Raumati South School gets down to earth

by Xanthe White / 28 March, 2013
A new generation of gardeners has arrived, thanks to community- and school-based projects.
Good to grow
Raumati South School’s pupils honing their skills. Photo/David Haxton

The television channels sent gardening to the scrap heap more than 10 years ago because it lacked sex appeal. Realistically, there are only so many times you can ask your series co-host for a fork and only so many phallus-like vegetables you can pull from the ground before the jokes fall flat. Besides, what gardeners most want is to be able to identify plants and know when and how to plant spuds.

So, with gardening’s reduced public profile, plant collections have slipped into oblivion and great gardens of the past have almost been forgotten. Garden club memberships have been shrinking and the average age of those involved has been rising, so now any gardener under 40 is seen as a “young thing”. All this has led to whispers in gardening circles about whether gardeners could become an endangered species.

Slowly, though, we’re seeing a new generation of gardeners starting to emerge. Whether they’re vegetable patches and orchards or backyard chook runs and rambling food forests, gardens are certainly back in vogue – although perhaps today’s ones are more down to earth than those of the past.

Driving this revolution are an increasing number of programmes involving gardens in schools, including the Garden to Table Trust and Enviroschools, and other community-led projects. Consequently, gardening’s future appears to be in good hands.

This year’s Ellerslie International Flower Show was a quieter affair, with fewer large gardens than in previous years, although those there were of a high standard. The lower turnout was to be expected in a city that is on the verge of a massive rebuild following two challenging years since its devastating earthquakes.

However, far stronger in quality and number this year were the student exhibitions from around the country. Here among the little rooftop gardens and trendy courtyards is a new generation of designers ready to take on larger spaces. The stars of the show were new graduates Rebecca Hammond and Grant Stephens, whose garden was chic, productive and, importantly, stuffed with great plants. It also reused materials in a refreshing manner. The use of colourful kitchen cupboards, for example, was a kitchen gardener’s fantasy.

Most inspiring was a silver award winning entry from Raumati South School pupils. Although they were first-time exhibiters at Ellerslie, their work has been a standout at the Kapiti Coast District Council’s Sustainable Home and Garden Show for the past two years. However, the real roots of their garden passion come from their work at school. They first entered the Kapiti show because it came with a $1000 grant for materials, which they could take back to school after the show closed.

Raumati South School pupils honing their skills. Photo/David Haxton

As the project evolved, Michael Stewart, one of the teachers leading it, observed that the learning opportunities and benefits were more wide-ranging than just the goodies the pupils were taking home. They learnt a lot while building the garden, and were also able to see the application of their ideas as it evolved. The Ellerslie garden is a fusion of two years of Kapiti show gardens, and the ideas that emerged in each.

Although most of the project is focused on gardening, plants and food production, it also has a broader focus that relates to the environments of the school and the broader community. For example, pupils explore various ways of generating nitrogen through composting systems such as worm farms. The fun starts when they explore the use of water. The garden uses 10 types of mulch, which helps retain moisture in the beds, and has a water collection system. From here the project moves from biology to physics; an old bicycle is used to drive a timeworn dairy pump that distributes the water wherever the gardener wishes. The outcome is a water feature driven by child-power – perhaps offering a solution to some of the country’s health issues along the way.

The water focus was developed after the school became involved in the Take Action for Water programme, which is run by the Greater Wellington Regional Council. The programme provided an educator and transport to take the children to Hemi Matenga Memorial Park Scenic Reserve, Waikanae, where they studied pristine water quality and observed the life it attracts and supports. Then they visited and analysed their local stream, Wharemauku, and compared its condition. Wharemauku once supplied Raumati with drinking water, but it’s now heavily polluted. This exercise encouraged the pupils’ interest in water conservation.

With Raumati having primarily sandy soils, it was also important for the pupils to learn which plants would tolerate drought conditions. The school gardens extend into a project that has seen 4500 trees planted in the school grounds in the past four years. This, too, was a response to the children connecting with concerns in their community. A four-lane motorway is being proposed for the school’s backyard, so one child wanted to know what would happen to the birds if it was built.

Good to grow children
Photo/David Haxton

From this, the students decided with their teachers that the best reaction was positive action, and the planting project – now near completion – was the result. The bush reserve has flags to mark the places where students can discover native fauna such as lizards and birds. Stewart says the project has resulted in a broadening of the children’s skills, ranging from the development of research and project-management techniques to a burgeoning interest in science and mathematics. He says the most valuable aspect, however, has been that by doing the show gardens, the children have learnt to communicate their ideas and explain to the public what they have learnt and why they approached the garden in a particular way. He stresses it is the children’s garden: their design, their inspiration and their story to share.

The resources from the original show garden were brought back to Raumati, but this year the school has donated its garden to Christchurch’s Wharenui School. With such fresh energy coming through, I think we can rest assured there will be a new generation of gardeners. Roses may not take front row any more, and the focus may be as much on nature as it is on nurture, but at least gardening skills will evolve rather than simply fade away.


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