Today’s post is by Rob Milne who has worked as an artist and then a gardener, mostly in walled gardens growing vegetables and fruit. He has worked with schools on gardening projects and long campaigned for food gardening to be brought into the school curriculum. Rob has a BSc in Habitat and Soil Management and is currently finishing his book: Organic Vegetable Gardening in a Changing Climate. As ever with our blogs, the views expressed are not necessarily those of the Association.
On 3 December 2018, at the UN climate change conference in Poland, Sir David Attenborough said, “If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon.” The UK Student Climate Network ‘Asks’ are commendable but, as far as I’m aware, are not specific about what climate adaptation skills they want taught in schools. I have found no mention of food growing, for example.
The world that children are growing up in will present unprecedented challenges of food security and environmental degradation. We will need to grow more food per hectare and conserve long-term soil quality. It is important, therefore, that farmers and land managers have the required knowledge of soil science, soil management, plant science, the wider environment, climate change and its consequences, and to keep up with new techniques and technology being applied to crop growing and animal husbandry. From working with children on gardening projects it seems to me that children have a natural enthusiasm for playing/working with soil and nurturing plants. Food gardening in schools can be where children’s natural enthusiasm for connecting with soil, plants and the wider environment is nurtured and encouraged. This early experience might inspire some to become farmers or crop research scientists. It would certainly be good for any future politicians to have some experience of how food is produced, and to be made aware of the importance of conserving soil quality.
The total area of private gardens in the UK is nearly four times that used for commercial vegetable growing (Davies, et al, 2009, and DEFRA, 2020). There is great potential for gardening to make a substantial contribution to food supply and also to deliver a number of other benefits, some of which are described below. As part of preparing children for their future surely it would be wise to give them the knowledge and skills to be able to make productive use of gardens, allotments and any areas of community land that might be made available for the purpose.
In recent years many schools have taken up food gardening (21,000 schools are signed up as RHS members). This is a welcome trend, but it has had to be as an extracurricular activity often with the help of or run by non teachers such as parents and grandparents. No one would advocate maths being taught by parents and grandparents or even by teachers if they had not had training in the subject. Growing vegetables and fruit is a complex activity. If school gardening is done well the potential good outcomes for health, learning and behaviour are immense. To ensure that gardening is done well it needs to be taught by teachers who have had appropriate training in the subject. This should be in university departments/schools of education, as modules in food gardening for schools. Students who take the course would then be able to establish and manage allotment-sized, or larger, school gardens. Courses could also be provided for working teachers who are already managing school gardens or wish to start one.
While working with primary schools I saw the enthusiasm and enjoyment of children engaged in growing food. I think all children should have these positive experiences, but they will only do so if they see their efforts rewarded by good yields of healthy crops in a neat and attractive garden. That will only happen if whoever is in charge has the knowledge and skills to get consistently good results. A poor quality garden will merely serve to demonstrate to children that gardening is not worth the time and effort. If gardening remains extracurricular it will always be vulnerable to other priorities; a garden can rapidly turn from a productive asset into an unproductive mess. Therefore, it is important that food gardening is set up as an academic and practical subject to GCSE and A level.
A module in food gardening, for student teachers, would be no easy option. The more knowledge students have of the physics, chemistry and biology of soil, of plant science and the life cycles of many pests and diseases, the more interesting it is and the better the results are likely to be, making the whole activity more rewarding and enjoyable. Gardening can involve all the sciences and, indeed, every subject. Feedback from teachers at the schools I worked with was that children showed more concentration and enthusiasm in class after working in the garden.
In 2011 The Children’s Food Campaign, together with eleven other organisations, started a campaign to make ‘every school a food-growing school’. The Government set up a task force to look into this. Their report, Every School a Food-Growing School was published in 2012. In the Forward, Caroline Spelman, MP, then Secretary of State at DEFRA, wrote, “Let’s work together to turn the recommendations of this report into a reality, and get more kids growing food.” Food gardening is still not a required activity in schools and certainly no nearer to becoming a proper curriculum subject.
Given current concerns about climate change and food security, childhood obesity, poor nutrition and lack of exercise, the case for introducing food gardening as a serious subject in schools seems to me to be overwhelming. The potential good outcomes of successful gardening in schools are enormous and far-reaching – they could fill a book. The following is a brief list.
Improved diet – When I was working with schools children sometimes picnicked in the garden. One does not expect a balanced diet in lunch boxes but white bread, crisps and chocolate bars predominated. I wondered about the standard of the children’s other meals. Encouragingly, all the children I worked with were always keen to take home produce from the school garden. Having worked to grow the vegetables, children wanted to eat them – cause and effect! A school garden might be a better context than the classroom in which to introduce wider information about healthy eating.
Educational improvement – Government and everyone working in education are constantly striving for improvements in standards, but I believe they have one hand tied behind their backs while the issue of diet is not being fully addressed. The work of Food and Behaviour Research continues to reveal links between dietary deficiencies and a range of behavioural and learning problems in children. Productive gardening can be a very effective means through which to stimulate interest in the sciences and also in healthy eating.
Improved concentration after creative exercise in the garden has already been mentioned. Perhaps adults have forgotten how much longer an hour seems to a child. In my view, shorter class lessons with the freed time spent gardening would be a win-win situation: less boredom, better concentration and an additional, very useful skill being learned. An Ofsted report (2014) claimed that up to an hour a day of teaching is lost in English schools, equivalent to 38 days a year, owing to disruptive behaviour. I suggest that this could be due to boredom resulting from the length of lessons and insufficient opportunity for creative and productive physical exercise. Much class work could be related to gardening. Pupils could do genuine and useful research projects using maths, science and literacy skills.
