Students learn to grow with educational gardens

 05 Jan 2016 - 17:37

Students learn to grow with educational gardens
Students of Newton International School Lagoon help in the Eco-garden at their campus.

By Laura Ball
In a dry, desert land like Qatar, people seem to long for greenery and wildlife. Aspire Park, Dahl Al Hammam Park, The Corniche, Barzan Park, and many other smaller ‘pocket parks’ and tree-lined roads are very popular places to sit when the weather becomes cool enough to venture outside. So perhaps this desire for beauty and coolness contributes to the new trend, over the last few years, of establishing educational gardens in Qatar- in Education City, in schools, compounds and even at Qatar University.
The much talked about Quranic Botanical Garden (QBG) is being planned and prepared by the Qatar Foundation, and some schools have become interested in having mini Quranic gardens. Doha College aims to have a ‘Permaculture garden,’ as does Qatar University, and at Newton International Lagoon Primary School an ‘Eco-garden’ is quickly taking shape. Doha British School is also communicating with parents about their new garden project.
The Quranic Botanical Garden vision is to display 51 species mentioned in the Holy Quran, along with 350 plants indigenous to Qatar, including many medicinal species, in a beautiful, 24 hectare, traditional Islamic style paradise-like garden, in a location near the Sidra Medical Research Center, Education City. The stated mission of the QBG is to promote knowledge of the plants, botanical terms, and conservation principles mentioned in the Holy Quran and Sunnah (way of life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him)). Schools sometimes visit the Qatar Botanical Garden offices, at The Qatar Foundation, or request presentations and workshops about how to set up a Quranic Botanical Garden at their school, according to Fatima Al Khulaifi a central figure of QBG. Seedbanks and nursery of plants and trees exist, but the garden itself has not yet been established.
Newton International School Lagoon has, however, made great strides in the last year, since a budget was approved by the school owners for their ‘Eco garden’. Progress is steered by the Head Teacher, and an Eco-Committee made up of Teachers, primary school students, and parents- all volunteering their time and efforts to get the Eco-Garden established. Classes take turns in using their new tools bench to plant and water the beds.
The garden is sheltered from the scorching, humid, windy and dusty summer months in Qatar, part of the day by the tall school buildings, and specially constructed roof and walls of green netting and pergolas, over which climbing plants are being grown. Trees in pots add to the shade. In order to keep many smaller trees and plants alive throughout the year, shade and shelter are a necessity. Unfortunately no large trees could be planted in the ground, as underneath the brick-lined garden is an underground car park.

Paige Tantillo, Master Gardener and Permaculture Consultant, showing off rich compost made from kitchen and garden waste.

Already the Eco-garden has troughs and glass tanks with plants inincluding small papaya trees, tomato plants and marigolds which can show the roots of the plants and how these hold onto the soil. These can also be used to show the different stages of the life cycle of plants, including germination, growth, flowering and fruit bearing, and the needs of plants.
A beetle house hangs on a wall, hoping to attract beetles and other insects to make a home in it. A ‘wormery’ or ‘worm farm’ has recently been delivered, as well as some Doha-sourced earthworms and other soil dwelling creatures, to show the children, through the glass or plastic, how fertile soil is made. A plastic ball shaped container is to be used to make compost from recycled school fruit and vegetable scraps and grass cuttings from the playing field, to show how nutrients can be added to soil. Recycling banks are planned, to teach about the separation of materials, and try to get children into good habits from a young age.
The enthusiastic Head Teacher, appropriately named ‘Miss Farmer’ described plans for a tank with ants, a bird table attract birds to feed on, and frogs for the pond at the base of a recently installed large ceramic fountain.  They may soon have problems controlling all this wildlife! Hopefully the food chains generated eg. insects being eaten by frogs and lizards, which are eaten by birds and possibly local stray cats, will ensure the Eco-garden does not get too overcrowded as the animals multiply, illustrating natural pest control at work!

