Our Flower Patch

Inspiring a new generation of growers

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I don’t want to go to Chelsea? Ten ways the Chelsea Flower Show could inspire young growers.

Chatsworth garden RHS Chelsea 2015

Large boulders & naturalistic planting- simply wonderful, Best in Show for Dan Pearson. Photo by Marie McLeish

Not strictly true, for me. For the last few years life’s responsibilities have conspired against me, mostly parent or teacher related. Last time I went to the Chelsea Flower Show – more moons ago than I care to remember – I was not teaching. Neither was I a parent. It started me thinking about the whole glorious horticultural circus and what, if anything, it has to offer young growers like our members and my own children. Chelsea has never marketed itself as a show for children, or, in fact one which is family-friendly in any way. I’m pretty sure there was a time when anyone under sixteen wasn’t allowed in. Now it’s just the under fives which are excluded. That’s not unreasonable. The site is relatively small, very crowded and few under fives would be engaged in any way.What’s more, it’s quite healthy for plant-loving parents of small children to have a day out without having to concentrate on the wellbeing, happiness and entertainment of little folk. There are other shows more suitable. What’s more we have never advocated ‘playing at gardening’ or child specific gardening.  Our young growers understand the realities of growing – the highs, the lows, the hard work, the teamwork, what’s involved in running a garden related business, the pleasure that you can give by growing flowers and the environmental impact, both positive and negative gardening has. And all of this is to be found at Chelsea. There has been so much talk in recent months about the dearth of youngsters seeing horticulture as an aspirational or even a viable career and also the importance to children’s general health of getting their hands in the soil, learning how to nurture plants. When Wimbledon is on TV at the end of June the parks are full of children playing tennis; when Chelsea is on TV in mid May, shouldn’t there be children out in their gardens, sowing seeds and creating veg plots and flower patches? What, if anything, does Chelsea have to offer in the way of inspiration to get the ball rolling? Does it have a spark to ignite a passion for horticulture which will last a lifetime? This year nine-year-old George Hassall, young RHS gardener of the year was given a high profile, presenting the Queen with a posy of flowers he’d helped to arrange. We think there are plenty of ways a flower show which concentrates on cutting edge garden design, breakthrough trends and new plants could engage all gardeners of tomorrow. Here are ten ways. You may be able to think of more.

Creating inspiring spaces

Just one look at Dan Pearson’s 2015 Best in Show Chatsworth Garden will tell you all you need to know about how gardens can evoke, time, place and atmosphere. Sit in the middle of his trademark naturalistic planting, stone boulders and running beck and you could be anywhere other than a corner of a Chelsea park. People need inspiring outdoor spaces in which to relax and garden designers have the ability to make people happy and transform spaces. That’s something for young growers to aspire to. Study the story of how Dan Pearson has transformed his Chelsea triangle into a corner of Chatsworth House and they will begin to see how projects are managed, how teams come together to make things happen, just how many skills can be developed through the making of a garden and the impact your work can have. Even looking at a flower decorated chair or a planted up teacup on a stand in the pavilion can give them ideas about small design projects they can try out for themselves.

Chatsworth Garden RHS Chelsea

I’d love to spend a while sitting on those stones in Dan Pearson’s Chatsworth garden. Photo by Marie McLeish

Creating links with the curriculum

Two of the most interesting gardens featured on Monday night’s BBC coverage from Chelsea were connected with historical events – The Battle of Waterloo and the 800 year anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. Both  events had been widely researched as part of the design process. For children who find the business of learning and retaining facts challenging, the opportunity to design a garden based on an historical event is an ideal way to delve into the people, places and events of the past in a tangible way. If you’ve planted a mini-meadow, you’ll remember that the Magna Carta was signed at Runnymede. What’s more you’ll have learned plenty about the importance of meadows stuffed with native wildflowers in these times of climate change and lack of bee friendly verges. The use of colours to represent the opposing sides in a  battle and the inclusion of heraldic shields to represent the barons  give strong images to children who learn in a visual way. Children like a project to get stuck into and learning for a reason. Designing a garden could be that project and all the hooks for all those facts, figures, motivations and characters they need to remember. Job done.

