Trees of Knowledge

Setting up and implementing a whole school tree planting project has been a challenging, but fun and fulfilling venture. The first step to take if you are thinking of trying the same, is to get permission and clearance from the right people; the head teacher, the caretaker/grounds manager and the bursar. I wrote a proposal to present to the head, outlining the vision and aims of the project and estimating the required budget, which, knowing there is never enough money in a school, I kept to an absolute minimum.

Stuart Davies (my colleague and fellow tree enthusiast) and I had several meetings with the bursar and caretaker. One of our major concerns was space to accommodate our seedlings and saplings. As I detailed in my previous blog, our school is severely limited in terms of grounds and our only available space is a small, tarmacked space called the secret garden. Our bursar had recently invested some time and money transforming the space into a beautiful area for the staff to sit, and she was concerned that it might be overtaken by the project, so much discussion was had concerning the right type of shelving and pots to make sure it looked pretty and was well contained.

Once we had the go-ahead for the project, I produced posters to put up around school and sent messages to inform the parents about it. We also posted on the school website and created a display board in the foyer. It was decided to ask for donations to help the project along, and the slogan “50p to plant a tree” was adopted. I was a little reluctant to do this as our school has many low-income families and I didn’t want anybody to be excluded, so we made it clear that it was a voluntary donation. In the end, we raised a miniscule amount of money this way, and I wish we had not bothered.

Shelving and compost and sharp sand were purchased, and enough pots were gathered for the project to begin.

Our intention had been to have a central seed collection point and encourage the children to gather acorns and perhaps some other seeds, but as autumn 2021 began, it became clear that there simply weren’t any acorns that year. As many readers will know, 2020 was a mast year, when the oak trees massively overproduced, and so the next year the trees have a rest. This is a natural and regular occurrence, but it really didn’t help our project, and at one point I was concerned it would sink it entirely!

In the end Stuart decided to buy some seeds online, and so we ended up with a much wider variety of species, which was an excellent outcome. However, many of the seeds had much more complex needs than the simple ‘stick it in a pot and wait’ technique and much soaking and refrigerating was carried out to ensure correct stratification of the seeds. I admit to getting quite confused with the timings and requirements and having to re-read the tiny text on those seed packets many times! Luckily, Stuart had also managed to collect a fair amount of chestnuts, which are quite simple in their needs.

The biggest challenge was finding the time to get the children out to the secret garden to plant. As a TA, I already have a full timetable, running reading intervention and caring for some very high-needs children, but somehow, I managed to squeeze in 20 mins here and there to get the planting done. It had been decided to take the children out in small groups to cause the least disruption to class timetables and planning, but this took up a lot of my time. All the class teachers were very supportive, and I now think it might be more efficient to take one whole class at a time, with the class teacher joining us.

The children were, without exception, excited and engaged by the project. It was a great opportunity for learning, and I was pleased by how much they already knew around tree types, plant needs and the role of trees in mitigating climate change.  I spent the limited time I had with each group, sharing as much knowledge as I could around these subjects.

We have had some failures: one class planted alder seeds in trays in the classroom, and we were excited to see the delicate little shoots sprouting. Unfortunately, they were too delicate to survive the combination of staff absence and the half term holidays, which resulted in several weeks without water.  Not one of them survived!

But we have also had successes! The chestnut trees in particular are doing well. I find the combination of strength and fragility in these saplings captivating. Knowing that these tiny shoots will one day be mighty, food-bearing trees is an exciting and humbling prospect, and I, and the children, are looking forward to watching them grow. The second phase of the project is only just beginning. We have yet to find the land where we will be able to plant the saplings. I am in negotiations with a local secondary school, which is interested in re-wilding some of its land, and we are discussing using the trees as a transition project for the children moving up. We also have hopes to use some land that has become available due to Ash-dieback. There are a couple of years before they need planting out though, so we have some time to finalise the details. I will keep you informed.

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