Gardening with Children – Teaching The Teachers…

by Ciaran Burke
Tools and Equipment- Teacher Training Workshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Tools and Equipment- Teacher Training Workshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

One of my earliest memories from my childhood is being with my grandfather when he was digging potatoes in a garden in Wexford. He used to do some gardening work for a neighbour after he had finished his postman’s work for the day. I remember too, shifting wheel barrow loads of gravel with my dad and a neighbour to make a drive way when we w moved to out house in Swords, I was seven, probably more in the way of the two men shovelling than I was of any great assistance. But I did shovel gravel into the barrows and I felt like a man, working alongside the grown ups.

My mother had always dreamed of a garden, that is why we moved to a semi-detached cottage two miles from Swords village in north County Dublin in 1977. The front of the house looked over fields which were planted with barley or potatoes each summer, the fields stretched over the county as far as Naul. Often on an afternoon after school or on a summers day, I helped my parents in garden, digging, cutting long grass with a shears, picking strawberries, getting dirty and collecting ladybirds in a jar.

I am very fortunate to have such good memories from my childhood, of those days spent “working” in the garden, my parents doing what their parents had done with them, passing on the experience of working in the garden together. Unfortunately our lives have got a bit complicated and busier, priorities have changed and there has been a disconnection with our garden and our families. Many parents do not have the knowledge and experience to pass on to their children nor to experience such moments themselves and to pass on simple memories and experiences to their children.

Schools are increasingly taking on the role of teaching gardening to children. Perhaps it is time to recognaise that gardening is a necessary life skill, just as everyone should be able to tie their lace they should be able to grow food for themselves and also experience the beauty of nature; the scent of a bloom, the intricate beauty of pattern on flower petals or watch a butterfly flitter past. There is a healing in the soil, my grandfather always said that the answer is always in the soil. therapeutic both also fun and social.

During the week I gave two workshops to a group of teacher in Castlebar, Co. Mayo. It was a great experience and they learnt a lot too. On the first evening we discussed ways of integrating gardening into the school day; filling a simple vase with flowers or branches from the garden, the way to school or children’s garden. Even a bare branch of a birch tree has a beauty in winter. The world of flowers is filled with stories to enthrall children; Fuchsia magellanica, from the exotic continent of South America, the explorer magellan and his exploits! Not only in the classroom, parents can do this at home too.

I told a story of the seed, told in such a way to create a feeling for a seed that a seed is a living thing that aspires to grow and needs our care.Then we dissected the seed so that the teachers could see what a seed is from a scientific perspective, not that it would be doe by the children. We made newspaper pots and sowed nasturtium seeds. School gardens could be beautiful places for learning and social interaction, not just a collection of raised beds.

On the second evening we made a raised bed outside. Some people used a powered screw driver and a saw for the first time. We dug the soil, filled the bed with top soil, planted plants. I finished the workshop with a hugely positive feeling, that there will be more children enjoying gardening in their school days.

Teacher Training Workshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Teacher Training Workshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Constructing the raised bed


  • 3 x 2.4m decking timber 28mm x 130mm
  • 1x 2.4m garden stake  50mm
  • wood screws (6×70) approx 14 screws


  • Powered screw driver with philips no.2 bit
  • Rubber or wooden mallet
  • wood saw
  • spade
  • shovel
  • wheel barrow
  • measuring tape
  • bamboo canes
  • builders line or twine

Raised beds offer a number of advantages including increased periods of workability as you do not need to walk on the soil in order to cultivate and plant. Raising the beds can also improve drainage, increase the depth of the topsoil and make working easier as you dont have to bend as far.

Old scaffolding planks can be used instead of treated timber, they have the advantage of being untreated and hard woods and the fact that they are being recycled is a good environmental plus. They can also be half the price. The downside is that they are thicker and harder to get the screws in to and they are wider, therefore more soil will be needed in order to fill the beds. Getting good quality topsoil, cheaply can be difficult.

Position beds in sunny situations, shelter from winds is best for vegetable crops. Avoid over hanging branches of established trees. Construct the beds no wider than 1.2m to ensure that the centres of the beds can be reached from the sides. In theory the beds can be as long as you want, but in practice if the beds are too long, gardeners end up taking short cuts across the beds, this means compacting the soil and in a school situation it creates an unnecessary hazard. 2.4 metre beds are a good size.

Start with cutting one of the decking boards in half, this will give you two ends for the bed.

Mark out the area for the beds using twine and bamboo canes. If laying out a number of beds in a geometric pattern ensure that the beds are square, use pythagoras theorem for getting the corners square and making sure adjacent beds are parallel.

Where grass is present the sod (top 5cm of soil can be removed. this can be buried under the topsoil when digging the or placed in a compost heap.

Place the sides and ends of the beds in position and align the corners. Put two scres from the sides into the end boars and two from the end boards into the sides at each corner.

Ciaran hammering in a post - Teacher Training Workshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Ciaran hammering in a post - Teacher Training Workshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Check that corners are square and then hammer in posts at each corner and on the sides inside the boards half way. Use a wooden or rubber mallet. The posts should go into the soil as much as the height of the sides. Cut the 2.4 m stake into required lengths for this purpose.

Now that the beds have been constructed, it is time to fill them. It always surprises me just how much soil it takes to fill beds. As the beds are being filled, tread over the soil to settle it, natural settlement will occur anyway, but this reduces it.  As you fill in the soil, look out for weed roots and stones which need to be removed.

Teachers around the newly constructed raised bed - Teacher Training Workshop

Teachers around the newly constructed raised bed - Teacher Training Workshop

Some things to watch out for when building beds for schools. Avoid sharp edges on the beds. Look out for any sharp materials that may be in topsoil, things like glass pieces, bits of metal.

Note: 1.2m beds are quite good for adults, perhaps narrower beds of 1 metre would be more suited for young children.

Ciaran and the teachers, teacher training Workshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

Ciaran and the teachers, teacher training Workshop, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, Ireland

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