Grow a School Garden – Autumn planting

Grow a School Garden – Oct/Nov 2018

Termly blog by Chris Collins on How to Create and Grow a School Garden

During the end of the summer months, though days are shorter, there is still plenty to keep us busy in our gardens.

Summer crops can be removed and dug into the compost bin and soil dug over and made ready for a fresh crop of plants for both winter and next spring.

What to plant now

Broad beans are a great crop to get in now, as the soil is still reasonably warm.

Quicker crops like Spinach, winter mix salad leaves and Chard can all be sown in open ground and can be grazed through the late winter months.

It may be worth investing a small amount of money in a roll of fleece from the local garden centre, this can be pinned down over your newly sown seeds and will protect them on cold nights and give them a strong start.

Any ground or raised beds you don’t plan to use over winter should be sown with a green manure. A mustard crop, sown thickly on empty ground can prevent weeds colonising your ground   and can be dug into the soil, in spring to keep your soil healthy.

The onset of the dark months is no barrier to growing fresh food – don’t miss out on those beautiful autumn days.

Planting bulbs
Colourful bulbs in spring (click image to enlarge).

The autumn is also the time of year to plant bulbs. These are the Jack-in-a-box of the plant world, staying low below the ground they are spring loaded to appear in the spring when the soil warms up.

For food plant some Garlic now but for colour there is an array of beautiful plants for your school to enjoy.

Set aside a piece of ground in a border, raised bed or even large pot. Plant a mix of bulbs to flower next year , Snowdrop (Jan, Feb) Crocus (Feb, March) Daffodil (March / April), Tulip (April / May) Allium (May).

You can get a run of three to four months of colour from bulbs and mixing the types really gives an amazing display.

There is further good news as bulb are pretty cheap to buy.

When it comes to planting and looking after bulbs there are two main rules, plant them the depth of a trowel’s head (up to the handle) and make sure you leave the foliage at least 6 weeks after they have stopped flowering. One final tip is, bulbs like Daffodil and Crocus can be naturalised, meaning they can be planted out permanently in a lawn or around the base of trees, where they will flower year after year.

  • See more advice from Garden Organic about sourcing and planting organic bulbs here.
How to grow a Willow wall
Taking willow cuttings (click image to enlarge).

A great winter project is to produce your own Willow wall. It’s worth finding out if any schools in your area are already growing Willow. If so, see if you can get some cuttings. These cuttings will need to be taken by a teacher.

They are last years growth on the plant, strong shoots (see photo) that have grown and ripened over the summer. Cut them at about 20 cm length with a straight cut below a node, this is a swelling on the wood were leaves will grow.  At the other end of the cutting cut a sloped cut above a node, this way you’ll remember which way up your cutting goes.

Now it’s time to get the children involved. Bundle up the cuttings in groups of 20, bind them together with twine. Dig a trench 15cm deep on a north facing wall and fill it with 5 cm of sand. Bury the bundles in the trench and put back the soil. You should now have 5cm of Willow cuttings sticking out the ground, you can now forget all about these cuttings until next spring when you can dig them up, they will have rooted and you can plant your own Willow wall. I recommend 5 to 10 bundles to get you going. The other advantage of taking these cuttings is there is plenty of curriculum involved – biology and maths for a starter.

Making leaf mould compost
Making leaf mould in autumn (click to enlarge image).

A further project for the autumn is to make some leaf mould. Don’t waste the great bonanza that is falling leaves.

A quick bit of construction involving four wooden stakes and some chicken wire makes a square cage. Get the children to collect any leaves in the school grounds and fill this ‘cage’ with leaves.

In a couple of seasons, you will have the perfect seed sowing compost. This uses a natural gift from Mother Nature, saves money and is great exercise!

  • Find out about making leaf mould and how to use it on the Garden Organic website here.
Helping wildlife

Finally, remember our small friends the birds at this time of year, put out food and water to help them out, they are an important part of the garden.

Happy gardening everyone.

Chris Collins

Head of Organic Horticulture. Garden Organic

 

Grow a School Garden – Sunshine and summer holidays

Grow a School Garden – June/July 2018

Monthly blog by Chris Collins on How to Create and Grow a School Garden 

Summer sun and watering advice

Well, the word at the moment is definitely sunshine and it really is beautiful weather. What a great time to be outside and enjoying all that nature offers!

It is though quite a tough time for plants and the dryness causes plants to feel stressed. This is not a problem as long as you’re doing your job as a gardener and seeing to their needs.

