While it started small just over a decade ago, the RHS Campaign for School Gardening has grown into a full-scale ecosystem across the UK that aims to nurture next-generation gardeners
The Royal Horticultural Society is best known internationally for its contribution to horticultural and gardening expertise. But alongside the gardening showcases – Chelsea and Hampton Court flower shows and its beautiful gardens at Wisley, among others – this national charity is steadfastly campaigning for a greener future by nurturing next-generation gardeners. Nowhere is this more evident than in its Campaign for School Gardening.
The campaign started small 11 years ago and, says the Campaign’s Skills Development Manager Alana Cama, its initial offer was based around a website of resources targeting teachers and learning providers. “At the outset, the broad aim was to get kids outdoors, sowing seeds, pricking plants on, decorating pots and having fun.”
Perhaps what nobody realised at the outset was how big this seed was going to grow. The statistics are impressive, with over 36,000 member schools and organisations today. These span 70% of the nation’s primary schools and 80% of its secondary schools, with many independent schools in the mix, but also youth and uniformed youth groups, childminders and home-educators.
It is a campaign with momentum, probably because everyone can agree that gardening is a positive and life-enhancing activity for young people.
But this goes way deeper than a bit of muddy fun tilling the soil. How deep was revealed in a survey of campaign members commissioned by the RHS last year to mark the 10th anniversary. When asked about gardening goals, Campaign members cited improving mental wellbeing as number one priority (97% ticked that box). Improving physical wellbeing came a close second at 90%.
Member schools and groups typically spend over two hours a week in their plot and use their gardening time productively – almost all grow fruit and vegetables, with 81% also focusing on plants that attract wildlife. Nearly half grow plants they can sell to raise money for good causes.
Large gardens remain a privilege, especially in urban areas, but Alana Cama says that schools and youth groups work around this creatively, with gardens housed in containers, on balconies and with the assistance of community groups and businesses – there is massive support for the idea of school gardening from both sectors and almost half of campaign members work with their local community.
Alana Cama says the campaign is about much more than simply getting back to nature. “We know the benefits of giving children access to outside space, but gardening has multiple health and learning benefits. It improves mental and physical wellbeing – we know, for instance, it can be a powerful aid in overcoming behavioural issues in SEN environments. But the young child who is struggling in the classroom with, say, literacy skills, is suddenly there in a group activity and this child joins in and, without thinking, starts reading seed packets.”
The ability of an outdoor environment to link school lessons to real life can’t be overestimated. Over the years school gardens have become a place where the curriculum is presented creatively to help children to absorb material in a practical and alternative way. Last year’s survey found that 70% of schools use the garden as an opportunity to teach science. It’s also a place where maths and English lessons take place. Even geography and history lessons may get a bit of fresh air as groups discuss where those exotic chilli pepper, aubergine or pak choi seeds are from – or the humble seed potato, come to that. Alana Cama says: “Gardening is such a useful learning tool – whether you are looking at STEM, other areas of the curriculum or at areas such as team-working and citizenship.”
Schools and youth groups are encouraged to earn their gardening stripes by entering the School Gardening Awards. While Level 1 is relatively easy to attain and wins the school a year calendar full of growing tips, progression earns all sorts of goodies. By Level 5, schools have hosted a gardening event involving the community, recorded it on film and in photos and submitted a written account of their event or project that demonstrates their enthusiasm to share and pass on their gardening skills. They can display their prowess with school plaques and earn the right to use a special RHS logo.
The star prizes (think of them as the campaign’s equivalent of a Gold at Chelsea) are the School Gardeners of the Year. Last year’s individual winner, Fraser White, 10, from Dairsie Primary School in Fife – whose confident and poised film about his love of gardening is a joy to watch – was, by his own admission, often frustrated and angry until he was encouraged by his school to start gardening. In the film he says: “Gardening was like something that was sent from above. It was calming, it cleared my head.” Now, an ambassador for the school’s garden, he mentors younger children to pass on his skills and passion for growing things.
The skills among last year’s finalists are equally impressive. Tallis Inger-Flecker, 14, from Writhlington School, Somerset is passionate and hugely knowledgeable about orchids, working in her spare time with Bristol Aquarium to create orchid displays and passing on her skills in growing beautiful specimens. The judges’ conclusion was: “Tallis seems destined to work in botany”. And watching her brilliant film describing the finer points of plant propagation of tricky Gongora orchids, it’s hard not to agree.
The Campaign for School Gardening has achieved many things – not least in helping children to explore their environment and appreciate the link between seed and plate. Alana Cama hopes that it might also show at least some young gardeners the possibilities in horticulture careers. “There’s a huge skills gap in horticulture, and many career opportunities, be it as a scientist, in land management or in the field of design”.
As the Campaign for School Gardening enters its second decade of growing future gardeners, it has a new focus – on letting children take the reins. It’s I Can Grow campaign wants young people to take gardening out to a wider audience and is asking them to explore how growing and harvesting can benefit their local community and the planet.
“We want to talk direct to young people,” says Alana Cama. “We’re asking them to campaign around social and environmental issues using plants.” The four core strands they are being asked to explore are gardening in relation to the food on our plates, in the context of a changing climate, for the benefit of wildlife and for the wellbeing and health of communities.”
This is big-picture stuff, and young campaigners are encouraged to design campaigns using all the 21st-century technology at their able fingertips – vlogs, blogs, social media. “We want to harness their energy, with plants at the heart of what they are doing,” says Alana Cama, “and we also want them to feel empowered and feed ideas back to the RHS.”
Perhaps the most inspiring thing about the Campaign for School Gardening is that it has blossomed from the RHS’ roots into something that feels totally in tune with the 21st century. It recognises that while we love the heritage of our fine parks and gardens and the achievements of Christopher Lloyd, Gertrude Jekyll, Capability Brown et al, the future gardener is much more likely to be urban, small-scale, challenged by an uncertain world and focused on issues such as food security, water scarcity and clean air. Giving young people the chance to direct the future of the Campaign for School Gardening seems a smart way to ensure that next-gen gardeners keep us all in the green. You can’t help thinking that the future of our planet may depend on it.