Royal School Manchester teacher, Jean Barratt, runs a programme at Seashell which looks to develop our students’ skills through horticulture. The programme evolves with the seasons, with school holidays providing a demarcation point for Seashell’s students to change: i.e. from sowing seeds in May to harvesting in June and June and planting in autumn.

Jean and her team invest any profits from sales in the ongoing project development, running a mini-enterprise for our students. Seashell’s students complete the bulk of the work, with Jean tidying their floral displays upon completion to ensure a professional finish. The development of students’ skills is the main focus within the horticulture programme and the skills of Jean’s team are boundless.

Jean takes to writing short pieces to truly provide an insight into the activities of the horticulture programme and the key development of Seashell’s students:

Tales from the Greenhouse │ March 2021

It has been a long, cold winter this year and the beginnings of the spring sunshine have felt like a ray of hope in these COVID-19 days.  To be honest, even without the constraints of the virus there is something wonderful about the lengthening days and the opportunity to spend more time outside.  I always look forward to it and the calm atmosphere of the garden seems to suit many of the students I work with.

However, there is little time for contemplation as my team of apprentices move into the busiest part of our school year.  The older students have been making up spring planters to sell and have done a jolly good job.  It is a while since we have done them so my team are needing prompts to keep them on track to produce saleable items.  It’s not unusual for them to become a little rusty over the winter but by the end of May they will have had all their skills sharpened and some will be working virtually independently.

Please do try this at home!  For the price of a few bedding plants you can create something beautiful with your family.  We can turn anything into a planter – old wellingtons, teapots…so there doesn’t need to be a huge cost involved. Encourage the whole family to join in as it is genuinely accessible in some form to everyone.  I always set out a limited palette of colours so that while choices can be made, the outcome is always pleasing to the eye.  I always try and end the session with the plants being watered; over time my students recognise that this is part of the natural cycle and many will automatically reach for the watering can when all the plants are in. It should be noted that they occasionally water me too and are highly amused by this so be prepared!

If you mix up the textures or scents of the plants offered you can make this a meaningful experience for even the most complex needs.  Encourage them to explore everything to the full and ‘talk’ about everything you are using.  A wise colleague once said to me that there was no point trying to teach a VI or MSI student how to use a cup unless you had explained the ‘cupness of the cup’ to them. It was probably the most valuable insight I have ever had and it has served me well.  So take time to help them feel the ‘potness of the pot’, inside and out, show what is up and down, how soil falls out if it is the wrong way up and so on.  It can take a long time to do this, so make sure you have a spell where you don’t have to deal with other things and I promise you that over time it will prove a useful tool.

The other great benefit of working with seasonal plants is that it provides youngsters with prolonged but temporary engagement with the activity.  In the summer the plants will need to be watered daily and over the holidays it can provide some welcome routine to the day.  They will experience the changes in their plants as they develop and bloom over the summer.  My students are always fascinated by the bees and butterflies who visit us and provide us with points of interest to talk about.  By the autumn the plants will be looking ragged and starting to wither; the textures of leaves change and eventually the plants die.  So from a handful of bedding plants you will have generated a ‘conversation’ which has lasted for months and taught some enduring lessons about care for living things and the natural cycle of life and death.  Give it a go!

In the last days of the spring term we have begun prepping our vegetable beds and already have our garlic and shallots popping through.  When we come back after Easter and the ground is a little warmer, we will be sowing our carrot and parsnip drills.  We have grown carrots before but parsnips are a new departure for us.  So watch this space for a summer update on how it went.  Radishes always go down well and we will be sowing them every fortnight to keep a steady supply going.  These are a really good choice as they grow quickly and many of my students really relish their peppery taste.

Younger students have been planting runner beans in pots ready to plant out later.  This is a good way to teach younger children how to handle tools and the process of planting as it engages all the fine motor skills of the hands.  If you try this at home, be careful not to over-water if the weather is cool as the beans will turn mouldy and rot long before they have a chance to germinate.

We will also be growing some tomatoes, another favourite.  In fact one of my students was in checking the greenhouse this week to make sure I wasn’t keeping some hidden in there.  In previous years, once he knew the tomatoes were ready, he fully embraced the ‘pick your own’ philosophy and more than met his ‘five a day’ requirements.

And of course we always grow lots of flowers to bring in the pollinators and for the sheer joy of the colours.  This year we are sowing a cottage garden mix with lots of cornflower in it and godetia in our formal flower beds.  If you haven’t come across godetia before you really must google it. They come in a range of pinks from almost white to mauves and magentas.  Gorgeous!  Sow straight in the ground but leave room for later sowings so you have a continuous supply of lovely blooms.  They are about 12 inches tall so one for nearer the front of the border.

And as if we weren’t going to be busy enough, we will be launching our summer basket refill service which proved so popular in previous years.  This is very hard work for us all but the steady stream of orders provides a real-time, real-life work experience where genuine work skills are practised consistently over a whole term.  As I said right at the start of this piece, by the time we break for summer, some of the students will have refined their skills to a point where they are virtually working solo in planting up, and all will have increased their repertoire of functional work skills. What more could I wish for!

So if you think you might see your family having a go at some of the things we are doing next term – DON’T HESITATE, just have a go!