Watering of course is the job of such importance at the moment and it’s vital we get this job right.

First thing is – no hosepipes! Not because they are a banned, it’s just it’s not a good way to water in this heat. Water your plants by catering can and water to the base of your plants. Scorching can occur on the leaves if they get wet. Also spraying with a hose tends to just water the air as this heat soon soaks it up. You can use your hose, if you have one to fill your watering cans.

The other vital aspect of watering in this weather is the timing. Make sure the temperature is as cool as possible when watering your plants; early in the morning is the best time for a school.

Composting and weeding

Composting around your plants will also help keep those fine roots near the surface, especially the larger ones.

Remember also, to keep pulling those weeds, they will compete for water in this hot weather and many of then set their seeds much quicker in the hot weather.

Looking ahead – using curriculum activities

As the term comes to an end it’s also maybe a good time to think about what next for your garden area.  You have your raised beds up and running so how about thinking about the design of the area.

A great Maths class is to measure your area and produce a scale drawing.

A great Art class is to sit down and design the garden, you could give a theme or think about connecting it to the school, its history or any stand out projects the school may have done.

This is great fun and a fantastic way to learn.

Harvesting your hard work

Hopefully you will now also be picking some of your crops. All your hard work will now mean you get to enjoy and maybe eat your produce. Remember when picking crops like Runner beans, to twist them first, so they snap cleanly from the plant. This avoids infection and fungus getting into the plant if it is damaged.

Similarly, when digging plants out, like Lettuce, remove the plant as cleanly as possible, don’t leave old leaves and refuse on the beds to encourage slugs and other problems.

How can parents, guardians and volunteers help?

However, the biggest challenge over the summer, is that schools break up.

How do we water the plants that have not been cropped? Hand watering is always best. Can you raise volunteers to help you with this?

Produce a newsletter with all your great work. Send it out to parents and grandparents to see if they would like to help and get involved.

Producing this newsletter would also make a great end of term project for the children and again could be tied in with the curriculum.

Another watering trick

There are some tricks you can use to help you with thirsty plants over the summer. We have already mentioned mulching and composting.

You can also use old plastic water bottles.

Remove the lid and fill the bottle with water. Then cover the mouth of the bottle with seven or eight layers of cling film, which then should be pierced with a sowing needle. Place upside down at the base of your plants and the water will slowly drain over a number of days, thus reducing your watering.

Well, I hope that helps and happy gardening and I wish you a great summer hols!

Chris Collins

Head of Organic Horticulture. Garden Organic

Grow a School Garden – Spring, Soil and Design

Grow a School Garden – Mar/April 2018

Monthly blog by Chris Collins on How to Create and Grow a School Garden

Late frosts

Despite the fact that it feels like a late spring, especially in a school gardening calendar when time is everything, let me reassure you that this is most definitely an illusion. It is quite normal to have frosts and cold snaps as late as April.

Winter has a late kick but the important thing to know is plants will always catch up. The only down side is spring will be quicker this year. Nature will get a wriggle on and you need to be on your toes to make sure you enjoy it in all its glory.

Sturdier seedlings

Your more tender crops that have been grown inside will be growing away, either on a classroom window shelf or a glasshouse. Remember it’s still too early to plant them out. Grow them on, making sure you turn them away from the light every day. This stops them stretching and becoming too tall and skinny (elongating is the fancy expression).

I also like to stroke or lightly tickle any young seedlings that are growing in a protected environment. I know that sounds strange, but this mimics the outdoor elements and encourages your young plant to become more stocky and resilient and will make for a better plant in the long run. It’s also a great way for the pupils growing the plants to bond with their new plants .

If you have already sown some crops outside, please don’t worry; plants will bide their time and soon appear when conditions are more favourable. Don’t be afraid to re-sow another line if you feel that’s better. Now that the weather is changing, everything will shift quickly.

Sowing tips

Remember the rule of sowing in a straight line. Weeds will be on the march, they have waited for their moment and you need to be able to tell what is a Carrot, Lettuce, Rocket seedling, etc. and what is a weed. Sowing your crops in a straight line, in your raised or open bed will let you tell your plants and weeds apart.

Remember also to always label your rows/plants. Good record keeping is a great curriculum activity and makes your crop growing easier.

