Inclement weather, winter roses and toasted buns

Snow Queen 2014 008

Gerda played by Sarah Smart

Unlike my stateside sister and her family, who are waistdeep in snowdrifts at present, I can spot signs of Spring all around. The birds are happily house hunting and carrying out home improvements before moving in and it looks like my front garden daffs will be blooming in time for St David’s Day. Even the rain couldn’t spoil Half Term week, which means ‘showtime’ around here.

Last week the whole family were involved in a production of The Snow Queen, helping to transport the good folk of Bradford on Avon to the frozen North for a final showdown between the evil ice maiden and gutsy Gerda whose hope and faithful love – symbolised by a rose which bloomed in the depths of Winter – won the day. Toasted buns also featured prominently. I’d never refuse one of those.

As you know, I’m not one for flowers which bloom out of season but I like the idea of something good being symbolised by a flower. And so I am declaring this week Flower Patch Week.

There are three good reasons for this.

  1. Sara and I launch our new business later today.  Our Flower Patch will help primary schools and pre schools teach the new National Curriculum in a practical, hands-on way by growing cut flowers for sale. It’s true that any subject can be taught in the garden and you get to sell the product of your labours. Win. Win. Do check out the website and see what you think. Pass the information on to any primary school you know of.
  2. Our good friend and twitterchum Lou publishes her new book The Cut Flower Patch on March 6th to help and encourage allotment holders and gardeners grow cutting patches of their own.
  3. My new class at Fitzmaurice Primary have declared themselves up for the challenge of running a successful flower growing business in the school grounds.

And so, to celebrate Flower Patch Week I’d like you all to toast a bun or two and commit EITHER to tweeting pictures of last year’s cut flower successes OR to growing some cut flowers this year. In the case of intentions, tweet pics of what you’d like to grow. Advice and encouragement is on hand from myself, Sara and Lou. And you’ll be doing oodles for biodiversity, low flower miles, seasonality and the availability of british flowers.

Come on and celebrate Flower Patch Week with a flowery tweet to me @countrygate or @ourflowerpatch.

Stormy weather, Valentine’s hearts and an education.


It seems that stormy weather has been unconfined this week – outside my window and even on my PC. As a teacher I’m all too aware that children are whipped up to a frenzy by high winds and it would seem that the same is true for parts of the Twitter community, much of it centering on this ‘bouquet’ – for sale to you at £195 (including vase).

For those of you who don’t know, it is this year’s ‘ultimate’ Valentine’s Day bouquet from big business Interflora in collaboration with the RHS. Every flower was chosen because of its symbolism. A flowery expression of love. Yet it has whipped up members of the relatively small but passionate and vocal British flower growing industry because of its lack of seasonality and ‘Britishness’, something which they would like the RHS to take on board.

A little investigation reveals that, in fact, the RHS has taken seasonality and ‘Britishness’ on board by linking with Tregothnan, the ancient Cornish estate which takes its sustainable credentials seriously and supplies beautiful, seasonal cut flowers. It’s just that the RHS are not exclusively promoting British-grown, cut flowers.

Whatever your views on the aesthetic beauty (or lack of it) of the Interflora bouquet, its homage to the language of flowers, the tightrope that charities have to walk between awareness raising and fundraising (often by their links with big business) and the need for all businesses (multi national and artisan) to make money, it has certainly caused a bit of a stir. It has also confirmed my long-held feeling that the key to changing people’s attitudes about local, seasonal produce and getting them to see things from your point of view – even if they still don’t agree with it – is education.

The day before this hit the headlines I had been discussing the very topic of seasonality and flower symbolism with my Year 5 gardening class. (The ones who are growing a cutting patch.) We are mid preparation for a poppy meadow in school to commemorate the start of the Great War. We also plan to sell poppy seedballs and instructions to members of the school community to sow in their gardens at home.

Amidst the designing of seed packets, the writing of sowing instructions, the construction of signs to mark the area where the meadow will grow and posters to sell our poppy packets, we discussed the irony that a flower which means so much on November 11th is not in bloom in Britain on that day. After some debate about the problems of artificial poppies (all that paper and plastic weighed up against the need to sell for fundraising) and importing poppies from warmer climes (air miles and fuel versus work for those involved in their growth and the logistics of sending them here), the children decided that planting a modest meadow to bloom year after year was the very best kind of commemoration even if it looks ‘pretty uncool’ in November. “We could take photos”, someone suggested.

I had no need to take part in the debate!

At this point I’m reminded of that ancient Chinese saying that is wheeled out on every teacher training course in the land.

Tell me, I’ll forget.

Show me, I’ll remember.

