SAIIER 2018:Educational Food Growing Programs at three Auroville schools
“Divine Flowers” exhibition
Film Making Apprenticeship
|Educational Food Growing Programs|
at three Auroville schools
The main aim of the project was to expose students to practical food growing activities and in the process teach them where their food comes from and what it takes to put food on the table.
Description of project:
In Udavi School the project built on the work undertaken by Buddha Garden over the last two years. At the end of the previous academic year we had created a dedicated school vegetable garden which we intended to develop.
In Deepanam School we decided to focus on practical food growing activities, and to hold our sessions at Buddha Garden where the work is organized within a broader structure and strongly focused on growing food for Auroville.
This was our first year working with Transition School, where the class teachers Moorthy and Cauveri are already teaching about the natural world. This activity enabled the students to combine theoretical and practical knowledge about plants.
Vegetable gardens were developed at Transition and Udavi schools. Students from Deepanam school attended Buddha Garden regularly.
In all places it was clear that students learnt about the practical aspects of food growing and enjoyed what they did.
The most meaningful part of the project was to expose the students to the practical work of food growing.
The most challenging part of the work was trying to get them to relate what they learned practically to an understanding of their lives and where food comes from.
Next year I think we will need to focus more on eating local seasonal food and what this means practically at meal times.
It was very exciting at the start of this year to begin creating the new vegetable garden. For the previous two years we had been growing food on four beds in the central garden which restricted what we were able to do. We had often thought about creating a garden dedicated to growing food but this is only possible if there is someone from the school willing to take responsibility for it. Last year Ravikrishna from Udavi School joined the team and was willing to take that responsibility.
By the end of last year the area for the vegetable garden had been fenced and we had marked out some beds. We were ready to go.
2. The text book
During the last year it had been noticed that for some students the food growing session was perceived as a time when they didn’t have to focus or bother about learning anything. They seemed to find it difficult to engage their minds with practical work and at the same time reflect on what they were doing. For some the garden work was no more than a series of activities that didn’t require any thought and just had to be completed in the allotted time. We had tried a number of things to counter these expectations; worksheets were given out but were rarely completed, discussions and question and answer sessions were not very successful as students seemed to use it as an opportunity to mess around rather than engage in serious discussion and listening to each other. It was clear that another approach was needed if the goal of getting students to think about what they were doing was to do was to be achieved.
During the Summer holiday, Priya created a book which combined a text book about how to grow your own food and a diary to be written up of what had been completed and what they felt about their work during the practical session.
The practical classes were then rearranged to include a short time at the beginning to talk about what they were going to do and a time at the end when they reflected on what they had achieved. They sat down and spent some time reading the text book, writing the diary and discussing any questions that anyone had.
This seemed to work very well. Most students could remember to bring the book and a pen and writing in the book soon became established part of the whole session. At the beginning some students had great difficulty in writing about what they did, but gradually everyone learnt to do this. The diary also included pictures drawn from life.
3. The students
This year we had a Grade 7 group consisting of six boys and nine girls. It was good to see from the beginning that the girls tackled all the jobs, even the really heavy ones like carrying the granite pillars from our original garden to the new garden. The class spontaneously split into three groups, two of girls one of boys. From the beginning one group was responsible for each of three beds. By the end of the year each group had taken ownership of their bed and took decisions about what/where they would plant and for the organization of the work.
4. The work
The first job was to move the beds from their original place in the flower garden to the new area. The groups learnt that most jobs can be accomplished if the group works together.
The students then planted ladies finger, beans and chillie seedlings, these coming from the Buddha Garden nursery. Compost, which included a sack of organically certified compost from Tata gifted to the Farm Group, came from Buddha Garden. The students were completely responsible for doing all the practical work which included planting seedlings, weeding and harvesting the vegetables. When the rain arrived it was too much for some of the bean plants which got covered in pests and black mold. This often happens the first time a bed is created. It disturbs the existing ecology of insects so that pests can flourish, especially when there are events like very heavy rain which stress the plant.
