Time to learn? Children in the garden. Photograph: Alamy
A report from the RHS has shown that teaching gardening in schools is a great help to children in their other studies, their sense of self worth and their wellbeing. It seems now there are another three R’s that we can look to for guidance and results because after school gardening a child becomes “Ready to learn, Resilient & Responsible”. The RHS report makes very bold and wide-ranging claims about the benefits of school gardening. I’m not qualified to assess whether they are true of not, but I am all in favor of the gardening curriculum. Anything that broadens a child’s experience in school is surely a good thing. I am almost too old to remember my school days, but visions of endless hours sitting stuck behind a desk still linger. To go out and move around was reward enough, whatever the teacher’s ulterior motive. So getting outside is a beneficial thing for children, as to whether it’s real value is in “gardening”, I’m not sure. What I am sure is that I struggle to marry my own experiences of children and gardening with the RHS report.
For example, Dame Gillian Pugh introduces the report with this:
There can be few more rewarding experiences – for either children or adults – than watching the seeds they have sown, sometimes more in hope than expectation, push up through the soil and grow into beautiful flowers or vegetables that they can pick and eat.
This isn’t my reality. I have spent many hours and lots of money trying to encourage my children to garden. We have planted bulbs and seeds, cut flowers, picked peas and strawberries. Together the eight-year-old and I have created fairy gardens and planted window boxes. The result is always the same. After about 10 to 15 minutes of “gardening”, she’s had enough and wanders off to instigate an argument with her sister. I am left to finish off.
I think the reality is that there is no escaping the fact that gardening is a chore. The weeding, the digging, the pruning, the deadheading, the weeding again … It’s like tidying your bedroom but outdoors. As adults who like the results of gardening, it is a necessary evil. It may all be a little different if there were sweet trees; but as nature stands at the moment, to a child, the results just aren’t that interesting. So I disagree with Gillian Pugh. A child may like to pick a home-grown strawberry, but it’s not such a great thing that they will bother to tend the plant in order to get the fruit.
After years of trying I now believe that trying to get your children to garden is not only a waste of time and money, it is also depressing for the adult and leads to conflict and disappointment. These are not good emotions to start fostering a love of nature and gardening. I have lost count of the number of times the newly planted seeds and tender seedlings have been demolished by overenthusiastic watering. How many times I have said “Not like that!” or “Please don’t …”
Where, then, does this lead us in the debate with the RHS and encouraging gardening? How can I endorse school gardening and not home gardening? I think there are two things that need to be considered. First, school is where a child expects to learn in a particular way, it’s very task orientated. 1) Plant seed. 2) Draw picture. 3) Write expected result (and draw picture). 4) Go back to see result (and draw picture). It’s very structured and with an end goal, unlike real gardening, which has no end! So I think gardening at school isn’t really gardening – just science, allotment-style.
The second point is that the relationship between teachers and children is very clearly defined. The teacher, is there to teach and correct (and all the positive stuff too). With the parent, it’s more complex, challenging and changing. I heard a quote once that “a child learns everything from a parent but you can’t tell them anything”. I feel that in constantly trying to cajole and maneuver my children into “gardening”, I have stifled their natural curiosity and enjoyment of the garden. My eight-year-old would spend hours pottering around, collecting ladybirds, making potions with bits of grass and flowers, until I interfered and got her digging and planting. It’s not what she wanted to do and now she groans at the idea of going to the garden centre and watches the ripening strawberries only to make sure her sister doesn’t eat the first red one before she does. She can’t tell what a tulip or a daffodil is even though I drilled it into her when she was younger. I am really disappointed, mainly in myself, as I feel I selfishly tried to make her like and care about what I did.
I have now decided to make a conscious decision not to talk to her about gardening unless she asks. I am also trying to leave the younger one to her own devices. I find it hard, though, to stop myself. Only the other day I enlisted her help to dig up some lettuces we had grown. I turned away momentarily and when I looked back, she was jumping up and down on them, thoroughly enjoying the way they crunched. I turned away again, took a deep breath, counted to ten and thought, this is the perfect illustration of why we shouldn’t encourage our children to garden.
Lucy Masters is a plant enthusiast who loves to garden. She founded the website wikigardening.com to help more people to get involved in gardening through the sharing of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm. Lucy also has an intermittent blog, Sometimes Gardening.