Eat your greens, kids. But first, grow them

Gardening with children generates empathy and healthier eating

Adrienne Ní Cheallaigh swears by the “ wonder” that children experience from growing vegetables and flowers, not to mention the knock-on effect for healthier eating.

“They don’t have ‘awe and wonder’ in everyday things any more,” says Ní Cheallaigh, who is principal of St Agnes’ Primary School in Crumlin, Dublin. “You’d be amazed to see their faces when they see what they’ve grown. It is just fabulous.”

If getting down and dirty with your children in the garden is still on your "to do" list, this is the time. With brighter evenings and the soil warming up, the GIY (Grow It Yourself) organisation has designated April 15th-22nd "Sow a Seed Week", which finishes with Earth Day on April 22nd.

And you don’t need a garden to do it: a container on a patio, a balcony or even a windowsill, indoors or out, will suffice for children to enjoy the thrill of bringing a dormant seed to life.


Gardening is year-round at St Agnes’, thanks to a polytunnel on its roof, plus raised beds built in the yard in April 2013. Volunteers from local allotments act as mentors, taking each class out – or up – once a week to work on the garden.

“Every class has its own raised beds; some have spring flowers but mostly what we are trying to do is get them to grow simple vegetables and herbs,” says Ní Cheallaigh.

The constant nurturing that is required encourages empathy in the children, she says, although it is a handy excuse too for getting out of the classroom: “Miss, I think we should check on the plants now.”

She has noticed children have also become quite fussy about what’s in their lunchboxes. “They like to brag about what’s in them now. All the healthy stuff they’re having.”

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O’Sullivan visited the school in March to officially open the polytunnel and to launch the national “Sow & Grow” campaign, run by GIY in conjunction with the Innocent drinks company. In this, its fourth year, at least 20,000 children will take part.

“It is really about giving them a very simple food-growing experience, to help them understand where the food comes from,” says Michael Kelly, founder of GIY. Many children today “think peas come from a supermarket freezer compartment, through no fault of their own”.

A father of two, living in Co Waterford, he sees the impact growing vegetables has on his own children. “Last summer I was shelling some broad beans with them. My little fella – he’s eight – looked up at me and said, ‘We need to keep some of these beans for next year’s growing’, ” Kelly recalls. “It struck me that he understood that whole life cycle of growing, from sowing a seed to producing a plant, and that the food we eat is also a seed. That’s an example of food empathy in action.”

Roll up the sleeves

As ambassador for this year's Sow & Grow campaign, food writer and Irish Times columnist Lilly Higgins has visited several schools. She says children were initially hesitant but then delighted in getting their hands in the soil. Coming from a rural background in Co Cork, the mother of two "found it incredible that they had to be prompted to roll up their sleeves".

“It is really important that we show kids where food is coming from and all the work that goes into it as well. Once they start tending and caring for the plants, it makes them value food – hopefully,” she says.

The principal of the winning school in last year’s Sow & Grow competition has also seen how the process has changed children’s attitudes.

“I have kids here who wouldn’t hold some of the vegetables, never mind eat them,” says Iseult Mangan of Cloghans Hill National School, Tuam, Co Galway. Participating in both Sow & Grow and Agri Aware’s Incredible Edibles programme ignited the gardening spark at the 12-pupil, one-teacher school.

Once the children’s seeds started to sprout, they wanted to put them outside and watch them grow, says Mangan. Now the school has four raised vegetable beds and four tyres, in which fruit bushes, an apple tree and herb garden are planted.

“We are very lucky: we have a spare classroom that is like a glasshouse, and everything goes on the window sill in there.”

Once children are involved in growing vegetables such as broccoli, they are more inclined to try them, says Mangan, who admits she knew little about gardening before this. It seems as if all things horticultural almost skipped a generation.

“I would have dreamed about being good in the garden. My mum and dad would have been great at gardening,” says Mangan. But when gardening took off in the school, “I started learning and I love growing things now.” When her pupils leave school, “they are going to know more about gardening than I do at my age here now”.

Community gardens

Penny Dwyer, a childcare manager in Kilkenny city, knew about buttercups and daisies, but little else, before she and a team trained with community gardens specialist Dee Sewell.

Running an afterschool and youth service at the community centre in Millennium Court, a Respond Housing Association estate, Dwyer has been the driving force in setting up the garden there. She was determined that all ages would participate, so as the team learnt growing skills, they passed them on to the children.

“We’re in the middle of the city, and kids automatically think that vegetables come from the supermarket,” says Dwyer. “I remember the first year we had one cauliflower that survived the whole season. When we went out to harvest this cauliflower, the kids were saying to me, ‘What’s that?’ ‘It’s a cauliflower.’ ‘But it’s in the garden?’ ‘Yes, where do you think cauliflower comes from?’ ‘From the shop.’ ” Then comprehension dawned. “They were amazed.” That year they also grew a great crop of pumpkins that the children harvested, carved and used to make soup. “They didn’t eat the soup; they didn’t like it,” she admits with a laugh, but at least they tried it.

