Learning by growing

In the picturesque seaside town of Riverton, west of Invercargill, a school garden is proving to be a fertile ground for the cross-pollination of learning, as Hollie Guyton and Rebecca Perez show here in words and pictures. 

Photos: Hollie Guyton and Rebecca Perez 
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At the edge of the third sports field at Aparima College, between a forgotten soccer goal and the river mouth, you will find the Aparima College School and Community Gardens. The gardens show the marks of teenagers: radish and carrot tops lying on the paths, the occasional footprint in the garlic bed, and a rather wonky line of broad beans. 

From vision to action 

In July 2020 the principal of Aparima College, Cameron Davis, recognised an increase in food insecurity amongst his students. He looked at our plans for a market garden, extensive hedgerow and food forest that we hoped would one day take over one of his school fields, and he and the school’s board of trustees took a bold step, employing a young local grower Rebecca Perez, originally an organic market gardener in the Pacific Northwest (United States), to be Aparima College’s school vegetable gardener.  

The gardens were established with the vision of growing food for the school students, and providing a source of low-cost and free organic produce for their families and the community.  

Local materials 

The gardens were built from what is around them, excepting a load of organic compost brought in to initially build the beds. Cardboard we dumpster-dived for at the local supermarket; seaweed was collected from the beach; flowers, tubers and seeds came from the gardens of friends and neighbours; mulch was provided by the weeds and wild plants that grow in our orchard; we made comfrey and seaweed tea for feeding, and took cuttings from every hedgerow and forest garden in the area.  

We wanted to create a low-input and low-cost system so our students know that food can come from what’s already around them, that cost need not be a barrier, that all they need is a keen eye and pockets and they will be able to grow a garden wherever they find themselves.  

Charlotte Smart and Diaz Fischer in the ‘three sisters’ patch – corn, squash (pumpkin) and beans

Diverse companions 

The gardens have annual vegetables and flowers, and in a hedgerow surrounding the gardens are perennial herbs, berries, fruit and nut trees, basket willow and other coppicing trees.  

Our garden beds are made with layered cardboard, seaweed and compost, without digging into the sandy soil below. We try to interplant all beds to have as little bare soil as we can so that moisture is held in the beds, and we harvest plants above the roots, leaving the base of the plant to decompose in the soil.  

We companion plant in every bed, and hope that students will grow up in this garden, thinking that carrots naturally grow with lettuces, and corn just belongs with her sisters squash and beans, and, most importantly, that soil wants to be covered with plants.  

Chalize Fischer and Charlotte Smart creating a tepee climbing frame for beans

Long-season crops 

Our relationship with the school means our garden does not need to make a large profit and we don’t need to focus our energy on quick-growing, high-value crops like salad mix and baby carrots, and can instead grow all of the kinds of food that we know our school and community eat: long-season crops like onions, pumpkins, garlic, potatoes, leeks, and celery.  

It also means that efficiency needn’t be the biggest concern for us, because what we are really after is time: the time our young people spend side by side, talking, sowing carrots by hand, planting seedlings hand-widths apart, using niwashi ‘sharks’ (toothed sickles) to drop wild plants where they grew, catching white cabbage moth caterpillars, and hands deep in the soil searching for potatoes.  

Gardening = maths, English, woodwork, science, art! 

The gardens are being integrated into many subjects in the school. This autumn we’ve had maths classes in the garden – measuring our beds and our compost pile, and calculating how much more compost we’ll need for the next season of bed building.  

This winter our English classes will be spending time talking to local gardening elders, recording oral histories of gardening in Southland, and using their knowledge to inform our own school gardening calendar.  

Next season we hope our woodwork students will have enough materials to try their hand at willow basketry, the science classes will lead our garden’s composting, seed saving and plant selection, art classes will use plants from the garden to dye natural materials, and our social sciences classes will map the wild plants around our gardens and learn how we can support their growth.  

Willow Thompson with a freshly harvested onion.

Farm to fork 

This autumn students have been lending a hand in the gardens every Wednesday during a gardening elective, and at lunchtimes on especially sunny days. In late March they were planting broad beans, garlic and winter cover crops, and harvesting potatoes and onions for winter storage. The students will use these to make hot school meals on Thursdays throughout the winter.  

Vegetables from the gardens, including fresh carrots, radishes, tomatoes, celery, kohlrabi, cucumbers and courgettes, are eaten by students with great gusto every lunchtime. Now that the season is turning, we’re starting to make weekly warm lunches out of our produce with students’ help. Our first meal this week was beef and vegetable stew with mince donated from a local farmer, and many potatoes, celery, carrots, garlic and zucchini from the gardens.  

Vegetables from the gardens are given away and sold to members of the community at our harvest market each Saturday, where we harvest vegetables to order. All proceeds from harvest market sales go back into the garden and toward providing nourishing food for the students.  

We created a low-input, low-cost system so students know that food can come from what’s already around them – cost need not be a barrier.

Hollie Guyton is the librarian at Aparima College and Rebecca Perez is the school’s vegetable gardener. Together Hollie and Rebecca founded Village Agrarians villageagrarians.org, whose mission is to support and grow the communities of organic growers and farmers, producers, food activists, community gardeners, eaters, and everyone working to grow local, ecological and equitable food systems. 

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