Miss Farmer was asked what her motivations for starting the Eco- garden were. She replied immediately that it was ‘for the children’, to help them to have an (enjoyable and interesting) ‘hands on education’ about ecology and sustainability, something now required by the British Curriculum for Primary Schools. Also the school were hoping that they might eventually qualify for ‘The International Eco-School Award’.
With such demands and encouragements being offered, other British Curriculum Schools are making efforts to establish their own gardens. Doha College, a model school run by the British Embassy has allocated a ‘budget’ of 80 000 QR for its long-awaited garden project. It is now planned as a ‘Permaculture Garden’, which grows food and other raw materials by working with nature and natural principles, to benefit rather than harm biodiversity of wildlife and the environment- i.e. to be more sustainable.
The garden is designed to encourage efficient use, re-use and recycling of resources available, such as waste materials, eg. old pallets used to contain raised beds; and food waste, through composting. They hope to have a small ‘farmer’s market for any produce, in which parents and staff could buy the harvest from the children, who can see the whole process from seed planting to packaging the cleaned produce.
Paige Tantillo, an American ex-pat and 4 year resident of Doha, is the Permaculture consultant for the Doha College project. ‘Doha College has for sometime been aware of the importance of a garden for the children’s education, and of the school becoming more ‘green’. Her proposal is rapidly taking shape on the ground, through the involvement of committed teachers and their students. In the generousopen space allocated, two large pergolas, to train plants up later creating shade, have recently been constructed by a local company- Q-Art, and drip irrigation put in. Small trees have been planted such as Date palms, Lemons, Chico trees, and Papaya, which will be mulched to minimize water evaporation.
Together with Paige the children have planted a butterfly-shaped garden full of butterfly-attracting plants, and herb spiral- a mound of herbs divided and stabilized by a climbing spiral of stones. The aim of these stylized and beautiful imitations of natural ecosystems are to maximise the number and diversity of edible and medicinal plants and habitatsin a small space, thereby increasingthe diversity of wildlife, especially pollinating and pest-eating insects.
Paige has also initiated a food garden in the primary school where she currently teaches- Al Bateel International Kindergarten, and a Permaculture community garden in her compound in the Waab area- aptly called ‘Al Waab Oasis’, which gardeners, children and adults from the compound and even an orphanage have regularly helped out in, again with educational benefits. Other projects have received her input, including a Permaculture Edible Boulevard garden project proposed for Qatar University;and Qatar Green Building Council’s Passive House garden in Barwa City.
Neighbours and other interested visitors havealso learned from Page’s own backyard and roof permaculture gardens. Paige seems to be a well-loved member of the community there- cultivating caring attitudes and knowledge! Sadly she is moving out of her compound, but hopes the community garden will be kept alive.
Although many people, ideas and projects come and go in Doha due to the temporary nature of most work contracts, the most sustainable, long-lasting type of community environmental project in Qatar could be environmental education of the community through school gardens. Schools are vital institutions andcommunity hubs, kept going by new generations of teachers, school children, administrators, caretakers and parents, who can all help care for the gardens. Schoolsin Qatar usually have good financial resources and a strong motivation to compete with other schools in providing the best education.
The British Curriculum and international ‘Eco-Schools Award’ have added to the push towards educating children in sustainability. The British Ecological Society is also encouraging the use of school grounds to facilitate educational fieldwork type activities within schools linked to the British curriculum.

Head Teacher Miss Farmer (left) Mohammed, Asma and Mr O’Brien (right) of the Eco Committee coordinating NIS Lagoon Eco Garden.

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Through creating and using educational gardens effectively, a love and understanding of nature may be cultivated in Qatar’s children, who it is hoped would then take greater care over the impact that their daily lives have on the environment. They can become the sustainable designers, planners and managers of tomorrow, and perhaps the Qatar of the future will not have the second largest ecological footprint and carbon footprint in the world.  Let us hope that these gardens continue to grow with Qatar’s children, and receive community support into the future. May more schools follow suit, and the trend spread its branches!

The Peninsula