Omata School Orchard Food Forest
By Bena Denton
Project in a Nutshell
Design and install of Omata School Orchard Food Forest. The statement of purpose for the Omata Orchard is; a sustainable, visually enticing, accessible space where children and community can connect with nature and nutrition. This was embraced by the whole school as a rich topic, whereby the project was child-driven, based around hands-on authentic learning and linked back to the curriculum in the classroom. In 2016, Karen Briscoe (Principal of Omata School Taranaki) formed a parent group to install a school orchard. The project quickly evolved, as a larger learning opportunity was identified and Bena Denton of GreenBridge then led the project from inception to completion. This involved professional development of the teaching staff by GB, off-site orchard visits, timeframes, budgets, fundraising, and organisational working bees. In 2017 the design, fundraising and phase one of the construction and planting were undertaken. In 2018 phase two of the planting install was completed and the garden club formed to ensure ongoing maintenance and engagement.
The area allocated to the project is around 600sqm and includes, a shelter belt, orchard (23 large fruit trees, 16 + berry bushes, 5 vines, multiple herb ground covers), veg beds for 12 children (rotating garden club), berry avery, future chook area and water harvesting tank, outdoor teaching / flexi space that can sit two classrooms, small timber seating nook, flower picking beds, speaking tubes, fedge (food hedge), yellow gecko habitat areas, butterfly garden, plantings for bees and beneficial insects and a winding shell path that meanders through the space inviting relaxing and play alike.
This project addresses the disconnect with nature and our food sources by firstly providing a space where children can grow and cook their own food, which in turn reinforces healthy eating. Children have already begun to identify edible plants and try eating new herbs, flowers, and veggies. In the garden club we have made ‘weed smoothies’ and ‘herb teas. The diversity of plants grown (which imitates the layers of a natural ecosystem as much as possible) have attracted bees, a more active soil biology (heaps of worms when there were none before) and we have established gecko friendly areas to attract the rare local yellow gecko (We had a gecko expert visited the school).
The orchard is based on a ’food forest concept’ of mixed perennial plantings and support species offers a new food growing paradigm to the children and community. This paradigm is based on a home garden or gatherer-market garden model. There is a big movement worldwide toward ‘urban farming’, micro bio-intensive gardening, community supported agriculture (CSA’s) etc. This orchard project puts children into contact with these concepts and potentially aspires children to new and diversified jobs and careers that will be the future of Taranaki and national PI (primary industry). Children readily observe and interact with the edible space and are trailing these different gardening techniques.
Growing's one’s food is one of the largest positive impacts an individual can make, in bringing about change on environmental issues. The children are learning that growing ones food reduces packaging waste (including single-use plastics as your garden is your supermarket), reduces food waste (pick only what you need and composting), reduces food miles (you can walk to your backyard), costs less (especially if you save seed) and provides more healthy, nutrient dense food (with improved ripple effects on our health care system). Children are engaged and feel empowered in their food growing! A worm farm has been set up to receive lunch box compostables. The orchard is set up as a ‘permissible’ space for the gathering and harvesting of herbs, veg, flowers, and fruit.
Innovative or Collaborative Aspects of the Project
Children co-designed the orchard with their teachers' support and with the input of local ecological landscape business GreenBridge.
By engaging experts, children could also see this work is a viable career choice. Children were heard, and their ideas directly incorporated like the speaking tube, whimsical curved seating and mosaic concrete as well as many popular fruit and berry trees. This process was ‘messy’ at times and took way longer but was rich in learning!
Orchard as a play space…to further encourage and engage children in the food garden, it was decided to allow the area to also be a play space and permissible space ie children can run and jump, eat food when they like and just hang out – it is well used.
Whanau groups were often used for activities, whereby different ages buddied up to help each other.
Collaboratively the orchard was sponsored and established with community funds, expertise and hands.
With a project of this calibre, there are always a few issues to troubleshoot! Leading the teachers, community and children through a complex design and install process that has so far spanned two years has taken patience, big-picture thinking, and determination - but the children's engagement has made it worth it, as have the teachers commitment and positive feedback Kikuyu was a biggie and was tackled by a combo of carpet mulched over and black plastic pinned in place for 6 months. Both were successful but meant we had to delay shrub planting and fine under plantings until eradicated. However, it was an organic approach, so no sprays used in the children food growing areas! A small number of Board of Trustees early on did not see the value of the learning in the project for the children and had to be 'swayed’. Once in place, the orchards value to the school was obvious to all.
Part of the Food Garden and Orchard's success was due to the teacher’s commitment and enthusiasm - it helps to have one passionate lead teacher, in this instance Vicky Awlward. Additionally, GreenBridge was intrinsic to the success of such a tenacious project. While there are many approaches to get a project of this size and scope undertaken, one person, in this instance Bena Denton, donated time, passion, knowledge, and leadership to help see it through. Alternatively, a team of parent community could share these tasks and responsibility.
Garden Club and Ongoing Sustainability of the Project
In addition to each classroom responsible for an area of the orchard (fruit trees, worm farm, compost etc), two children from each room are released from class to spend Thursday afternoons in the garden. The main objectives of the garden club are; to have fun in the garden, connect with nature and do activities that broaden the children's eco-literacy. This ranges from harvesting calendula drying it and making gardeners balm as gifts to frog ponds to wild weed walks identifying ‘weeds' that can be eaten and those that can’t. Children are engaged, excited and often comment its so fun to be ‘not learning’ Ha! Regenerative practice by stealth.
GreenBridge is a multi-award-winning business that specialises in sustainable design for homes and landscapes. Based in Taranaki the three-person social enterprise was established seven years ago by Daniel Woolley and Bena Denton and soon joined by Kama Burwell to offer a range of permaculture and ecological solutions for landscape regeneration, healthy (non-toxic) small footprint homes and community resiliency projects. The road has not been an easy one, but passion, belief, and doggedness now has GreenBridge working on local and national projects, from small backyards to large community projects such as lead designers for the New Plymouth Community Resource Recovery Centre (supported and funded by local government) to Mt White Station in the top of the South Island - all have sustainability at their heart.
Recent Awards: ‘Environmental Leadership in Businesses 2018’ and 'Silver Best Small Footprint Home New Zealand 2017'