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Highgate is fortunate amongst London schools to have a wealth of outdoor space. In addition to our extensive sports fields, that are managed by the Grounds Department, there are stunning areas across the whole site that not only provide sensory delights for our school and wider community to enjoy, but also an opportunity for pupil involvement and environmental action.

We chat to Fred Duke, our Head Gardener about his role and why being outdoors is so important for the environment and good for our mental and physical wellbeing.

Can you tell us about your background and how you got into horticulture?
I was born and raised in Kwa-Zulu Natal, South Africa, and attended an agricultural college between the age of 13 and 18 years old, followed by studying horticulture at Pretoria University. I then became a cattle farmer for several years before relocating to the UK in 2005, where I started at Kenwood House, initially as Ranger Supervisor and later as Ground Maintenance Supervisor before coming to Highgate around five years ago.

What outdoor spaces and facilities do we have at the School?  
We’re really fortunate amongst London schools to have a wealth of outdoor space which pupils and staff can enjoy and learn from. In addition to our extensive sports fields, there are stunning areas across the whole site that not only provide sensory delights for our school and wider community to enjoy, but also offer opportunities for pupil involvement and environmental action.

‘The Orchard’ is the home of our Forest School – an enchanting woodland space, with plum trees, winding paths, an under-cover hub for pupils to gather, and a bounty of insect life for them to discover and enjoy.

How do you engage pupils with gardening?  
I instigated the School’s co-curricular gardening clubs from Pre-Prep to Seniors. Being a Dad to two children, I feel it’s really important to educate the next generation about sustainable practices and for pupils to get involved in understanding bio-diversity from a very early age.

I’ve enjoyed working closely with the Pre-Prep team to look at how our wild spaces can sustain the curriculum – from bug hunting and pond dipping to hydroponics. We’ve involved Junior School pupils to help plant a wildflower area and built raised beds in the playground to grow vegetables for the children to eat. In 2021, Pre-Prep and Year 3 pupils helped to plant 500 trees along the school boundary to help combat car-fumes and noise pollution and we hope to do a similar project next year.

Learning how things grow, whether that’s food or flowers, is a valuable life skill that will stay with children into adulthood. Research has also shown that gardening has a positive impact on our mental health and physical wellbeing which was especially evident during the covid pandemic.

How does the work you and the team do help contribute to our sustainable actions?  
Our gardening activity is part of Highgate’s wider sustainability commitment, ensuring we play our role in safeguarding the natural world. This is embedded in all our work, from rewilding lawns, propagating new plants from existing stock, home-grown compost (we make seven tons a year from grass cuttings, weeds, hedge trimmings and leaf mould), sustainable tree management and organic fertilisers.

The wildlife population is flourishing with hedgehogs, mice, tawny owls, birds, bees and other insects finding a home in our grounds. Every summer, we conduct a butterfly audit and over the last few years, we’ve seen a 350% increase in red admiral and peacock butterflies. And this month we’re taking part in No Mow May which will leave around six acres of school grounds uncut to help biodiversity thrive.

What projects are you working on at the moment and any other big plans coming up?
There’s always so much to do and we’re currently preparing for Spring planting around the grounds. We’ve just helped the Design Technology and Engineering department plant bamboo which will be used by staff and pupils to design and make sustainable bicycles. And Year 9 pupils assist us in essential conservation work of the Backlands area as part of their community work.

We’re really grateful to parents for their fundraising efforts which have helped purchase new raised beds in both the Pre-Prep and Junior Schools for vegetable and fruit growing; planting bulbs (1,800 in total) around the outdoor classroom, representing each year from reception to Year 6 and we’ve created a 15m long hedge using Portuguese laurel trees.

Some other ideas for future plans include staff allotments, increasing our wildflower meadows across the school, and this year alone we’re aiming to grow about 3,000 plants in our greenhouse area from seeds and cuttings. We’ve just donated some of the plants and seeds to TreeHouse School, one of our local partner schools who have pupils diagnosed with autism, to develop their own allotments, teaching horticultural skills, as well as a sensory place for pupils to unwind.

How can parents get their children involved in growing at home?
Even if parents aren’t into gardening or if families don’t have their own outdoor space, it’s fun and easy to start getting children interested by helping them make a hydroponic tank by following these simple steps:

  1. Take a large plastic bottle, cut off the top third and remove the bottle top
  2. Stuff a long length of cottonwool through the bottle neck
  3. Fill the bottom two thirds with tap water
  4. Fill the top with compost and place it over the bottom, ensure the length of cottonwool reaches the bottom of the water tank
  5. Wrap the bottom in tin foil to prevent algae growing in the water tank
  6. Sow your seeds – I’d recommend basil or chives as they can be used in food – keep in direct sunlight on a window and top up the water if needed. Enjoy watching the plants grow.

Finally, what are your top tips for Spring planting?
Don’t plant out seedlings or bedding plants yet as we may still have a cold weather snap but most importantly, experiment with different plants and methods of planting and have fun! And if you have a garden with a lawn try not to mow it for the whole of May to help wildflowers grow and encourage pollinators into your garden.