By Yvette Tan

There’s a growing worldwide concern on food security, and on young people being detached from how their food is grown.

The British School Manila’s (BSM) voluntary gardening program tackles both. The program, which is divided into three age groups, was initiated by Year 3 (the British equivalent of grade 2) Leader Emma Swinnerton a few years ago as a project to connect primary students with global citizenship topics. “I got in touch with Fostering Education and Environmental Development (FEED) and struck a partnership and we decided how we could incorporate a biointensive garden here at BMS,” she says. “They did a (training) day with the children and teachers (on) how we can maintain (the garden)-how to plan, when to crop, and when to harvest. They helped us set up the garden and they’ve kept in touch with us along the way.”

One of the food-grade drums where the high schoolers grow leafy greens.

The school is located in the middle of bustling Bonifacio Global City (BGC) in Taguig, but their lack of space didn’t stop them. The primary and high school gardens snake around the side of the school, covering both slopes and flat surfaces. The nursery kids have access to planting, too – their herb and vegetable garden is incorporated into their playground.

“The projects that we want to do are authentic hands-on projects that the children get involved with, and it’s got a purpose to it. We were very supportive, and now she’s being pushed to do more and more,” says Glenn Hardy, Head of Primary School.

The garden focuses on growing native plants as much as possible, tying it to the school’s service learning projects. “We went with native Philippine seeds—things that were local and native here. We consulted our experts on that as well because I really wasn’t a gardening expert before this,” Swinnerton says.

There’s an herb garden and some papaya and mango trees. Along the slopes, there are kamote and eggplant. To the sides, there are trailing plants and malunggay. There are also leafy greens planted in blue plastic drums. A scarecrow stands guard over seed beds where the school had a bird problem a few months before. Depending on the season, they’ve also planted and harvested spinach, kale, chili, and calamansi. They also practice dry composting.

The primary school gardening experience

The primary school kids share gardens with the high schoolers, whose idea it was to include their younger schoolmates. “The year 12s said, ‘we want to expand the garden and we want to involve year 3,” Swinnerton explains. “Year 3 has been helping with the maintenance.”

The kids help with basic maintenance-weeding, planting, and watering. “We have a team of maybe 10 students and usually the gardeners will come along as well to make sure we’re not pulling out the plants,” Swinnerton says. “We also have a little gardening ASA—After School Club—so some of the children not in Year 3 volunteer to come and do similar things.”

From left to right: Year 3 teacher Emma Swinnerton and colleagues Jenny Moriarty and Cheryl Meredith discuss plans for the proposed rice terraces.

The response has been overwhelmingly positive. “(The kids) loved it,” Swinnerton says. “The group we had last year loved getting their hands dirty. This year’s current group really like it as well. We’ve introduced voluntary gardening sessions (and) normally we’ve got lots of children choosing to come in and help. We’ve got a little rota system going now.”

That said, being city kids, not all of them were enthusiastic about getting their hands dirty from the get go. “Some kids, not too keen on mud to start with,” Swinnerton says. “Every child has had a go out there and once we start to see things growing, like last week we had lots of eggplant. Once they can actually see what’s the result of all that, that makes them really excited. That kind of enthusiasm makes them want to get involved more. Through word of mouth, that kind of spread. I think the kids have really embraced it.”

The harvested vegetables go to the school’s Service Learning Partner, an organization called Missionaries of the Poor, also recommended by FEED, which hosts a feeding program. Some of it also goes to the school’s gardeners and staff, who tend to the garden when school is out. The kids are aware that the harvests go to their Service Partner, and the school tries to show them how other people benefit from the harvests, for example via video footage.

Whether they know it or not, the kids have learned things from gardening other than how to grow plants. Swinnerton says that they’ve learned that it takes time for things to grow, and that they are also more collaborative. “It’s been quite good for them, for their wellbeing, it gives them focus, gets them outside, gets them doing something purposeful for the whole community as well,” Swinnerton says.

Future plans include building mini rice terraces into the slopes, where they’re going to plant flood-resistant rice seeds secured from IRRI as an experiment. There is also talk of keeping native stingless bees, as well as planting plants whose flowers the bees are attracted to. “I think in Manila, there’s not much green space. (Gardening is) not something (the kids have) been exposed to,” Swinnerton says. “Even though it’s quite small scale here, we talk a lot about food security and changing climate and the future.”

High schoolers tell their gardening story 

Amanda Dee, Jasmine Harmston, Zeke Sy, Malcolm Go, Jessica Salamon, and Gene Richardson, whose ages range from 16-17 years old, are the Year 12, junior students who started the gardening project that the Year 3 students now help with. “In BSM, we have a bayanihan project designed to help out different communities. Our group chose to develop a project within the BSM premises as we believe community starts at home. In our case, we decided to help the very people that have supported us for our entire lives, the support staff of BSM. We wanted to give them something extra – a sustainable way for them to earn a bit more money,” Dee says.

Their project, an urban farm within school grounds, focuses on sustainability and helping people within the community. “Our urban farming project is 100% sustainable, from the food-grade drums to the ‘non-soil’ we use. The sales we make contribute to the community fund of our service and maintenance team that work day in and out of BSM. Our Year 3 students just so happened to be learning about gardening so we joined hands and taught them our modern-day take on gardening – our way of sustainable urban farming! Ultimately, it’s beneficial to all the people involved, even BSM students and staff members who buy from us. Hopefully, if the project continues to succeed, we can share our ideas to others in the local community of Taguig,” Dee adds.

