Schools have a duty of care to young people. Educators and others who work in a school environment must make sure that they keep their young charges happy,safe and healthy. More than this,however, schools and educators have a duty to forge the sustainable, eco-conscious and ethical citizens of the future. Sustainable food growing is one important way for schools to do just that. The great news is that, whether large or small, school grounds can be an ideal place to explore the future of sustainable food production.
Turning a Playground into a Food Forest
Even a handful of fruit trees around the edge of school grounds can make a huge difference.
School grounds are often mono-cultures when it comes to planting. Often,a school building will be surrounded by areas of grass lawn. Sports fields or playground areas are not always the most eco-friendly of areas – often they are lacking in biodiversity and not utilised as fully as they could be.
Grass verges and the edges of sports pitches could be an amazing resource for schools. These boring, grassy areas could be turned into biodiverse and productive areas of food forest. Turning grassy areas of a playground into edible forest gardens can be a surprisingly low-cost solution, that can feed and nurture children for generations to come.
To do so, schools can:
- Identify under-utilised grassy areas.
- Plant fruit trees and other tree species.
- Underplant trees with fruiting shrubs, nitrogen fixing shrubs and other useful plants.
- Create a lush herbaceous layer, building up guilds of ‘companion plants’ than aid one another and create a diverse and productive ecosystem.
- Create outdoor,forest classrooms where children can discover the wonderful world of the forest ecosystem, and learn how we can work with nature rather than fighting it to grow our food.
Turning an Edible Garden into a Playground
Forest gardens and other school food production areas can easily become places for fun and play.
Food forest areas and other edible gardens can not only be places for food production and learning. They can also be places to play. A playground does not have to be a place of concrete, grass and metal. Schools can create natural playgrounds, where children can learn, be nurtured, and have a lot of fun. An edible garden can become a place to play in a range of different ways.
For example, schools could consider:
- Mowing pathways between fruit trees and other planting to create mazes or ‘race tracks’,while allowing nature to flourish all around.
- Make swings or rope swings or hammocks to hang from productive trees.
- Create ‘edible’ dens or tunnels from fruiting trees, raspberry or other soft fruit canes, edible bamboos, vines of grapes, kiwis or a range of different beans supported on arches of willow or other wood.
- Create ‘obstacle courses’ from stumps set amongst edible perennial plants, and/or fruiting mushroom logs beneath shade trees.
- Create ‘fairy gardens’, leafy grottos or an ogre or giant’s lair through imaginative planting schemes that will bring out kids’ creative sides. For example, schools can help kids to create fairy houses from natural materials to set amongst fruits and vegetables, or plant up hugelkultur mounds (organic growing raised beds) to make ‘sleeping giants’ emerge from the soil.
Creating a Kitchen Garden on School Premises
Schools can also make the most of their premises by creating kitchen garden areas for intensive food production for the school cafeteria and the local community. Forest garden areas on under-utilised grassy areas around the school playground and sports fields can be abundant sources of fruits and other foods. But it can also be helpful to have areas of traditional, annual crops.
By creating polycultures of annual crops, schools can grow a wide range of produce in areas that were once given over to grass, or hardstanding. On grass, or in raised beds created on areas of tarmac, ‘lasagna beds’ can be built up, to avoid the need to disturb the fragile and precious soil ecosystem beneath.
The edging for raised beds can be created using a range of reclaimed materials – old wood pallets, reclaimed bricks, or old troughs or baths, for example, could all be used. Schools could also consider using cob, clay and even rubbish to build up small walls for raised beds without spending a fortune to create their kitchen garden.
Once the beds or growing areas have been created, cardboard can be laid within them. Layers of brown and green (carbon rich and nitrogen rich materials) can them be built up within them like a lasagna, to compost in place. Topped with a layer of compost and soil, these growing areas and raised beds are then ready to plant up with a range of produce.
Low-Cost Undercover Growing Areas for Schools
Plastic bottle greenhouse,by Paul Lakin,Wikimedia Commons
Even in a cool climate, such as the one experienced here in the UK, it is possible for schools to grow their own food year-round. Investing in an undercover growing area can make it easier to grow food even through the coldest winter weather. An undercover growing area can also increase the range of plants a school can grow.
A greenhouse can be an expensive investment. But a polytunnel can be a lower-cost alternative which will provide a larger undercover growing area for less. Schools can even consider making their own polytunnel using rubbish that might otherwise have been thrown away.
One cool idea, for example, involves filling in the walls of an inexpensive wooden frame with plastic drinks bottles suspended on wooden canes or dowels. A plastic drinks bottle greenhouse is one low-cost way for schools to create undercover spaces for an edible garden.
Small Space Container Gardens for Schools
Not all schools, of course, will have expansive grounds that can be turned over to food production. But food production does not need huge areas. Containers can be used to grow a wide range of produce in even the smallest of areas.
The options for containers for a small school garden can be as diverse as the children who attend the school. Reclaimed wood, metal, plastic and even out-of-the-box options like old boots and shoes can be used to grow edible crops. If it can hold your growing medium – compost and soil – it can hold plants too. School container gardens can be quirky and unusual spaces that can grow a surprising amount of food.
Vertical Gardening & Green Roofs
One vertical garden idea that can help schools make the most of small spaces.
Schools can further increase the range and quantity of produce that they can grow, even in the smallest of spaces, by implementing vertical gardening techniques, and thinking upwards as well as outwards. For example, schools will little outside space can still:
- Create trellises to grow edible plants up walls or fences.
- Place wigwams or structures of branches or canes to grow vining plants like cordon tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and more.
- Placing shelving to grow plants in pots against a sunny wall of the school building.
- Create a vertical garden with planting pockets using reclaimed fabric, or old wood pallets.
- Making towers or plastic drinks bottles or other containers in which to grow plants.
- Hanging baskets for edible crops on walls or from lamp posts etc..
- Stringing ‘bunting’ of plastic containers between two walls or posts and planting up each reclaimed container.
- Considering the options for roof gardens or green roofs on school buildings.
Other Small Space Projects for Schools
A wildlife hotel can be large or small, and will help attract beneficial wildlife to a school’s garden.
Even in small spaces, kids can learn how to do their bit to protect nature and wildlife, and discover how ecosystems function as a whole in food production. Even schools with little outside space could consider:
- Making a small wildlife pond.
- Creating and placing bird feeders and bird boxes.
- Building and placing ‘bee hotels’ and homes for other pollinators and beneficial insects.
- Making ‘bug’ houses and brush piles and studying the life that visits them.
- Placing a wormery, where worms can help create compost, even where there is not much space for a larger composting system.
- Establishing a small outdoors kitchen, where kids can learn to prepare, cook and preserve all of the produce they grow.
Indoors Growing in the Classroom
It is also worthwhile remembering that schools do not need to have any outside space at all in order to grow some food. Even where there is nowhere to create an edible garden on school grounds, educators can still consider indoors growing in the classroom.
From simply sowing some cress or another fast-growing leafy green in old egg shells or toilet roll tubes,to more complex growing projects in old yoghurt pots or other food packaging, the options for growing food on a sunny windowsill are far more diverse than you may have imagined. Kids can bring in household rubbish to reuse – or learn how to make their own papier maché pots and containers.