As I arrived at school this morning the first question I was asked was ‘Can we garden in the snow’? The thought of gardening seems quite ridiculous to many of the staff; the crops we planted last Autumn are still hidden under a thick layer of snow and the ground is still frozen. I however have a few indoor gardening sessions for them to choose from so that children do not miss out on their gardening time.
Potato chitting – This year we will be growing 4 early varieties of potato; Swift, Rocket, Charlotte and Winston. Early potatoes are a good choice for schools as they take 12-18 weeks to harvest so fit nicely within the school calendar and guarantee a harvest before the summer holidays. You might also like to consider planting a heritage potato variety especially if you are linking to any Dig For Victory or historical topics. I encourage pupils to ‘chit’ (sprout) their potatoes before planting.
Pupils begin examining the potato and look for the ‘eyes’, they then position the potato with the majority of eyes facing up in an egg box (or similar) and place on a cool light windowsill. Within a few weeks the eyes will begin to sprout and you will be able to see the tiny leaves and roots beginning to form. Once the sprouts are a couple of cm long the potato is ‘chitted’ and ready to plant.
I generally recommend that potatoes be grown in containers rather than within the beds (large pots, buckets, compost sacks or potato planting bags can be used). This recommendation is based on a number of reasons;
1. Frost damage – growing potatoes in containers means that they can be put out into the school garden earlier than if planted in the ground and if frost is forecast either brought back in or protected with fleece.
2. Space - this is generally at a premium in the growing beds, by growing in containers beds can be left free for other crops later in the year.
3. Harvesting - Container growing also allows for easy harvesting and eliminates the possibility of small potatoes being left in the school garden to then sprout in between newly sown crops next year.
If you would like more information on growing potatoes in schools I suggest you visit Potatoes for Schools Scheme run by the British Potato Council for some excellent resources. The RHS Campaign for School Gardening also has an excellent potato diary for children to complete through the life of their potato.
Seed sowing indoors – Although the ground is too solid and cold to allow any direct sowing we can start some crops off indoors (these crops will eventually be planted in the school garden when the weather improves).
To begin this session I bring in a range of different seeds for the children to observe, we discuss the many sizes, shapes and colours available. We also guess what plant the seed might grow into.
The first seeds we look at are broccoli – the children are amazed at how tiny these seeds are and that an actual broccoli ‘tree’ will grow from such a tiny seed. We then go on to discuss which part of the plant we are eating when they eat broccoli, the children are very amused that they have been eating flowers but some bemoan the fact that we will eat the crop before the beautiful flowers open. I assure them that broccoli flowers are not the most attractive and we will grow other flowers in the garden for their beauty! At the end of this session children are impressed that we have found such a range of shapes and sizes in just a few packets of seeds.
I now begin to discuss the plant families and that certain crops are actually related, similar to siblings or cousins. I have a very basic family tree for each of our main crops and children choose the cucumber family to look at, we find a sample of seed packets from the family and begin looking at the seeds. The children are surprised that after the variety of seeds we looked at earlier that each packet contains seeds of similar colour and shape, the main differences being only in the size of the seed. I ask the children what would happen if we had an accident and mixed up our seeds, would they be able to work out which family the seed came from ? They are confident that they would manage it!
If you do not have a variety of seeds in school to look at why not check out the Seed Site for resources for children and teachers.
We then move onto the indoor planting practical. The children choose what they wish to plant from a selection including Leeks, Salad Leaves, Herbs and some flowering plants (sweet peas and marigolds), and decide on a suitable container to plant into. In schools where a greenhouse (or large indoor growing area) is available we may even start some peppers and tomatoes off to try and harvest the first crop before the summer holidays. In schools without a greenhouse I encourage children to plant their tomatoes around Easter time so they can be planted in individual pots and taken home to be cared for through the summer holidays. It is worth noting that any indoor sowings will need pricking out once the seedlings have their true leaves, a great test of dexterity for the children and adults!
I hope these ideas will inspire schools to ‘Get Growing’ even in these arctic conditions!