They grow arugula, kangkong and basil, and plan to grow kale, lettuce, and local vegetables as well. Though the group has daily responsibilities maintaining the garden, their real goal is to have everything running without them. The drum planters, for example, are low maintenance, just needing to be watered every day. “One of the challenging things was the setup of our drums. Besides that, the garden pretty much runs itself,” Dee says.

The project means more to the group than just getting a good grade. “There is a beauty in the whole process of witnessing these tiny seedlings until they have grown and are ready to harvest. We do think that the motives behind our project make this gardening experience extra special,” Dee says. “The experience has taught us the dedication and care required in tasks like these. Although our project is as sustainable as it gets, it really is the short visits we make and the constant communication.

Getting nursery kids interested in gardening

Exposure to gardening starts at a very young age in BBM, in nursery and reception, to be exact. In the British school system, the reception year comes in between nursery and Year One. Nursery students are three to four years old while reception students range from four to five. Reception teacher Richard Swanson and Julia Tejada, who teaches nursery, help students with the gardening program, which isn’t a structured program as such, but more like bridging the link between the kids and the garden.

The kids choose what they want to do – plant, water, or harvest. They pick what they want to plant based on the seeds available. The teachers help them gather the materials, use them properly, and answer any questions they might have about the garden. Gardening isn’t mandatory at this age; only kids who show interest in it are encouraged. “The curriculum works on what people would like to choose to do. They aren’t forced to do it. So if they’re interested in it, then they’re sort of engaged already. If they get a feel for it, then they’re going to carry on with that process. If they’re not interested, even from the very beginning, then we don’t force them to join in,” Swanson says.

The reception and nursery students have access to herb gardens located next to the playground.

The edible garden consists of a bunch of boxes piled artfully on top of each other, each box growing a different herb such as mint, dill, and basil. There is also a small raised vegetable garden to the side of the yard, with handmade signs colored in crayon indicating the produce planted such as tomato, carrots, and kangkong. Unlike in primary and high school, the kids get to eat what they harvest, sometimes right off the stem!

“We have this thing called Shared Snack. It happens once a week. The kids don’t bring snacks for the day and we actually prepare the snack together with them. What we do is we use the herbs or the plants we have. They harvest it and we prepare it with them,” Tejada says. “Every time they see that it’s already full grown, that’s when they actually tell us, hey, the basil’s ready, maybe we can make some pesto. That’s how we actually started the whole pesto journey in nursery. For the dill, we make breadsticks with the dill.”

“We promote healthy living, and doing that, we look at seeds, things you want to eat,” Swanson adds.

Teachers also use gardening as an opportunity to help students learn about managing expectations, addressing misconceptions, and problem solving. “When they actually start planting, that’s when we inculcate predictions. We ask them questions like, what do you think is going to happen and how long do you think it’s going to take? That’s when we converse with the child so they can think,” Tejada says. And if the plant, for some reason, doesn’t grow, the kids are also asked what their thoughts are about it.

Kids being kids, they sometimes bring seeds from plants that can’t grow in the Philippines. These are planted for the experience and for the teaching opportunity it affords. “There’s a lot of trial and error. A lot of failure that happens-okay it doesn’t work, but you know what, for every nine that don’t work, one will grow and we can talk about that process,” Swanson shares. “What was needed? Did it need sunlight? Did it need water? It needed care and nurture and love, and sometimes a bit of luck.”

The challenge with working with kids is that they can get bored fast, so if the seeds they want to plant isn’t available, or the tools they need aren’t on hand, they can lose interest quickly. However, even this can be turned into an opportunity. “The good thing about not always having things available is that the children use their thinking skills. (For example) we don’t have watering cans all the time, like yesterday, what the kids did is they used plastic bags with holes to water the plants,” Tejada says.

The herbs aren’t just used for cooking. “We’ve had mint before and we actually used the mint to make sugar mint scrub and we gave it during Mother’s Day. It’s an all-around thing that goes around in nursery,” Tejada says. And when there are plants left over, they sometimes hold plant sales.

From left to right: Head gardener Jigs Ramibi, nursery teacher Julia Tejada, and reception teacher Richard Swanson in the school garden.

“In reception, they’ve been making bath bombs. They sell it for entrepreneurial purposes or give it away as gifts for Mother’s Day,” Swanson adds.

It’s been a pleasure guiding young children on their gardening journey. The best thing for Tejada is, “That they actually want to take home the plants. We have a couple of children who I would see snipping off leaves or stems because I taught them how to do cuttings – when you cut the stems and replant them. They’re like, ‘I want to bring it home because I want to have my own basil plant at home.’”

For Swanson, it’s, “The look on their faces when they’ve come away after maybe a week of half term and something’s happened-it’s gone from nothing to oh, there’s an aubergine (eggplant). It’s a surprise. Like, ‘where did that come from?’ And we talk about it at that moment.”

He adds, “It’s a good stepping stone for when you go to year three and beyond. They know what they’re getting into and how to look after things. They actually know what’s involved and what works.”

“I suspect that it’s not an experience they usually have, so it’s a new, fresh experience for them and we very much encourage children to try new things,” says Mr. Hardy, head of Primary School.

Through its gardening programs, British School Manila hopes to not only encourage kids to get their hands dirty, they also impart an appreciation of labor and an understanding of the factors-soil, water, sun, time, and so on-it takes for something to grow. Not only does gardening help children grasp the concept of food security, it prepares them to be global citizens as well. (Photos by Patricia Bianca S. Taculao)

This appeared in Agriculture Monthly’s August 2019 issue.