Involve me, I’ll understand.

I think our flower growing project in schools is going some way towards ensuring that our young people understand the issues surrounding seasonal, home-grown flowers. Not only will they know how to grow them, but they can make informed choices about what to buy in the future and, as they are eco-aware children, you can be sure that their parents will be told all about it too.

And where Valentine’s bouquets are concerned…..well, I am a girl with simple but elegant taste; the kind of girl who would be delighted were my husband to arrive home clutching either of these next Friday.

Tregothnan hearta favourite splash of scalet from Tregothnan


daffs to melt a Welsh girl’s heart from Sara Willman

Mum’s on a ‘horse’

daylesford_organic bicycle

That suprised you, didn’t it?

Banish all thoughts of me galloping with abandon around Wiltshire, hair flowing in the wind. The ‘horse’ in question is a ‘valuable and inspirational learning experience’; an ‘opportunity to bond with like-minded others’ and ‘have a good lunch’. In other words – a course. It’s a family joke. Several years ago when my children were very little I disappeared for the day to run just such an event.  Upon my return, my middle child had drawn a beautiful picture of me riding side saddle over an enormous hedge and wearing a scarlet jacket.

January seems to be THE month to book a course. My inbox is full of exhortations to try anything from beekeeping to directing Shakespeare and making perfect preserves. Twitter is alive with all sorts of tweeps running social media for business days, hedgelaying, getting your PR spot on, photography and flower farming for beginners. If you want to learn something new, someone is there to show you how to do it….. at a price. In fact, for every course there are dozens of people who purport to do it better than anyone else. Don’t be fooled by the one who shouts the loudest and who is ‘endorsed’ by business associates. Look for independant reviews. Ask to speak to individuals who’ve been on the course and find out how useful it was for them. If they were hoping to become a whizz at watercolour painting and they haven’t picked up a brush since, in my book, that wasn’t a good course, however good the cake or glass of wine over lunch.

How’s a girl to choose?

Some courses choose themselves – like the ones I’ve attended recently offered by Cambridge University’s Classics Department to encourage schools to bring back the teaching of Latin. They are free, conveniently located, provide ample opportunity to share ideas with teachers who are at various stages on the journey and delivered by someone who clearly knows their stuff and is experienced and well respected in their field.What’s more they remain at the end of the phone for advice at a later date and they don’t charge extra for it. I like enthusastic individuals who are generous with their time.

Some years ago when I was teaching ‘extreme’ gardening to 25 children during 20 minutes in the lunch hour I attended another course for bods running school gardening activities. It took place at the very swanky Daylesford Organics farmshop in the Cotswolds, where it’s not unusual to bump into Liz Hurley amongst the caramelised onion and goats’ cheese tartlets. This had all the ingredients of a successful course – inspirational venue, fabulous food, opportunities to share ideas with others, organised by a well respected expert in the field (in this case, Garden Organic), a mix of theory and practical demonstration and it was free, so one is prepared to make some allowances.

We all had a fabulous day.We exchanged ideas and moaned about the difficulties of gardening in our lunchtime. Garden Organic fulfilled their mission to encourage and equip teachers to lead gardening activities in their schools. Daylesford Organics acquired some skilled and willing volunteer labourers for the day to work in their kitchen garden. Job done……. except it wasn’t.

Once back at the chalkface in our own schools and facing the inevitable pressures of lack of time, resources and multiple demands on us, our good intentions fell by the wayside. What we needed was a regular ‘fix’ of inspiration, ideas and mentoring through the difficulties. 

Sara and I have thought long and hard whilst setting up Our Flower Patch about how to make growing in schools really work for teachers and pupils. We believe we’ve cracked it on our soon to be launched website.

We’ll look forward to hearing what you think when we launch in earnest. In the meantime, follow us on Facebook or Twitter to keep up to date with our progress and news about growing cut flowers in school.

Seed time, Harvest and new beginnings

Happy New Year! In case you’re wondering –  I haven’t lost the plot. September has been the start of the year for as long as I can remember. I imagine it has everything to do with my agricultural roots and perhaps a little to do with being a teacher. Farm tenancies traditionally start in September as do school years. The previous year’s crops are harvested, seeds are collected and next year’s planting plans are finalised in a brand new notebook. Yes. It’s at this time of year that I get to indulge my unhealthy interest in stationery!!

Of course we are still harvesting from our plot – in particular borlotti beans for drying, courgettes, tomatoes,raspberries, dahlias, sweet peas and lots of herbs. But there is a sense of things coming to an end. I have been sowing green manures in vacant parts of the plot after harvesting and making plans for the coming year. And there is the Harvest Supper to look forward to.

