Turning a wasteland into a kitchen garden is child's play


URBAN FARMER:Making a school kitchen garden is an ideal way to teach children about nature and nutrition – and they can eat what they harvest too writes FIONNNUALA FALLON

LOCKDOWN or locked out, call it what you will, but as a result of Queen Elizabeth’s recent visit, the walled kitchen garden in the Phoenix Park was off-bounds to nearly everyone for almost a week, including gardeners from the Office of Public Works. So this week’s Urban Farmer column is about another fruit and vegetable garden on Dublin’s north side, one that’s half-hidden in the corner of a noisy schoolyard far away from any state visits.

It is now more than six years since the hugely committed, energetic and dynamic principal of Donaghmede’s Holy Trinity Senior National School, Jerry Grogan, first decided that a productive kitchen garden was the best way for his pupils to learn about the skills of growing and harvesting food.

“As a teacher, I was noticing that more and more of the children I was meeting had no connection with nature – nothing at all. Instead, they were spending most of their time indoors. It was quite shocking,” he explains.

Grogan doesn’t believe it’s a problem peculiar to city children. “I’m not just talking about kids from an urban background, like those that I teach here in Donaghmede. The same is just as true of the children in Caherciveen in Co Kerry where I grew up. There’s even a term for it – nature deficit disorder – coined by the author Richard Louv in his brilliant book, Last Child in the Woods.”

It’s not just pupils who need to be educated, he adds. “The same was true of quite a few of the younger teachers in the school,” he adds with a wry grin. “I remember when we first got the school polytunnel at Holy Trinity, I sent a young teacher, a country fellow, out to weed it, and he pulled out all the tomato plants. He just had no idea what a tomato plant looked like.”

Grogan was encouraged to do something for his pupils by statistics from Sweden showing that children who were taught at least some of the time outdoors were healthier, better adjusted and performed an average of 25 per cent better academically than those taught solely indoors in conventional classrooms.

“It’s the idea of the garden as an outdoor classroom. It might sound like a cliché to some but the research figures prove that it works,” he says.

So in 2006, when Grogan heard that Bord Bia was offering to help fund the creation of an organic school garden from scratch, he responded quickly with a detailed submission.

The result was a visit from Bord Bia’s director of horticulture, Michael Maloney. He was accompanied by Ian McGrigor, one of the owners of Gortbrack, an award-winning organic farm and centre for environmental education and organic food training and development in Ballyseedy, Co Kerry (gortbrackorganicfarm.com).

Bord Bia’s plan, Grogan discovered, was to film the creation of four different organic school gardens over 18 months, as part of an educational DVD that would then be made available as a resource to all schools. (See bordbia.ie for details of the finished DVD).

“What impressed us all straight away about Jerry was that he was very committed to the idea, to the point where he was willing to put money into the project. He wasn’t just sitting there asking what he’d get out of it,” says McGrigor, who has been involved with the Holy Trinity School garden project since then.

Five years on from that first visit, Holy Trinity Senior National School’s garden is a brilliant and heart-warming testimony to the fact that a fully productive garden can be created in the most surprising and unpromising places. What was once an overgrown patch of wasteland next to the school’s Tarmac playground is now a colourful kitchen garden filled with native Irish apple trees, fruit bushes, flowers and a huge variety of herbs and vegetables. It is tended by the school’s 360 pupils, with the help of teachers, parents and occasional visits from McGrigor and his colleagues.

When we visited the garden on a balmy June day last year, the raised beds were crammed full of salad leaves, broad beans, peas, turnips, potatoes, celery, onions, radishes, parsnips, brassicas, climbing French beans and even globe artichokes.

Growing alongside them were plenty of colourful flowers such as marigolds, nasturtiums and the poached egg plant, Limnanthes douglasii, which the children had been encouraged to plant as a way of attracting insect pollinators into the garden and to act as “trap crops” drawing predators away from important crops.

According to Grogan, every pupil spends an average of an hour in the garden each week and for some it is quite a bit more. “They all took to the garden straight away, even though there were plenty at the start who couldn’t tell a lettuce from a cabbage,” he says.

Another welcome benefit of the school’s fruit and vegetable patch has been the opportunities it offers to help the pupils to appreciate the importance of good nutrition. “We give the children produce to take home with them,” explains Grogan.

There is also a homework club for some children at which produce from the garden is cooked twice a week in such dishes as colcannon or leek and potato soup.

“It’s a fantastic way of showing the pupils that growing your own food and then using the produce to cook a meal are useful, practical and important life skills. It gives them great confidence,” says Grogan. “But I think that the most important thing is that the Holy Trinity school garden is a legacy for the children of the future here in Donaghmede. My hope is that it will be here for many years to come.”

That idea has special resonance for McGrigor too, he says. “As a young kid growing up in London, I learnt all about gardening from an old first World War veteran, a very nice man by the name of Mr Bevan,” says McGrigor. “Until I was about 12 years old, I would spend hours hanging out at his allotments with him. He had three on the go at the same time. Many years later, when I was in my early 20s, I got a letter from his solicitor to say that he had left me £50 (€57) in his will, on the condition that I do something useful with it. And here I am, years later, helping people to create organic school gardens,” he says, with a smile.

“I reckon that Mr Bevan would be very pleased about that.”

* * Fionnuala Fallon is a garden designer and writer

WHAT TO: sow, plant and do now

Sow in a heated propagator in pots or modules for tunnel cropping, or planting outside under cloches at the end of May:French beans, runner beans, sweet corn, courgettes, gherkins, pumpkins, summer squashes, marrows and melons. You can still sow cucumbers and tomatoes for late crops. Also herbs such as basil, coriander, dill, Greek oregano, parsley and fennel, Alpine strawberries (Reugen best), Florence fennel and half-hardy single flowers such as tagetes and French marigolds, for attracting beneficial insects to help with pest control and pollination both under cover and in the garden. Shade propagators and young seedlings from strong sun at all times now.

Outdoors, sow in modules, in a seedbed for transplanting, or in situ where they are to crop: Asparagus, globe artichokes, beetroot, broad beans, carrots, all varieties of peas, savoy and other autumn or winter cabbages, all varieties of sprouting broccoli including Calabrese and purple sprouting, cauliflowers, salad onions, Hamburg parsley, landcress, lettuces, perilla, orache, chicory, kohl rabi, kales (those for overwinter from the middle of May), radishes, rocket, salsify, swiss chard, spinach, white turnip and swede, summer purslane, lambs lettuce, salad mixes and perennial hardy herbs including sorrel. Asparagus peas, cardoons, sweet corn, French and runner beans and New Zealand spinach can be sown outside under cloches now. Also sow some single annual flowers such as limnanthes (poached egg flower), calendula, Californian poppies, convolvulus tricolour, nasturtiums, phacelia, sunflowers etc. to attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies to help with pest control, and bees to help with crop pollination.

Sow fast-growing green manure crops, such as buckwheat, mustard (a brassica so watch rotations) and phacelia, to improve the soil, “lock-up” carbon and feed worms (after digging in), on any empty patches of ground that wont be used for six weeks or more.

Plant out: Kale, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, celeriac, Brussels sprouts, leeks, lettuce.

Do: Earth up potatoes. Keep seedlings and young plants well watered. Begin to harden off well-established, module-raised plants, keep glasshouses and polytunnels well-ventilated. Put up protective netting (Bionet) against carrot fly, net brassicas, provide support for tall plants (beans, peas, tomatoes) and hoe or hand pick weeds.