What’s the magic recipe for growing food in your school?

Start small, muster support and have a plan. As the WWF UK’s new initiative,Plant2Plate, gets under way, here are some tips for planting and eating food grown at school.

Sometimes thinking about growing our own food can be scary. Where do I start?

When the staff at Onslow infant school decided they needed to have an environmental mission, that would also tie in with their aim to improve their healthy school status, they knew there would be much to do. “But it’s so energising and exciting for everyone and has given us a real sense of purpose, so it’s worth it,” says Sheila Zazzera, who is the school community manager.

Within her role, Sheila is in a good position to shepherd its environmental commitment – she knows the school, the staff and the pupils inside out. Onslow have started with a push on litter and energy, as well as founding the school’s eco-committee.

Now, the school is signing up for WWF UK’s newest initiative, Plant2Plate, which focuses on planting, growing, harvesting and eating food grown at school, and this also fits in well with the school’s commitment to the Healthy Schools programme. The environmental charity has produced  Growing Food at School – a Beginner’s Guide, which offers tips and advice about starting out, as well as a host of other free resources to schools joining the scheme.

Staff have been busy finding places around the school which are ripe for cultivation. “We’ve got a few little pockets of ground which have really been dead space,” Sheila explains, adding that a recent expansion, which has admittedly taken up some green space, has also focused attention on the remaining land. “It’s a plum area for growing things, provided it gets some TLC with a spade,” she says.

“You don’t need a football pitch – but you do need some imagination, lots of support and a real will to make it happen,” she says.

Still in its very early stages, the school’s fledgling gardening club will be helping to dig over and prepare the various areas, start off some tubs and enjoy the spring bulbs. Pupil elbow-grease will be helped along by some parent volunteers and – hopefully – the local gardening club. “We’d love to harness the enthusiasm and knowledge of some really expert gardeners who’ve done this for many years,” says Sheila.

She’s convinced that any school wanting to take on the challenge of gardening and growing produce needs to have the full support of all its staff. “Teaching staff have so much to do as it is – it’s hard to just bolt on a project like this and expect it to run itself. You need a plan – and someone to manage it.”

Starting a project such as Plant2Plate can be intimidating, but Onslow is keeping it small and simple to begin with. “It’s actually been better that we’ve not got acres of space – it’s not practical to start too big. If you bite off more than you can chew, it’s probably pretty depressing when you realise you can’t manage it all.”

Planning is also crucial – deciding what to grow, how, and for what happens in the future.

“I think good planning, being pragmatic and philosophical about what you can achieve is the key to this,” says Sheila.

Take, for example, finding a plot. “Find the dead space. Don’t dig up your existing green space if the children use it for play – they need to be able to run around and let off steam,” she urges. Currently the school is looking for funding for a set of purpose-built planters which will go in the playground. “They need to be accessible, but also rugged enough to cope with all the enthusiastic attention they’re bound to get,” she laughs.

Choosing what to grow is also important. “You need things which happen quickly so the children can see results quickly – salad crops and strawberries are great because they crop early in the summer, and work well in pots. Strawberries also make new plants easily, so they’re cheap too,” she says.

Things like school holidays will also have a knock-on effect on crop choice, as that much-needed six week break comes at the height of the summer growing season. “Unless you’ve got a watering system or rota for people to actually come to care for a plot, don’t plan for lots of mid-summer harvesting,” she says.

At all stages, a project like this requires input from pupils, teachers and, crucially, parents. “You need everyone’s support. If you can show them what you want to achieve in one, five, 10 or 15 years, that really helps.”

“It’s important to manage expectations and realise that everything takes time – it’s not going to happen overnight. We’re just starting out on a journey at Onslow – but we’re loving the ride so far.”

If you want to start your journey, WWF can guide you on your way.