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Birchwood High School young gardeners flourish during lockdown




Students at Birchwood High School have been honing their horticultural skills during lockdown.

With the help of Well Bean Gardening's Wendy Gordon, children at the Parsonage Lane secondary have cultivated fruit and veg during weekly sessions.

Kate Byers, the school's community manager, said that the project has its roots in two programmes started before the coronavirus crisis, when Birchwood's Parents, Staff and Friends Association (PSFA) funded a six-week lunchtime course for pupils who are young carers, showing them in a relaxed, friendly atmosphere how to sow and grow plants.

Dan, Josh and Daniel harvesting potatoes. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646495)
Dan, Josh and Daniel harvesting potatoes. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646495)

Karen Homer, a higher level teaching assistant, had worked with students on an initial garden design as part of the Royal Horticultural Society's (RHS) Green Plan It scheme to aid their science studies.

But to continue to bear fruit, further funding was required, so the Stort Valley and Villages Primary Care Network stepped in to back the healthy living initiative.

The original plan was for Wendy to run an after-school gardening club once a week for youngsters. When Covid-19 closed schools to all except vulnerable students and children of key workers, the new classes began.

Cerys tending to the pepper plants in the greenhouse. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646475)
Cerys tending to the pepper plants in the greenhouse. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646475)

For the past 12 weeks, the socially-distanced youngsters and staff have turned an unloved corner of the school grounds into a flourishing garden, helped with the donation of pepper plants from Homebase in Stansted Road before it shut at the start of the pandemic.

The green-fingered team have grown beans, courgettes, cucumbers, peppers, potatoes, pumpkin, sweetcorn, tomatoes, strawberries, herbs, sunflowers and other flowers, and have learned how to prepare – and enjoy eating – their organic crops, including beetroot and potatoes, within an hour of being dug out of the ground.

Assistant head Jolene Jacobson said: "The gardening club has been brilliant for our students during lockdown – they've especially enjoyed sampling the fruits of their labours."

The school is determined that the gardening project will continue to grow and is appealing for sponsorship from businesses to fund further work, including raised beds, a pond and seating area.

Birchwood students, from left, Cerys, Dan, Josh, Daniel and Max and teacher Joys De Graaf look on as Wendy Gordon prepares to cook the freshly harvested potatoes. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646470)
Birchwood students, from left, Cerys, Dan, Josh, Daniel and Max and teacher Joys De Graaf look on as Wendy Gordon prepares to cook the freshly harvested potatoes. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646470)

Kate said that the benefits were clear: students were learning about science, nutrition and healthy living, and reaping mental health as well as educational benefits.

Wendy said: "Their genuine enthusiasm has been overwhelming. In between my visits they've been visiting the garden at lunchtimes to water and watch the plants. They've been waiting at the greenhouse for me every Tuesday, desperate to show me what's flowering or producing fruit. It's been a very positive project in very uncertain times but certainly demonstrates the power of plants."

An RHS-qualified ex-teacher, before the pandemic Wendy also ran gardening sessions at Thorn Grove, Spellbrook and Birchanger primary schools, as well as weekly classes at Angels at Play Day Nurseries in Ware and Hoddesdon. She is on a mission to introduce all ages to the benefits.

Cerys waters one of the newly dug and planted beds. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646488)
Cerys waters one of the newly dug and planted beds. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646488)

She said: "You don't need a massive space or lots of fancy equipment. You just need some knowledge and lots of enthusiasm. Even if you've only got space for a few pots on a windowsill, growing your own plants is massively satisfying whether you're three or 103."

To that end, Well Bean runs a series of workshops in Bishop's Stortford throughout the year, showing how to grow vegetables and flowers, how to choose plants for hanging baskets and containers, or how to make Christmas wreaths from garden foliage.

Dan samples some freshly-grown, picked and cooked new potatoes. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646461)
Dan samples some freshly-grown, picked and cooked new potatoes. Pic: Vikki Lince (38646461)

Wendy says: "I've had to adapt the workshops to the new Covid restrictions, with a range of measures in place to keep everyone safe, but all sessions are very practical – everyone takes home what they create in the workshop. More importantly, you'll leave with the knowledge and the confidence to do it yourself at home.

"There's no denying that gardening is good for you. It gets you outside in the fresh air, it's fantastic exercise, it's stress-busting so improves mental health. You improve your environment by introducing colour, sound and scent which attract beneficial insects.

"After all your hard work you can eat what you grow, cutting down on food miles and eating healthy, organic, fresh fruit and vegetables. What's not to like?"

Contact Wendy, who lives in Bishop's Stortford, through the Well Bean Gardening Facebook page, which includes seasonal hints and tips, plant information and general gardening advice, or email wendy@wellbeangardening.com.


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