Cedric Morris Irises from the National Collection of Claire Austin. Photo by Michelle Chapman

Cedric Morris Irises from the National Collection. Photo by Michelle Chapman

Celebrating an eye for design 

The skills needed by designers are outlined in the national curriculum  and what better way to explore them in practice than to view at first hand how the Chelsea gardens have been created. Here is an excellent opportunity to investigate practical maths, risk management, the ethical use of materials which are fit for purpose, how to fulfil a brief by asking questions, researching and showing initiative, time management, people management and the use of tools and equipment.

Meeting and learning from plant experts

So many experts gathered in one place at one time is a rich resource to plumb to find out how to grow certain plants, which combinations work well together and finding the right plant for the right conditions. What an opportunity for young growers.

Promoting campaigns – the use of peat free compost, the benefits of front gardens, the importance of growing british flowers

The RHS and others with an interest in promoting horticulture quite rightly take the opportunity of so much media and public attention focused on gardening during the week of the Chelsea Flower Show to highlight areas of concern and interest. This year attention has been on the negative effects of paving over front gardens to create more parking, in particular increased flooding and lack of biodiversity leading to a decline in pollinators. Other burning issues, in particular on social media have been the use of peat free compost and how best to convince commercial and home growers to avoid using peat. Then of course there is the resurgence of the British cut flower industry and renewed interest in growing traditional native blooms. Inevitably heated discussions have taken place. A balance needs to be struck and there is a commercial as well as an ethical side to the debate. Young growers are interested in environmental issues but also need to be educated in the realities of how people make a living in the world of horticulture and how differing needs must be addressed. It’s a rich resource for a teacher to explore.

Promoting the rewards of hard work

Ask anyone who has spent the last twelve months preparing for Chelsea and they will all tell you that it is very hard work. Twenty hour days in the final weeks leading up to the show and numerous sleepless nights is the order of the day. Many contributors swear that they will never take part again. And yet they do. Hard work pays dividends and young people should hear about the realities of what it takes to bring a project to fruition. They will also learn the harsh lessons of working hard and not quite obtaining the reward of a gold medal at the end of it. Life is tough sometimes.

Gorgeous Foxgloves in Jo Thompson's garden

Gorgeous Foxgloves in Jo Thompson’s garden. Photo by Petra Hoyer Millar

Promoting teamwork

Every exhibit, every garden at Chelsea is the result of a team of people working together to make a project happen. Youngsters need to understand and model the way people work together in teams. It’s a life skill which can be fostered on the sports field or in the classroom. And here is another opportunity to explore the art of teamwork. Ask any designer to talk about their garden and what comes up time and again is their determination to celebrate the team who helped make it happen. My daughter in particular was overjoyed to hear about Jo Thompson’s all female planting team on the beautiful M & G Garden she designed this year. Girl power at its best!

Jo Thompson Garden RHS Chelsea 2015

A natural swimming pool in the Jo Thompson garden. Photo credit to RHS

Thinking about sustainability

I’m sure that building so many gardens from scratch and having to nurture excessive numbers of plants into peak condition, especially  out of season, many of which will be rejected has a huge environmental impact. Chelsea’s carbon footprint must be off the scale. However many of the gardens will be rebuilt,at least in part elsewhere after the show and plants will be sold off to the public at the end of the week. For example the Summer Solstice garden designed for Chelsea in 2008 by  Tomasso del Buono and Paul Gazerwitzin  has been rebuilt at Daylesford Organics in Stow on the Wold and now serves as a comfortable and inspirational workshop space for courses on growing food and raising livestock. This year’s Chatsworth garden is going back to the stately home in Derbyshire to be reconstructed in situ and Prince Harry’s charity Sentebale’s garden designed by Matt Keightley will be dismantled and some of it will be taken to the charity’s main centre in Lesotho. What happens to the gardens after the show is part of the application process required by the RHS. Thinking about the sustainability of the gardens, how to source plants and materials responsibly and how to use them to impact positively on the lives of others in the future is something young growers can see in practice at Chelsea.