One problem this year was that there were insufficient funds to set up a proper irrigation system. To begin with all the watering was carried out with watering cans which is a heavy job. This has the advantage, however, that students are very unlikely to overwater the plants and it led to some interesting discussions about water conservation. When the rains stopped it was clear that some sort of irrigation was needed so we created a system using second-hand irrigation lines from Buddha Garden which we fixed up to a nearby tap. This meant that the water pressure was not very high and was insufficient to water the backs of the beds properly. They needed to be supplemented by water from watering cans. We are hoping that this year that there will be sufficient money to install a proper system which will include an underground pipe connected to the general water system. This should provide sufficient pressure to water all the beds evenly.
One of the boys, while working in STEM Land made a device for automatically watering the beds. It consisted of a solenoid and a battery and a timer of some kind. We never managed to integrate it into the system as we couldn’t find the right connectors and even if we had the water pressure would probably have been insufficient for it to work properly. We were, however, very pleased to see the creativity and bringing ideas from a different subject (engineering) into another (growing food).
At the end of the monsoon we were able to plant a wide range of different plants for the cool season. We were also able to gather some seeds from the plants we had been growing. Despite some discussion about this we got the feeling that the students didn’t understand what an important job they were doing. Although they did start to grow some of the seed, the seedlings came mainly from Buddha Garden.
It was at this time we started to see the groups really start to take ownership of their beds. In one session after some seedlings had been delivered from Buddha Garden the groups shared out the seedlings, decided where to put them and worked together to get them planted. All this carried out very harmoniously without needing Priya or Ravikrishna to tell them what to do.
The amount of vegetables produced at the end of the cool season from this second planting was very good indeed. There were enough vegetables to take to the school kitchen as well as there being enough for everyone take some home to their families.
5. Lessons learned for next year
The text book worked very well and it will, with some additions, be used in the same way next year. At the same time it was clear that despite the information they received and the practical work some of them don’t understand about seasonal local food. The most glaring thing was that they don’t understand about the different seasons here and the limitations as to what can be grown. Several of them told me they wanted to grow strawberries next year! The textbook will therefore need an extra section about seasonal food in Tamil Nadu.
In the coming year we hope there will be sufficient funds to install a proper irrigation system that has sufficient pressure to water all the beds evenly. This will require an underground pipe connected directly to the water system.
We didn’t make enough compost and we hope next year there will be sufficient funds to build at least two compost bins. We have saved quite a lot of seed this year which they can use in the coming year for growing their own seedlings.
Next year Ravikrishna will be working in the school half time. This means that he will be able to run two class sessions as well as an after school session. Priya will be unable to attend all these sessions but will come regularly for sessions with the new 7th grade and will be on hand to help as needed with other sessions.
It is planned to create at least four more vegetable beds and a bed for growing seed plants as well as planting a range of food-producing trees. Once compost is being regularly produced and seeds are being grown, the garden will gradually become more sustainable and need less financial inputs.
In the previous year Buddha Garden had worked with Deepanam School on a cereals project. This consisted of a series of classes where they learned about rice and other cereals, two visits to Annapurna farm to look at rice planting and harvesting, and a practical experiment in the school garden where they planted rice and varagu and compared their growth.
The main problem was that despite getting a lot from some aspects of the course (the trips to Annapurna were particularly enjoyed) the students did not on the whole connect the classroom and practical work very well. Based on this experience, it was agreed that for the next year the focus should be on practical work and for this to be the basis of work in the classroom.
2. The plan
Sixteen 9th grade students came to Buddha Garden on Wednesdays for ten weeks starting in mid October and finishing in mid December. They came during the normal work time of 6.15 – 9.00am Monday to Friday and were accompanied by Mahavir (head teacher), Honor and Adele (Deepanam teachers) and Ingrid, an experienced volunteer Waldorf Teacher from Germany. They worked with the Buddha Garden team of Priya, Rajan, Giri and Mani together with any volunteers staying on the farm.
