Programme bears fruit - and veggies

Veena Vinod, The Straits Times AsiaOne 8 Apr 16;

An edible garden at Spectra Secondary School has not only been a source of learning for its students, but it is also a feast for the eyes and palate for nearby residents.

In the level four rooftop garden at the school in Woodlands, Secondary 1 students from the Normal-Technical stream grow vegetables and fruits, such as lettuce, brinjal and banana, in 11 garden beds.

Groups of four students are given an area of land measuring 1m by 1m to grow crops of their choice. They are responsible for weeding, watering and fertilising the area.

At the end of 10 weeks, their crops are harvested and sold to the public at a farmer's market in the school. The students also sell herbal teas and snacks made from the harvested produce.

Said principal Krishnan Aravinthan, 48: "We wanted to fill the school with learning spaces and this garden is more than that.

It brings the community together and gives our students a sense of accomplishment."

Crops grown by the students of Spectra Secondary School include (from left) bananas, chikus, brinjals and a wintermelon that weighs nearly 2kg. Photo: The Straits Times
The self-sustaining garden is irrigated by rainwater and fertilised by compost made from leaves and weeds from the plots.

The initial batch of 70 potted plants were bought from an external vendor for $3,000. The school subsequently saved the seeds for future crops, and other seeds have been donated by volunteers.

The garden was built to inculcate the values of responsibility and resilience.

Said school staff developer Lyvenne Chong: "The main message of the programme is that nobody owes you a living - you have to work hard to put food on the table.

"It is difficult to teach values like persistence and respect in the classroom. We felt that a hands-on process would be more impactful."

Mrs Chong, 58, conceptualised the programme and designed its syllabus as part of character and citizenship education after looking up existing research into gardening as a tool to motivate students.

She found that gardening could offer less academically-inclined students a taste of success.

The problems related to the growing of crops, such as pest infestations and wilting, become analogies for life's challenges.

Secondary 2 student Joel Soh, 14, who went through the programme last year, said: "We had pests, such as caterpillars and aphids, that would eat the crops. When we discovered them, we would move (the pests) to a vacant plot. It was hot and tiring (doing so), but we never gave up."

Although Joel has graduated from the programme, he still helps out at the garden on Saturdays, doing things such as weeding and watering the plants. He also helps the volunteers - parents and members of the public - harvest the vegetables when they are ready.

He said: "It's satisfying to see our plants sold and the money going to needy students."

Vegetables and fruits sold at the farmer's market are priced at $2 a bag and sales proceeds go to a fund for the school's needy students. Over $2,000 was raised last year.

Parents of students and residents living nearby have also come on board - they spend their weekends helping out at the learning garden, weeding the plants or setting up trellises.

Describing the edible garden programme as very meaningful, Ms Josephine Tan, 44, chairman of the school's Parent Support Group, said that many children do not know where vegetables come from or the efforts that go into growing them.

"In the beginning, none of the students were comfortable with getting their hands dirty, but now, some of them even want to help out in their free time," she said.

Regular parent volunteer Pearlyn Bulner, 37, takes her family to help out in the garden on weekends. She said: "It's good exercise for the family and a great opportunity for us to bond."

The next farmer's market at the school, which is open to the public, will be held on May 16, 17 and 19 from 8am to 10am.

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