Planting in wet soil

Just a quick word if you’re growing in open beds, in borders for instance (rather than raised beds). There is a good chance that the soil is very wet, don’t worry, you can still sow seeds, just get an old scaffold or wooden plank and stand on that instead of the soil. This will stop the soil becoming to compact and then not draining properly.

Explore your soil

So, as I’ve mentioned, standing on soil when its wet will make your gardening more difficult but what type of soil do you have?

Get pupils to get their hands in the soil. Does it stick together, even form a ball? Then it’s a clay soil. Find out what that means – in science clay behaves different to a sand soil.

A sandy soil will be fine and run through your fingers and will drain quicker. It’s also much better for Carrots. Understanding your soil will make you a better gardener. It will also make you wiser about the soil you have in any raised beds your school may have. Remember all soils will improve by adding good compost.

Having fun in the garden with designs

It’s still time to think of fun ways to garden. What are your classroom or gardening club’s ideas? How can we make our growing and outdoor spaces more fun?

The outdoors should always be a place of discovery, of mystery and should be a place for hands on teaching.

My project for this blog is to make, using recycled materials, something completely unusual for your school grounds. Have an art competition, have a collection point for materials and grow some plants to bring it to life. The imagination is the most important tool.

Are your pupils designers? A project like this will soon see. To get you started have a look at my Ogre’s face we designed and built. I look forward to seeing your gardening pupils’ creations.

Happy Gardening everybody. Spring is here!

Chris Collins
Head of Organic Horticulture – Garden Organic

ccollins@gardenorganic.org.uk

Grow a School Garden – Seeds and Spring Planting

Grow a School Garden – Feb/Mar 2018

Monthly blog by Chris Collins on How to Create and Grow a School Garden

Spring is nearly here

It is this time of year that suddenly a day will come when finally after a long winter, everybody will feel the warmth of the sun on their face again. It’s such a welcome feeling and also very exciting time for our outdoor spaces.

This is the time to get busy in the garden, particularly for producing plants. Seed sowing is the one thing that can really get children hooked on growing plants . Watching a seed come to life and grow into a plant is a wonder that never gets tiring.

Tips for seed germination

So here are some ideas for getting your seed going.

Firstly if there is a budget, I really recommend investing in a couple of propagators . These are basically mini greenhouses that can be kept in the classroom and used to start all those tender crops that will need protection from the spring cold.

Tomatoes, Broad Beans, Courgettes, Squash and Pumpkins will all germinate well in a propagator, which can then be grown on indoors until its time to plant out.

Starting these plants like this means that you will be planting out strong healthy plants. It will extend your growing season, hopefully meaning you will get plenty of crops before the summer term ends.

History and science lessons with seeds

Growing seeds in the classroom like this also lends itself to the opportunity to studying how seeds work. They are truly incredible things, a couple of examples of this could be the Giant Redwood, the biggest living plant on Earth that has a seed that is a billionth the size of a fully grown tree . Or why are Poppies associated with Remembrance day. Its because Poppy seeds only germinate when they are exposed to light . The artillery fire unearthed Poppy seeds, some of which may have been underground for over a hundred years and then they proceeded to grow and flower. This example can also be used to teach some of the history of the first world war.

Raking and treading soil

Seeds, however also give us the chance to get outside and get our Carrots and Broad Beans growing. The soil will be all nicely dug from the winter gardening, now we can rake and tread it.

This entails using the rake to create a soil as level as possible . Use it to take out any lumps or dips. Treading means to use the back of your heels to firm down the whole area. It means a funny walk across the soil but it takes out all the air pockets and allows smooth capillary action enabling water movement in the soil.

Sowing carrots

Once you’ve done this, Carrots can be sown in drills. Put down a line of string across your plot, make a small trench along the line (use a piece of bamboo) and sow your seeds (check the packet for spacing tips), cover over, water and label.

Watering tips

A good tip is to use a watering can with a rose head, turn the rose so its facing upward, this will create a fine water spray when poured and thus prevents you washing out and displacing those carefully sown seeds. Using a line (drill) to sow seeds like this means when they grow into seedlings you will know what they are and distinguish them from any weeds growing at the same time in the surrounding soil.

Veg writing project idea

A couple of projects for early spring could be Veg writing. How about sowing some Salad leaves with your name or the school name? Mark out the name with sand and make a small trench in the sand and sow in Rocket or Green salad leaves. Then using drills surrounding the sown Rocket, sow red leaved Salad. When it all starts to grow you will see your school name. Clip with scissors from time to time and use the clipped salad leaves in sandwiches.