This year’s plans also involve the local primary school where I have run a gardening club for a number of years. The exciting news is that this year gardening is on the curriculum. On Wednesday afternoons I will be working with each class in turn on a garden related project. I start tomorrow with Year 6 and a Dig for Victory garden to enhance their topic work on World War II. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

And if you’re looking for other jobs which can usefully be completed in September – either at home or with schoolchildren – here’s my Top Ten………

  1. Sow green manures on vacant parts of your plot
  2. Order garlic, shallots and over- wintering onions for planting next month.
  3. Sow something for Winter. There are some ready made planting packs available for those who want an instant Autumn into Winter garden from Rocket Gardens or River Cottage.
  4. Expose Apples and Pears to the sun to ripen
  5. Make chutneys with gluts of courgettes and green tomatoes.
  6. Plant Strawberry plants to increase your stock. If you are very organised you will have potted up runners from your existing stock. Aim to replace plants every three years and give each plant plenty of space.
  7. Earth up leeks
  8. Plant bulbs for Spring. This is a great project for school. We’re planning a daffodil maze this year near the garden shed.
  9. Place mesh or similar under pumpkins and squashes to allow air to circulate underneath and stop the underside becoming soft and mushy.
  10. Start your plan for next year’s edible garden..

Not so lazy Monday afternoon

I like to begin the week with a burst of energy and running a session of ‘extreme’ gardening at my children’s primary school on Monday afternoon is as good a way as any. Trying to cram in something fun, meaningful and safe in 25 minutes, often in the most appalling weather with a dozen or so highly keen but often ill dressed apprentice gardeners gets the adrenalin  pumping almost as much as tightrope walking between tower blocks or ironing halfway up a mountain.

I have to admit to having a bit of a love-hate relationship with the school gardening club, particularly after meeting some other teachers at ‘Seedy Sunday’ recently. For they have a whole two hours on Wednesday afternoons in which to garden and (get this!) actual teachers at the school actually work in the garden, in actual lessons and they have loads of actual volunteer helpers!!!

I know that we are far better off than many school gardening clubs for, as you see, we started with  large school grounds and proper raised beds. I often meet or hear from people who are attempting to run gardening clubs with little or no support or funding and are getting just that bit brassed off. I salute them all.  Gardening with keen children is the best job in the world but if you are faced with difficult circumstances it’s easy to lose your mojo.  Below is my recipe to get it restarted.

  •  Do what you can do well and not what you’d like to do. Sounds simple enough but the perception seems to be  that the only way to go is with an all singing, all dancing club, where you have funding, resources, lots of helpers and above all enough time. Reality check! If you are the only person running the club in 20 minutes a week at lunchtime this model is not for you. Dip into books, the media and get help from the likes of  Garden Organic and RHS Campaign for School Gardening but don’t feel you have to do it all. If you can’t sing and dance just growl to begin with. (With thanks to Malcolm Smith, Lead Garden Eucation Officer with the Food for Life Parnership for the metaphor).
  • Offer to garden with individuals whom the school feels would benefit from the attention. This is a great way to get back to enjoying gardening with kids and when the school see the benefits you might find them more prepared to be actively supportive on bigger projects.
  • Offer to use your gardening expertise with individual class projects eg planting a small Roman herb garden with classes studying the Romans, growing beans in various conditions as part of a science lesson, taking a small group outside to do measuring in Maths by planting veg at the correct intervals. You won’t have to worry about funding as the school will provide the wherewithal and you’ll have the teacher and teaching assistant to help. What’s more the class and teacher will want to take care of their work in the long term.
  • Suggest a one-off project eg Autumn bulb planting with donations of bulbs from parents and refreshments for those taking part. It’s a great way for a bit of parent/school bonding and publicity for the school. You might well find that one or two parents enjoy the experience so  much they offer to help more regularly. The Woodland Trust supply hedging plant packs free to schools and if your school has enough space this could work as a one-off too. 
  • Treat the school gardening club as an exension of (or alternative to) your own allotment. You supply the seeds and plants etc and in return for gardening with children ,you get to keep or sell the produce in a wheelbarrow market to parents. There may be other parents without gardens who would be prepared to help in return for some fresh veg.
  • Suggest a garden themed class competition eg design and plant a hanging basket or sunflower growing competition with a prize donated by the school or local business. Get the local paper involved.
  • Make some links with the local community. There may be a local allotment association, veg box scheme or plant nursery who could offer some expertise or freebies on an ad hoc basis to take the heat off you for a while. It’s good publicity for them too.

After all gardening in school as a volunteer may be a bit ‘extreme’ but it shouldn’t hurt you.

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