The garden, which incorporates a small orchard of plum, pear and apple trees, as well as vegetable beds, berry bushes and now a polytunnel, is managed by a core group of 10 volunteers. The 35 children enrolled in the afterschool service help to look after the daily watering and the volunteers take turns to do it during the summer.

Dwyer’s advice to parents who want to involve their children in gardening is to find out what they’re interested in, “otherwise they are not going to get anything out of it”.

Sewell enjoys teaching adults, such as Dwyer: “if the adults don’t have a clue, then they can’t pass that [knowledge] down”.

Do as much as you can with younger children, says Sewell, because when they reach the ages her three are now – 12, 14 and 16 – “you won’t even get them into the garden”.

But she is hopeful it is something they may return to. “They can name all the vegetables, they know how they are grown, they have seen them growing and they have a very good awareness of food and nutrition generally from being brought up that way – even if they are going out to buy chips.”

Living in Old Leighlin, Co Carlow, Sewell runs her own horticultural training business, Greenside Up, and is co-ordinator of the voluntary support group Community Garden Network set up in 2011.

The advantage of a community garden, as opposed to an allotment, is that the demands on a family are less relentless and they are a great place to learn from others.

Growing friendships

“You share the work, you share the produce. It is as much social as it is about growing,” she says. “I like gardening with other people; if there are jobs I can’t do, there are people around who can.”

Jacqueline Kelleher had both professional and personal reasons for starting a community garden in Donnybrook, Dublin, three years ago. Called the Heritage Garden, it is housed in the 200-year-old walled garden of the Avila Carmelite Centre.

As a family support worker and youth worker, she saw a lot of isolation in the community. Working on patches of gardens in flats complexes, she found, was a better way to engage with people than through the office or youth centre.

“The second reason was that I was living in a flat and I really did want to have a green space for my son,” says Kelleher. “It has just grown and grown and become a really productive garden. The volunteers are just amazing. Only for them, the garden wouldn’t still be in existence.”

An increase in interest in children’s gardening is reflected in the rising numbers attending the fortnightly Slug Club, at Griffins Garden Centre, Dripsey, Co Cork. A few years ago, a class averaged 10 youngsters; now it’s up to 40, says club manager Miriam Dillon. “A lot of people who come to us say they know nothing about gardening but their kids would love to do it.”

Tracy Power, who lives in the village, falls into that category. “I sew and knit; I don’t do outdoors.” But her seven-year-old daughter, Katie, who has been going to the Slug Club for two years, has successfully grown flowers and vegetables such as potatoes and carrots in buckets at home from plants or seeds she has brought back.

GIY campaigns are all about encouraging people to grow at least a morsel of their own food. Part of next week’s “Sow a Seed” will include the start of an initiative mirroring the schools’ campaign but targeted at the workplace. “Give Peas a Chance”, in association with Cully & Sully, which will be launched in Dublin’s CHQ on April 15th, is to encourage “al desko” growing.

“It’s a fun, simple, quirky campaign – we are growing peas as pea shoots in a little pot on your desk,” says Kelly. “You snip them when they get to six or eight inches high and have them in a salad.”


Green shoots: How these gardens grow

Powerscourt Estate, Co Wicklow: Sow and Grow kids' gardening classes at 12 noon and 2pm on Sunday, April 19th. Cost €5. See

Bloom 2015, Phoenix Park, Dublin: A "Budding Bloomers" kids' zone at the annual gardening festival will include hands-on activities, as well as mouth-on tastings with Food Dudes. Thursday, May 28th to Monday, June 1st. See

Airfield, Dundrum, Dublin 14: At this working farm and gardens there are plenty of child-friendly events, such as a "Make a Miniature Garden" workshop on April 8th. See

National Botanic Gardens, Dublin: In addition to self-guided trails for families, there are also free child-friendly events, such as a Garden Bird Safari for families at 10am on April 12th and May 10th in Glasnevin and at its Co Wicklow "branch" in Kilmacurragh on April 26th at 10.30am. The April-July schedule also includes art camps, flower-pressing and pond-dipping. See

Brigit's Garden, Galway: There is a children's discovery trail and natural playground, as well as events such as this week's Easter nature camp starting on April 7th, running daily 10am-1pm until Friday. See

Slug Club, Griffins Garden Centre, Dripsey, Co Cork: Fortnightly, one-hour workshops for children of primary-school age. The children will be planting peas and beans on April 18th, and salad and herbs on May 2nd. Each session costs €5 and must be booked in advance. See

The Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim: If parents don't know where to start, there's an "Organic Gardening for Beginners" course on Saturday, April 11th, or how about the "Urban Gardening – growing in small spaces and containers" one on April 19th? There are week-long camps for children in August. See