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Alan Titchmarsh encouraging children to garden as part of the RHS Campaign for School Gardens (image courtesy of picselect)

As part of the RHS’s first ever National Garden Week which runs from 16th to 22nd April 2012 they will be launching a Campaign for School Gardening. The RHS want to get as many schools as possible to create their own ‘living classrooms’, where children can learn how to grow plants, understand where the food they eat comes from and build a love for the environment. The RHS will provide tools and course material for teachers illustrating how gardening can fit in with the National Curriculum and there will be teams of local advisers on hand to come along and help get the ‘living classrooms’ up and running.

I loved gardening when I was little. My first real gardening memory is being given a small part of my parents’ garden and spending my pocket money on alpines from my local DIY store. I would spend hours with a trowel digging, weeding and just generally messing about in the soil. I loved it, being outdoors and watching the bees and butterflies landing on the sedums I’d planted. Me and a friend would exchange plants we’d grown and I loved the visits to his dad’s allotment. His dad’s shed and greenhouse, stuffed full of tomatoes, had a mystical quality about them. But then I hit my teens and the combined distractions of schoolwork, boys and music filled my time. Although I did have a guilty secret, Friday nights were always about Gardeners’ World but I knew this wasn’t cool.

There are so many more distractions for children nowadays though, generally involving mobile phones and computers, is it possible to get the next generation interested in gardening?

Well the RHS believes it is and that is why projects like the Campaign for School Gardening are brilliant. There was nothing like this at my schools. My secondary school had had an extension built in the 1980s that included a large lean-to greenhouse and a small patch of land outside it that was meant for growing plants. Great you think, how forward thinking. Well it would have been if someone had actually done something with them. In the 7 years that I was there from the late 80s to the mid 90s the greenhouse was never used, in fact I never even saw anyone go inside and the garden, well it was knee deep in weeds, the sort of growth that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a railway embankment. It breaks my heart to think about this now, this potentially amazing resource that was so neglected.

Fortunately, it seems that things are changing with education understanding the benefits to children of time spent growing plants. So far 15,000 schools have registered with the RHS. However, it does seem that whilst primary schools have embraced the grow your own idea, secondary schools seem a differerent matter. Just as I lost interest in my teens, gardening seems to drift off the radar with post primary education. Maybe if mine had made use of the greenhouse, well who knows. There are schools who are bucking the trend, for instance Batley Girls High School which has an on site garden, allotment, greenhouse and polytunnels and pupils have recently designed a sensory garden for a local nursing home.

There is also the incredibly inspiring Writhlington School near Bath and their orchid growing project. They started out growing native orchids from seed and reintroducing them into the wild but the project expanded so that they are now world famous for their work with growing tropical orchids by micropropagation. Pupils who join the Greenhouse Club in their first year at the school are given responsibility for their own orchids and older students act as consultants to Kew Gardens and the Eden Project. Students have won gold medals at Chelsea and there are opportunities to travel to places such as the Himalaya to carry out actual scientific research. Doesn’t this sound like the most amazing place. My school had the gear but obviously no idea, (can you tell I’m annoyed by this!!). So despite the constraints of the curriculum, projects like these prove it is possible to engage teenagers in horticulture, disappointingly though they do seem few and far between. It would be a shame if gardening was just thought of as the green equivalent to messing about in the sand pit. It isn’t really enough to encourage young kids to have an interest in growing plants if it’s abandoned by schools as they get older. Hopefully, the Campaign for School Gardening will encourage more secondary schools to see the value of horticulture, with a changing climate, plant science and the environment are going to be increasingly important areas where we will need passion, interest and knowledge.

I’d love to here about your early gardening experiences. Do you know of any great projects getting young people involved in horticulture?

More information is available at the Campaign for School Gardening