Understanding how to harness the cult of celebrity and the power of social media

Like all industries the world of horticulture benefits from celebrity endorsement and personal recommendations to keep its practitioners in work. To be able to catch the eye of a celebrity and to engage with the public via social media to promote a business can lead to increased sales and a solid professional reputation. Young growers can use the Chelsea experience to reflect on this and develop an understanding of how successful marketing works and how professional reputations are built and potentially damaged.

Joanna Lumley at RHS Chelsea

Joanna Lumley launches the M&S Blooms of the British Isles exhibit. Photo credit to RHS & Hannah McKay

Exploring how business works

Horticulture is a business as well as a vocation and a way of life. For young growers to aspire to a career in horticulture (or even to be ready for the world of work) they need to see how a business works, how it will provide opportunities for job satisfaction as well as a way to make a living. Observe the way gardeners, designers and nursery owners use Chelsea to build relationships, network with each other,celebrate success and innovation, make sales, communicate their passion for what they do and showcase the best they have to offer to the public and they will begin to understand that it’s a business which might be for them. Delve a little deeper into how Chelsea gardens are sponsored and funded , how a bid is put together, how the project is managed over time, how many people are involved and the variety of skills they bring with them and it begins to sound really interesting. Add in the time pressure, coping with the vagaries of the British weather, the potential rewards for being at the top of the game and the positive, transformational effect you can have on people and the environment and a career in horticulture sounds an exciting proposition.

Open up the world of Chelsea to young growers and you won’t regret it. Gardening with young people is so much more than sowing a few sunflower seeds – although that’s a good place to start.

Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE pictured on the RHS Garden

Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE pictured on the RHS Garden. Photo Credit
Bethany Clarke / RHS

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Ten ways to deal with slugs and snails.

Snail racing in a school garden

Wear out your snail by racing them.

It’s never too early to start protecting plants from slugs and snails. As soon as young shoots appear or seedlings germinate, the slugs are out in force munching them to shreds. Before you know it, you’ll be engaged in #slugwars. To win you’ll need a range of weapons in your armoury. Here are our ‘recommendations’ in increasing order of bloodthirstiness. Take your choice.

Vigilance At this time of year when you may have lots of pots and trays in the green house, don’t forget to move the pots and trays around regularly to find any slimy characters that may be hiding in amongst them. After all, its the seedlings you want to nurture not the slugs and snails! If you are bringing things in and out of the greenhouse during the day to start hardening off, you can easily bring slugs and snails back into the greenhouse where they will feast on your precious seedlings. A vigilant gardener is a successful gardener. Nip problems in the bud before they overwhelm you. A foray into your garden in the early morning or late at night with a torch will reveal a whole community of slug families that you just won’t see in the middle of the day. Remove them! Of course, what you do with the offending slugs once removed from your precious young plants is up to you. A game of snail racing is fun for children and may exhaust the offending molluscs for a while. A friend of mine takes them on a one way trip to waste land; another adds them to her green recycling bin, where they can munch on her garden waste until their trip to the composting depot. Others prefer to despatch them swiftly. The choice is yours.

Sacrificial plants I have grown a salad crop around my precious seedlings especially to feed greedy slugs. The thinking behind it is that they are so stuffed with lettuce that they will leave the flower seedlings alone. If you are of a squeamish disposition and don’t wish to commit mass slug murder and don’t mind a plot surrounded with shreds of lettuce, try it.

Barriers Keep your seedlings away from marauding slugs by putting up barriers. Crushed egg shells placed around plants may act as a protective barrier but are not 100% effective. Cloches made from cut up plastic drinks bottles work, place the cloche over the plant and push the edge of the plastic into the soil to prevent the slugs accessing the plant. Copper tape can be placed around the tops of pots or raised beds but this is an expensive option. A less expensive option for a small area is to glue copper coins (pre 1992 coins have a higher copper content) around the top of pots. I garden with a copper trowel, which has a limited ability to keep slugs at bay. I have no idea how it works but suspect traces of copper may be left around the plants.