A garden provides a different environment from both the classroom and the playground. Children who do not excel in class or who find the playground intimidating might find that the garden is a place where they can feel safe and develop potential that is not brought out in the other two places. The garden is also a place where all types of children can develop whatever aptitudes and potential they have.
A report commissioned by the Royal Horticultural Society and published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (Passy et al., 2010) lists nine positive outcomes for children engaged in food gardening in school. The list concurs closely with the observations I have described in this essay.
Outcomes from involving pupils in school gardening were reported as including:
– Greater scientific knowledge and understanding
– Enhanced literacy and numeracy, including the use of a wider vocabulary and greater oracy skills
– Increased awareness of the seasons and understanding of food production
– Increased confidence, resilience and self-esteem
– Development of physical skills, including fine motor skills
– Development of a sense of responsibility
– A positive attitude to healthy food choices
– Positive behaviour
– Improvements in emotional well-being (nfer.ac.uk)
Exercise – While working in school gardens I noticed that during games periods, at any given time, most children were standing around doing nothing when cricket or rounders was being played. Gardening provides continuous exercise, albeit not particularly energetic or balanced for much of the time – walking and running would be good complementary activities. Some children do not enjoy team/ball games and, therefore, derive little benefit from them.
Conditioning/life skills – I believe we all need a balance between work which is mentally demanding and work that is not just physical but also materially productive. For most people, modern life provides few opportunities for the latter. As well as productive exercise, gardening can provide as much intellectual stimulation as you want from it, as well as a range of practical skills – maintaining, mending and even making tools, for example. Also, whatever one’s occupation in adulthood, in my view gardening is the best anti-stress activity. Who would claim the future will be less stressful?
In my experience all (primary) children enjoyed being in the garden. True, a few were slightly less interested and involved in the actual gardening than the others, but I believe that providing happy experiences in association with gardening is good conditioning, making it more likely that children will continue gardening at home or take it up again years later in their own gardens. To get the best results in food gardening the right things have to be done at the right time. Nature does not wait for us. Food gardening is good preparation for the time disciplines of adult life.
The environment, health and the economy – In 2019 the UK imported 46% of vegetables that were sold and 83.6% of fruit (DEFRA, 2020). The combination of climate change and increasing population is not likely to make the procuring of any food easier in future. A report by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (2014) warned of a 2 million hectare shortfall of land in the UK by 2030, and a possible 7m ha shortfall for all land uses. (UK area is 24m ha.) The average age of farmers is around 60. Farming needs young, well-educated and highly motivated people to choose careers in it.
For twenty years I had a garden that provided all the vegetables and most of the fruit for two adults and, for ten years, two children as well. No fossil fuel was used and no transport or disposable packaging was needed. Each year our household produced three or four bags of rubbish to be taken away.
To sum up: food gardening in schools has enormous potential for good outcomes; they include improved diet, improved health, improved behaviour, improved learning (including increased interest in science) and in the longer term, reductions in imports, food transport, domestic and retail rubbish, and NHS spending.
I could end by encouraging teachers to start gardening at their school, but the curriculum is already crowded and teachers’ workloads do not allow the time for the commitment a good sized garden requires, although as gardening has been shown to improve classroom ‘productivity’, perhaps it could be fitted in. (Or extend the school day?) However, it is better to do no gardening than to do it badly and risk putting children off the subject. I would even say it is not worth doing well if it is on such a small scale that it gives children no idea what they are capable of. A school garden should be the size required to feed a family, which, to produce the recommended amount of vegetables and fruit, would be at least 400 sq metres. This would also allow children not to get in each other’s way.
What I would urge teachers to do is campaign for food gardening to be brought into the curriculum as a proper academic and practical subject – that is, if you would like children to: be happier, have more enthusiasm in class, develop an insatiable interest in science and a greater affinity for nature, eat more vegetables, be healthier . . . In short, food gardening could transform education.
Gardening in schools might solve the problem of the seasonal labour needed to harvest fruit and vegetables on farms. In 2019 only 1% of seasonal agricultural workers were UK nationals. After the happy experience of school gardening young people might be more inclined to spend holidays and gap years working in the fields. I have worked on farms in Norway and Iceland with people from various countries. Farm work can be arduous and repetitive but wherever there is a group of (mainly young) people working together (although I was in my late fifties!) they will always find ways of having fun at the same time. Everyone enjoyed being outside, doing useful work, sorting out problems, and the camaraderie. How many careers advisers suggest to school leavers that they spend a gap year doing character-building farm work harvesting fruit and vegetables?
I see little prospect of global temperature rise staying below 1.5˚ C. Positive feedbacks will then push it to 4, 5 or even 6˚. Hunger will become a bigger problem than obesity. Sub-optimal nutrition is already a problem in much of the world. The education system is not preparing children for their future if it does not give them the skills to grow food. It ought to become as socially unacceptable to have a garden and not fill it with fruit and vegetables as it now is to light up in a no smoking area or torment bears for entertainment. Knowing how to grow fruit and vegetables should be regarded as being as important as having skills in English, maths and IT. It cannot be said strongly or often enough that even if food security does not become a problem, the benefits of food gardening to children’s education, well-being and whole lives make an overwhelming case for the subject.
Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (2014) The Best Use of UK Agricultural Land
Davies, Z. et al, (2009) A national scale inventory of resource provision for biodiversity within domestic gardens. Biological Conservation 142, 761–771. Elsevier.
DEFRA (2020) Horticulture Statistics, 2019. Every school a food-growing school (2012)
Passy, R., Morris, M. and Reed, F., (2010) Impact of school gardening on learning. Final report submitted to the Royal Horticultural Society. Slough: National Foundation for Educational Research.
Rob can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org He would particularly welcome criticism from anyone willing to read the text of his forthcoming book on Organic Vegetable Gardening in a Changing Climate. Please contact Rob directly.