Horticulture and Kitchen Garden

Horticulture is one of Toolangi’s areas of expertise and what sets us apart from other schools in the area. The development of our kitchen garden over the past few years has seen the love of gardening and the production of healthy organic food become a significant influence in the lives of our children. Lessons have a science emphasis in the 3-6 classes investigating hypothesis whilst historically it acknowledges the seasons and various festivals throughout the world around the garden.

In the Junior Years children are gently encouraged to notice what they see as the seasons and weather changes and plant out and harvest various vegetable as the seasons ask.

Both classes make preserves and foods that are eaten together with families as we celebrate festivals at significant times of the year. Toolangi Primary school has been recognized with awards from both local and Melbourne based botanical associations.

A Bugs Life Project

After being disappointed by continual damage in our kitchen garden caused by caterpillars, snails, grasshoppers, millipedes, aphids, white-fly, black-fly and green-fly, it is hardly surprising that pupils were beginning to feel that successful gardening was a battle against all that is creepy or crawly. We looked at ways to deter these pests; copper hoops around seedlings keep snails and slugs at bay quite successfully, but do nothing to stop the incessant jaws of caterpillars and grasshoppers. Early protection of crops with mosquito netting stop butterflies from laying eggs, but also stop pollinators reaching flowers. Decoy butterflies were fun to make, but had limited success in fooling butterflies that the cabbage territory was taken. For a good while the non-chemical warfare did feel like a loosing battle.
Research into how to stop the plague of whitefly in early summer, just as our garden was full of promise, kept bringing me back to the idea of an IPM (intergrated pest management) system. Basically, if we were to avoid poisoning, we needed to encourage some tiny parasitic wasps to our garden. At first, the idea of actively trying to attract bugs seemed counterintuitive and I was more that a little sceptical. I tried putting up yellow sticky traps to stop the white-fly at first, but it was clear that the percentages of those trapped had minimal effect as our vegetables went from green to yellow to brown, succumbing to mildew, sooty mould, red-spidermite and aphids as their immunity failed them.

Drastic action had to be taken…and that was to do nothing! NOT poisoning or burning leaves to rid the pests was the only way to attract the natural predators. NOT removing cabbage moth caterpillars soon attracted some special wasps that have evolved to parasite them. NOT ridding aphids soon saw the lacewings and ladybids appear, because they found a healthy population of food for their larvae. NOT being suspicious of all eggs and grubs and beetles we came accross, by being more learned about the beneficial bugs that help our garden, soon seemed to be having some affect.

And so, the first project for term One has been making this quirky bug hotel. We have learnt about the habits and habitats of many of the bugs we might find in our garden. Centepedes benefit us because their food of choice is snail eggs. Mud wasps and sand wasps collect up and paralise the caterpillars that the parasitic wasps miss. The larvae of ladybirds and lacewings are voracious predators for aphids, moth and butterfly eggs. Ground beetles and dragon flies control click beetles, wire worms, cockchaffers and grasshoppers from the ground and from the air. Spiders help control flies, thus reducing the numbers of pests such as cherry slug (sawfly larvae). We have also obseved reptile and amphibious life thriving from a healthy bug population and a chemical free garden, which in turn helps to control the slugs and snails.
The bug hotel provides dry habitat for many bugs to hibernate over winter or to reproduce, and is also a collection of natural materials such as clay, mud, paper and sand for nest building. We have also planted many good bug attracting plants that provide nectar for adults and pollen for native bees.

We have followed life-cycles of parasited caterpillars to wasps, and those unaffected that turned to butteflies. We watched lacewing larvae eagerly gathering aphips and then hatching from their cocoons. It has been a hugely insightful project – not only for pupils – which seems to have changed our approach to gardening and our appreciation of biodiversity. Of course, we still have leaves that are chewed and a few pests, but with a good balance of creatures and a little more knowledge, hopefully we will be able to avoid destructive plagues.

It is now Autunm and our garden is looking very healthy. Our sticky traps serve as a macarbre entamological identity sheet. We have our biggest harvest to share and celebrate at our upcoming festival

I am delighted when children approach me to tell me of a lacewing or mud wasp or native bee on their oregano flowers that they have managed to identify.