Wildlife This is my prefered method of keeping the slug population under control. Ducks are effective slug munchers but most schools and home gardeners don’t have the facilities to home a duck family. The most enterprising among you might welcome some visiting ducks from a nearby owner from time to time. Frogs and toads will keep the slug population in your garden manageable. Make a frog a home in a damp, shady corner. Some old, broken terracotta pots are ideal. Attracting a hedgehog to your garden will also keep slugs at bay. There are far too few hedgehogs in evidence these days. In fact, some are the victims of eating slug pellets. Give one a home.  

Traps Scooped out grapefruit halves are a great way to trap slugs. They love munching on the pith. Then collect them up and move them well away from your precious seedlings …. or despatch them swiftly. Beer traps are widely recommended but need to cleared out regularly. It’s a bit like working as the props manager on a horror movie. Also be aware that slugs are members of CAMRA and only real ale will do for them. The cheap stuff rarely works.

Slug pellets We don’t recommend slug pellets unless they are the ‘safe’ non chemical kind. Avoid the ones that contain Metaldehyde or Methiocarb. Sara uses a type containing Ferric Phosphate which are broken down into Iron and Phosphate in the soil (both of which are beneficial to the soil). There are some wool pellets available which create a protective barrier which slugs are not inclined to cross. Some slugs haven’t read the instructions and will cross anyway!

Nematodes Organic gardeners often water on nematodes but explaining to children exactly how they work may give them nightmares.

Bran Bran may appeal to some of your young growers – the ones who crave the yuk factor as it makes the slugs swell up and look like they might explode.

Salty water This was a method used very effectively by my mother. She regularly went out with a torch, rubber gloves and a bucket of salty water after dark. Any slugs discovered were popped into the bucket. Goodnight Vienna. Effective but disposing of the sludgy mess is not pleasant.

Scissors If  you can bring yourself to do this (Sara is a bit of an expert slug scissor snipper) it is uber-effective. Snip the slugs in two and leave them to be eaten by birds. Those of you who are gardening with children may not want to encourage such widespread and bloodthirsty destruction of living things, even though slugs are a pesky nuisance. However, gardeners can be driven to the edge by slug damage and so we thought we’d better include it anyway. Another of our gardening friends uses the roots of couch grass to stab the slugs. Multi- tasking par excellence.

Happy hunting! May your chosen method prove effective.

Zinnia school garden flowers

With a bit of luck and vigillance you will soon have beautiful blooms.

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Ten ways a flower patch can help with exam stress

Poppies in a school flower patch

Gaze into the centre of a flower.

More pupils than ever before (and their teachers) are suffering from unprecedented levels of ‘exam stress’ according to experts. The constant process of revision and assessment is one with which many students fail to cope. Students in the UK are among the most tested children in the world….. ever. My own children complete assessment work across a range of subject areas on a weekly basis. They feel the pressure to perform but have a healthy attitude to how much emotional energy they need to put into assessment work and have developed a range of stress busting techniques to keep things in perspective – mostly sport related in their case.

As millions of teenagers embark on their GCSEs, AS and A-levels and primary schools complete their Standard Assessment Tests, many head teachers are turning to a range of stress busting strategies to support their students. Mindfulness, yoga, counselling, sport and massage are not uncommon in schools up and down the country. And now gardening is being added into the mix.

For schools which have a little bit of land and a school garden it’s an inexpensive and effective way to support stressed out students and teachers. Half an hour spent outside pottering in the garden, weeding, tending plants, caring for wildlife and getting your hands dirty has proven benefits for all sorts of health conditions from depression to dementia. Gardening is a stress buster. As a matter of fact, gardening may be an even more effective stress buster than other leisure activities. A study in the Netherlands involving two groups of students investigated whether reading indoors or gardening for thirty minutes after completing a stressful task had a greater effect. The gardening group reported being in a better mood than the group that read, irrespective of whether they ‘liked’ gardening or not. They also exhibited lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. So here, in a nutshell are the ten ways a flower patch can be a stress buster.