This gave them a structured opportunity to learn practically how to grow food on a working organic farm. In each session, as well as helping with the farm work, an activity was planned about some relevant topic such as soil fertility, plant growth etc. This was further developed in the classroom where students were encouraged to make their own examples of what they had learnt using a variety of media.
3. The work
During the work time they undertook any and all of the work necessary to grow food in Buddha Garden. This included making vegetable beds, composting, mulching, planting, clearing beds, They also carried out work in the nursery, on the vegetable beds and in the various orchards.
During each session the students first carried out general farm work. For the last half an hour or so there was a talk about an aspect of farming as well as having a question and answer discussion. They were shown around the farm so they could understand how the different parts of the farm support the food growing process in a holistic way. We also looked at soil from different parts of the farm, talked about how to preserve soil fertility and looked at plant growth. The students constantly reviewed the work they did and were able to see how their different plants grew and developed during their time in Buddha Garden.
This group were interested in the work and worked well with the other volunteers. They probably found it easier to get down to the work when they were surrounded by others doing the same thing. What they learned in these practical sessions was expanded on in their school lessons with their teachers.
During this year the students studied ‘nature’ in its broadest sense. The year’s work consists of a module about the stars and planets together with modules about plants and birds. The aim of setting up a garden and growing food was to give the students practical experience of dealing with plants and natural processes and to integrate this with the classroom lessons. It was hoped that it would also provide them with the opportunity to find out and understand where their food comes from and the work it takes to put food on the table.
The work took place over two ten-week semesters:
1. Thursday September 28th – Thursday December 7th (11 weeks)
The main session was first period on Wednesday mornings when Priya tried to attend the class. When this wasn’t possible, Priya attended the second session on Friday which was the other session in the timetable earmarked for this activity. Priya advised the students while they did practical work in the garden and answered their questions. From time to time she also gave a short talk on some aspect of what they were doing in the garden. Each student also got a copy of ‘Growing Your Own’ a small booklet about how to grow your own food written by Priya.
Buddha Garden arranged for the fence and gate to be put up around where the plants were going to be grown.
The students were divided up into four groups of five and each group was responsible for making a raised bed using granite pillar pieces. Since some of the pieces were quite heavy, the help of the school gardeners was much appreciated. The groups worked harmoniously together and generally seemed to really enjoy working in the garden.
Each bed was prepared by loosening the soil and then putting a thick layer of compost on top. This compost came from Buddha Garden and included some proprietary TATA compost gifted to Buddha Garden.
A layer of mulch was put on top of the compost after which seedlings (which also came from Buddha Garden) were planted. Having made four beds the students were keen to make four more beds with the granite pillars available. A tap and an irrigation system was installed on all the beds in the garden by Buddha Garden.
The first seedlings planted were onions, lemon grass, chillies and ladies finger. Later a few lettuces were added.
In the beginning the plants struggled a lot as they were obviously being pecked by birds – probably the peacock that lives in Transition School.
A large net was purchased to cover the whole of the garden and the difference was immediately obvious. As they were not being pecked the plants started to flourish and a modest harvest of ladies finger and a few small onions were produced.
2. Thursday January 4th to Thursday March 14th (10 weeks, during which time a range of cool season vegetables were grown)
The interest in the garden was sustained and even increased during this second semester when the four groups took more ownership of their beds. Seedlings planted included beans, tomatoes, lettuce, brinjal and chick peas, which apart from the chick peas all produced a very good harvest. We had a problem on one bed where the beans got attacked by aphids, but apart from that the plants were mainly pest free.
After each harvest all the produce was weighed. With the help of the teachers students decided how to share out the produce so that everyone felt they received a fair share of what had been produced.
Next year there will be a new group doing this work. The students finished the year by clearing all the beds and making compost out of those plants and leaves from the school grounds. This will be watered over the Hot Seasons break for the group who will be working in the garden next year.
Lessons for next year:
- This year there was no time to make compost so most of it came from Buddha Garden. It is hoped that next year the work will be organized to make time for this very necessary part of working in a garden.
- The seeds that were collected this year will be used to grow their own seedlings.