Local is Lovely: St Joseph’s Kitchen Garden

By Sophie Hansen, Orange
As featured in The Country Web 2016 Annual

St Joseph’s is a small school in the Central Western town of Molong. And its new kitchen garden is nourishing its 50-plus students on every level.

St Joseph’s has a terrifically hardworking Parents and Friends committee, and they’re are also a very handy lot. So when it was decided that their regular canteen should start up again after a long break, the committee knew they wanted fresh produce on the menu. And yes, they decided to grow it themselves, at the school.

Plans were made to start a garden on the school grounds—from scratch. It didn’t take long to prepare the beds and get the ball rolling.

St Joseph's Kitchen Garden

“The best part about setting up the garden has been seeing the children enjoy getting their hands dirty, the excitement of finding wriggly worms and of course, the digging and planting, nurturing and then harvesting their very own produce.” JANE SHANNON

The kitchen garden was officially opened by ABC’s Gardening Australia host Costa Georgiadis on 25 September last year and each St Joseph’s student now plays a part in caring for and enjoying their new project. Plus everyone gets to enjoy its spoils via their canteen orders. How good is that?!

Here’s the story of the St Joseph’s kitchen garden, plus some really fantastic advice on how you can do something similar at your school, direct from Jane Shannon, the woman who drove the whole thing. Jane also shares their canteen’s recipe for spinach cob loaf—an old school classic that deserves to get taken on every picnic, and will be the first thing eaten at every one. Plus the lemonade made in huge batches to sell at a school fundraiser. (visit Sophie’s Local is Lovely Blog for the recipes).

How did the kitchen garden get started?

The P and F committee started talking about a kitchen garden in spring 2014. This followed the re-establishment of the school canteen, which was started up again after a break of some years. We were keen to set the canteen up under the healthy canteen guidelines, and for us that meant incorporating garden-fresh food. We started the process by looking at a suitable location, design and what materials we needed. From there we got quotes, hunted around for grants to fund the project and put a plan and a budget together.

We decided not to tap into the school’s town-water supply to maintain the garden. Instead, we installed a small water pump, purchased with some money we’d raised, to make use of the (at that time) unaccessible tank water from our school hall. One grant application was successful and money from this went towards the purchase of our raised beds.

How long did it take to get up and running?

Discussing the ‘how, what, when and where’ took a little while, as we wanted to make sure we got it right! During term four, 2014 we worked out the logistics of the project, with the aim of taking delivery of the materials for construction in January of 2015. A group of parents and children got together at the end of the summer holidays and constructed the garden—many hands make light work, so building the garden itself took a day from start to finish. Planting happened within the first few weeks of term one, and we had our first harvest by early winter.

What advice would you give other schools setting out to start a garden like yours?

Being a small school, our P and F and teachers work very well together, and we have a great band of merry workers… so I think that played a big part in making this project come together so quickly! My advice would be to plan ahead and seek out and apply for any grants that your school may be eligible for. Also, there are suppliers who will happily advise on the most appropriate heights and sizes of garden beds, etc… and may have specials for schools. Local suppliers and tradies were also very helpful and generous to us with their time.

What has been the best part about setting up this garden?

Seeing the children enjoy getting their hands dirty—the excitement of finding wriggly worms and of course, the digging and planting, nurturing and then harvesting their very own produce. It’s wonderful to see them all hoeing into raw vegetables like broccoli, heirloom carrots, snow peas and celery straight out of the garden.

Any tips on delegating jobs in a school garden?

In our case a jobs and responsibilities roster is part of school life, and watering the garden became part of this system. This means that there are children given the responsibility of watering each week, so watering doesn’t get forgotten about. Most important!

How do you incorporate produce from the garden into the school canteen?

In summer this is easy! We have lovely fresh salads on the canteen menu and we’ve had an abundance of rainbow chard, which has meant some delicious spinach cob loaves (even the kids who ‘don’t like spinach’ think it’s delicious). Through the winter there was bolognaise, nachos and homemade chicken soup on the menu, in which beautiful fresh celery, carrots and herbs were used. We also make a point of using the celery, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers and radishes from the garden, chopping them up to put on the windowsill for the children to help themselves.

Why do you think it’s great for schools like yours to have a garden and involve the kids in it?

It teaches children so much about all sorts of things. As well as being a useful tool for the teachers, giving them scope for teaching things like science and numeracy, it’s a wonderful learning experience in terms of sustainability, being waterwise and in teaching self-sufficiency. It teaches the seasonality of foods and that everything has a beginning and an end. It gives children such a boost, knowing they can grow something they can actually use. It’s also brought people together (children, parents, teachers, friends, helpers) in a completely different scene, which has been terrific.

Can you tell us about the garden’s opening and having Costa there?

The garden opening was a fabulous day for the school and the local community. Having a celebrity in town was so exciting–especially one who was so enthusiastic as Costa! He arrived at around 10 am and barely had time to don his well-known bib and brace overalls before being surrounded by keen gardeners, from toddlers to people in their 80s, all keen for a chat about their favourite topic. Meanwhile, the dads built a scarecrow (our Costacrow!) and a good sized crowd mingled and browsed the garden-themed stalls, whilst enjoying a glass of St Joseph’s lemonade, morning tea and a delicious fresh lunch served by our P and F.

Eventually, the crowd focused on the task at hand, which was to plant the ‘mini orchard’. A selection of dwarf fruit tree favourites, selected for their suitability for children, was planted, mostly all by Costa, with a band of merry little helpers. The children got in and did a lot of the hands-on.

We finished the day with the official opening of the kitchen garden, which involved a very funny, animated and also moving talk by Costa, and a pair of golden secateurs from the cretaceous period! He focused on the wonderful legacy the older students are leaving behind as they move on to the wider world. A food garden is such a precious gift—generations of children coming through the school will benefit for years to come.

You mentioned that Costa showed you all a great way to plant the dwarf fruit trees, can you share his advice?

Costa had asked us to prepare the site and have lots of organic matter, including manure and hay for mulching. We were able to supply him with mountains of sheep, cow, chicken and even mouse (from Doolittle Farm) manure! He was most impressed!

  • Holes were prepared with gypsum, ag-lime and dynamic lifter.
  • Costa backfilled the holes a little and added his special ingredient, Rock Dust.
  • Trees were placed into the now shallow holes so that their bases were just above ground level, and planted under layers of mulch and manure. This formed a ‘cocoon’ around the tree, to help conserve moisture and nutrients. We will keep adding to these layers in time.
  • After planting, trees were well watered and given a dose of organic liquid fertiliser, courtesy of Baa Baa Brew.

About nswrwn

NSW Rural Women’s Network is a government program working in innovative ways to promote leadership and action on rural women’s issues. The RWN team is dedicated to connecting and exchanging information with women and stakeholders in rural, regional and remote communities.
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