying to grow.

Sometimes, too, formal education can blind us to an important reality, the reality of change. There are one hundred centimetres in a metre and that will always be so. Life, however, is constant change and gardens are alive with subtle shifts of size, colour, shape, sound and texture that can’t do anything other than represent life at close quarters and in sometimes astonishing detail. The more we can accept life as a process, the easier it should become to accept, not fear, change and gardening ties us entirely and benignly into process.  

Formal education doesn’t seem particularly good at encouraging the kind of adaptability that helps us manage change or at least it didn’t use to. Gardens, however, accustom us to surprises – what we plant does not always grow exactly as we intended and what grows there is not always what we have planted! A tree I once planted on the assurance that it would reach only a few metres is now taller than the house!

While it is often useful to separate subjects, as schools often do, a garden crucially teaches us about the interconnectivity of all that is alive. In it, you are surrounded by the immediacy of so many other forces at play, an internet of interacting signals to and from everything that lives there and beyond. Conventional school subjects are well represented in a garden. Science may predominate but Maths, language, design, geography, history and P.E. all have a place – the difference is that they can all be simultaneously in play in a way that mimics life more readily than in the more compartmentalised organisation of secondary schools in particular. 

You don’t get praised by a garden for ‘success’ and it doesn’t blame or punish you for ‘failing’. You have to find motivation and self-discipline from within you, a far healthier development than sometimes formal education permits. A garden imposes no stresses and remains calm – it doesn’t set out to teach and the example it sets is involuntary, thus the responsibility is on the gardener to watch and learn.  

A garden always tells the truth, is always apolitical and always resists extinction. Let us all be gardeners.


Mick Haining has taught French, maths and (mostly) drama in schools in England, and is now actively retired.  He can be contacted at:

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