As I write, winter has well and truly arrived, with a sharp blast of snow, frosty mornings and hard ground. So it is not the best time to be out in the garden, or is it? At Dulwich Preparatory School in Cranbrook the young gardeners are as hardy as any leafy perennial and find there is plenty to keep them busy all year round.
Gardening club leader and science teacher Philip Middleton says: 'Autumn is a busy time in a garden. Beds are cleared of dead plants and weeds, and winter bulbs and seeds are planted. The Friends of DCPS kindly donated more money to the gardening club to allow three new raised beds to be built and filled with leaf mulch. This kept the pupils busy with spades and wheelbarrows.
"Members of the gardening club have spent four weeks building bird boxes from wood, which have been sold at the school Christmas Fair. Enough money was raised to cover the costs of the materials and to have some funds for new seeds for the club." Dulwich Prep's gardening club has 25 members; an enthusiastic lot, under the expert care of Mr Middleton and teacher Carol-Ann Dart, they meet one or two times a week at lunchtime and after school. Children are given their own raised bed to cultivate, giving them a real sense of ownership, one of the greatest motivations for achievement and enjoyment. Mr Middleton explains: "They plan and plant their beds. It is important that they have a sense of responsibility, ownership and pride in their beds. And they get to enjoy the rewards too!"
With more and more families opting for a 'make do and mend' approach, teaching children all about how to grow their own produce is becoming increasingly important. Understanding where food comes from and how it is produced can develop the ability to use it in the kitchen. Mr Middleton says: "Most of the children choose to grow fruit and/or vegetables in their beds and they can take home any produce that they don't eat! They also share their goods with their families at home and some children have returned to school with parsnip or beetroot soup that they have made at home from their produce." So how do you get your own little ones out in the garden? Mr Middleton says: "Gardening is a lovely activity to share with your child. Raised beds are the easiest way to garden, but any clear patch of soil can be used to start a flower, herb, fruit or vegetable garden.
"Parents can work with their children to research the best seeds and produce to grow and all of the process can be enjoyed together, parent and child, from clearing, to planting, to growing, to harvesting, cooking and eating produce and weeding." It might seem odd advice but winter can be a good time to start on a new patch. It gets you out in the fresh air and effort now will be rewarded with a fine crop sprouting in spring. Mr Middleton advises using seeds that work well, like winter beans, shallots and onions. "We protect these from slugs with a barrier of holly which is effective and environmentally friendly (though we do use slug pellets at times!). January is also a good time to clear an area for re-planting in the spring."
Do remember to have plenty of hot chocolate to warm the heart and hands when you come in from the cold! Gardening can also encourage children to eat vegetables and it is a great shared activity. Mr Middleton explains: "Some pupils have allotments or sections of garden at home. They are always keen to share their success and gardening news with me and often want to sit next to me at lunchtime in the school dining room to talk to me about their gardening issues or share their successes."
There is plenty of advice available online to inspire you. One place I would recommend is the Produced in Kent website. This is the county-wide organisation dedicated to championing local food, drink, products and services in Kent. The organisation has useful education material that you can download from their website www.producedinkent.co.uk. Factsheets include bags of information about fruit with recipes that are simple for the least experienced chef.
Top Tips from the Dulwich Prep Garden Patch
Try something unusual: Have a go at planting wheat! We are expecting to yield one loaf of bread per two square metres. The children have learnt about how to prepare the land, making furrows and planting the grain. Harvest time will be in August and then we will grind the grain in Cranbrook windmill and bake it!
Plan ahead: Planting new seeds under cover for fresh seedlings to plant in the Summer Term.
Plant a variety: Try potatoes, which liked the damp weather last summer, and lettuces. Onions and peas are good choices too. And don't forget pumpkins!