Plant a flower patch and you’ll feel better.

It’s official. Behavioural research shows that flowers are a natural moderator of moods. They have an “immediate impact on happiness, a long term positive effect on mood, and make for more intimate connections between individuals.” Being surrounded by flowers improves one’s health. What are you waiting for? Join us in our campaign to turn school grounds into a patchwork of bee friendly, fabulously fragrant and colourful flower patches and provide your children with ways to relax, away from the pressures of modern school life.

Plant a flower patch and make friends with nature

Slow down and reconnect with the natural world in a fragrant flower patch buzzing with bees. Spending time in nature can help relax your body, restore your attention and revive your mood.

Plant a flower patch and cultivate mindfulness

With one undemanding, repetitive task to complete like planting out seedlings, weeding or cutting flowers you’ll become fully absorbed in the experience of being in your flower patch. You’re practicing mindfulness —a proven way of reducing stress. A garden offers a feast for the senses: colourful and fragrant blooms, birds chirping nearby, bees buzzing and soil to sink your hands into. Soak it all up and let the stress float away.

Plant a flower patch and cultivate your creativity

We all need to express ourselves creatively, and gardening is one way to do that. Let’s face it exams offer little in the way of a creative outlet. Research shows that engaging in a creative pastime can be an effective stress control strategy. Experiment with colour and scent. Plant up a wild patch.  And with a flower patch you have two bites at the cherry by growing creatively and arranging your flowers once they’re cut.

Plant a flower patch and share something with your community.

Many people like peace and quiet while gardening; others appreciate company. Working on a flower patch offers both but never underestimate an opportunity for social connectedness. Research shows that people who spend time around plants tend to have better relationships with others and are much more likely to try and help others. In short, being around plants can help to improve relationships between people and increase their concern and empathy toward others. It’s not difficult to see how a school flower patch can help your students support each other through stressful times.

Plant a flower patch and welcome in the wildlife.

A flower patch provides a home and food for birds, butterflies, bees, frogs, worms and any number of other wildlife. Their presence adds another dimension to enrich your stress-free experience.

Plant a flower patch and enjoy a sense of accomplishment.

Gardening gives you a sense of accomplishment. Seeing the fruits (or, in our case flowers) of your labours is one of the most satisfying feelings imaginable.  Knowing that you have created a thing of beauty which makes people happy is a good way to escape the stress of exam cramming and proof of time well spent.

Plant a flower patch and give meaning to your life.

Being in the garden connects you to the land and gives students the opportunity to focus on the simple things in life, the changing of the seasons, the turning of the year and to experience feelings of abundance and gratitude away from the treadmill of revision and exams.

Plant a flower patch and enter the ‘zone’

Here’s the science bit in a nutshell. Weeding , digging, raking – any number of repetitive flower patch tasks produce a similar effect in gardeners to those experienced by joggers or those who practise meditation. It can activate the parasympathetic nervous system—the body system that counteracts the physiological changes brought on by stress. One good reason to sow those flower seeds.

Children weeding school flower patch

Getting dirty is good for you!

Plant a flower patch and find out that dirt is good for you.

Children who are exposed to dirt in their early years develop healthier, stronger immune systems when compared to children whose parents keep them squeaky clean. They are less likely to suffer from asthma, eczema and allergies later in life. What’s more Mycobacterium vaccae, a harmless bacteria commonly found in soil has been found to increase the release of serotonin in the parts of the brain that control cognitive function and mood. It’s a natural anti-depressant great for anybody sinking underneath a pile of revision.

Plant a flower patch and strengthen your immune system. 

Being outside on a sunny day means you’ll soak up plenty of vitamin D, which helps the body absorb Calcium. Calcium helps keep bones strong and your immune system healthy. Simple. Stress can lead to headaches, colds and general lack of energy. Getting out into your flower patch helps to counteract these negatives.


So there you have it. Use your school flower patch to cultivate some calm over the next few weeks. And if you don’t have one yet, get in touch with us and make starting one a project away from the stress of exams for your students or your own children.

Bee on a flower Knautia

Watch the bees buzz.