Window ledge herb garden

On the topic of edible plants, a small herb garden can be made and sit outside the classroom on a window ledge.

You can get yourself a pot or is there something we can recycle?

You can use many things for a pot just remember that it will need drainage, so make sure you can put holes in the bottom of it. Herbs don’t like wet feet, so mix peat-free compost with some gravel or sand. Maybe put some gravel in the bottom of the pot too.

If you are putting it on a window sill make sure it fits before adding the compost.

Then start to collect and plant your herbs. Small herbs like Parsley and Coriander can be grown from seed. Larger herbs , like Lavender and Rosemary can be bought, quite cheaply from the garden centre and why not see if anyone has Oregano or Lemon Balm as these can easily be divided up – maybe someone’s Grandma has some in her garden somewhere!

Happy Gardening!

Chris Collins
Head of Organic Horticulture – Garden Organic

ccollins@gardenorganic.org.uk

 

Grow a School Garden – Gardening in the Winter

Grow a School Garden – Jan/Feb 2018

Monthly blog by Chris Collins on How to Create and Grow a School Garden

Gardening in the winter

It’s tempting to stay in the warmth of the classroom – it’s not looking too cosy outside at the moment. A garden still needs the attention though, even in these dormant months and there are plenty of ways we can still tie the garden to the learning curriculum.

Getting ready for spring

A job that children never tire of is digging over the soil.

In many ways, January and February are great months to get head of the game. Any areas of soil or raised beds can be turned over and any unwanted plants removed. Give it a real thorough dig over, making sure the soil is broken into a nice fine texture and give it a rake to get it even.

This is great physical exercise for the pupils and it’s also an opportunity to teach them about soil – the gardener’s most important asset.

It also ties in nicely with making sure you’re ready to start composting come spring, if you are not already. Composting, of course, is the way we keep our soil healthy.

If you’re without a compost bin, why not get the children to design one? Maybe by applying a theme?

We built a Dalek compost on Blue Peter in one episode and this was a great way to make the subject more interesting. It would also make for a good art lesson.

Personally, my preferred way of composting is to have an open bin. By that I mean having something that is easily accessible.

Dalek composter
Build an open bin compost
  • Get four wooden posts, dig four holes and set the posts in at a depth of 20cm.
  • Add some quick drying concrete at the base of the posts.
  • After the posts set in, attach chicken wire to three sides of the posts leaving the front open.
  • Now it is easy to fill your compost area and you can also turn the contents easily.

You’ll find it can be great for wildlife too! What will the pupils find in it? Maybe a slowworm, or at the very least some earthworms and centipedes.

Tips for raised beds

I will add one more note about soil and it’s something I’ve observed on my travels to many schools over the years and that is raised beds that do not contain enough soil.

Make sure your beds or containers are properly topped up. Soil should be filled right up to at least 5cm from the top of a raised bed. Giving plant roots room to grow will be important to success.

Planning for spring growing

So, what to do on a dank wet February day when it’s the gardening club? Well, in many ways this can be an exciting time!

The spring will soon be here and it’s time to decide what you want to grow. How do you want your garden area to look? It’s an interesting math’s lesson on looking how tall or wide certain plants might get when planning your area and your growing space.

Make sure you get the Heritage Seed Library seed list catalogue from Garden Organic. It’s great fun for everyone to pick the plants that you want to grow.

“Pizza wheel” garden
Project idea: How to make a pizza wheel

To take this a step further, let’s apply this to a project. We can do this by making what I often refer to as a pizza wheel.

You can make one of these from recycled materials like bricks or pebbles.

  • Make a circle, using a pin at the centre of your area and string to mark the circle. The length of the string dictates the size of your pizza wheel is up to you.
  • Once you have your circle you can then divide it into sections or slices. This up to you but it does not need to be big, in fact you could even do it in a pot.
  • Now, as a class or a gardening club, pick a recipe for a meal then grow some of the contents of that recipe in your pizza wheel slices. For example, it could be something as simple as a salad and therefore you could grow a mix of lettuce, rocket, radish, tomatoes or cucumbers.

Well hope you find some ideas in the Grow A School Garden Blog and that you’ll join me next month.

If you have any questions or even ideas that you may want to contribute please do get in touch.

For the meantime, happy gardening!

Chris Collins

Head of Organic Horticulture – Garden Organic

ccollins@gardenorganic.org.uk