Gardening: Seeds of the future: Catch them young, said the Royal Horticultural Society, and one school took the lesson to heart. Michael Leapman met the green-fingered pupils

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NEARLY 30 children, aged eight and nine, squat on the library floor at Tenterden Church of England Junior School in Kent at the end of afternoon classes. They look up eagerly at Howard Smith, a retired businessman and leading member of the local horticultural society.

'Last time we met,' he says, 'we talked about the way seeds work and we talked about the life cycle, didn't we? What is the start of the life cycle?' There is a pause before a small voice says: 'The seed.'

'The seed, isn't it? What does the seed do?'

Another hesitant voice: 'Germinates.'

'What happens after it germinates?'

'It grows.' They are more confident now.

'After it grows?'

'It flowers.'

'And what happens after that? That's right, it seeds again, so we get the life cycle starting over again.'

This is the second year that Smith has organised the Greenfingers Club for volunteers among the school's fourth-year pupils. This year he had applications from more than 30 - the most he can accommodate from the 81 children eligible - and there is a waiting list.

He had the idea early in 1992, when the Royal Horticultural Society sent out a paper called Young People and Gardening. The RHS had noted concern among the nation's gardeners that children were not being attracted early enough to take an interest in the craft.

No matter that in their teenage years their interest is diverted to what then seem more pressing matters; it is a sound horticultural principle that a seed planted at the right season is most likely to flower. The idea is that today's enthused pre-teens will be the gardeners, if not of tomorrow, then of the day after.

Mr Smith raised the matter with his society, which agreed he should discuss it with Helen Tweedle, head teacher at the junior school.

'I was really excited when he came to me,' she says. 'I knew the children would be interested and it would actively form a link between the school and the community. We would have an extra-curricular activity taken by a non-staff member interested in working with us, and it would help bring up a new generation of people interested in gardening.'

So, on alternate Wednesdays in term time, after the last lesson ends, Mr Smith and another volunteer go down to the school with a prepared lesson on some aspect of gardening, stressing a practical, hands-on approach. The children pay pounds 1 a term and get that back in the seeds and bulbs they are given to plant.

'We set out to provide something at the children's level to supplement but not supplant the curriculum, and to work closely with the teachers so we don't do anything contrary to their normal practice,' he says. 'You can't attack kids too soon. If you put an idea into their heads it tends to stick.'

Everyone - especially the children - agrees it has been a tremendous success. Last summer the group visited a local nursery where, after a talk about seeds and propagation, they each came away with a free plant. Before Christmas, following a demonstration of flower arranging, they went home with an arrangement of dried flowers for their parents. They have been encouraged to join children's classes at the RHS's three annual shows.

'Last summer we had a class for growing mustard and cress in an unusual manner,' says Mr Smith. 'One of them made it look like a hedgehog and another sprinkled the seed round his hand so it came up in a hand shape. He called it green fingers.'

Tenterden is a prosperous and attractive country town where most houses have gardens of a decent size. Mr Smith tells the children to ask their parents to allot them a corner of the garden for their own use, and he visits them to examine progress. 'You can see some parents have just been round to the nursery and crammed it with flowers the day before I arrive, but others are very honest,' he says. Now the school has given the club a plot of its own inside the grounds, 37ft by 15ft, which the children are digging over this spring.

The RHS's 1992 circular was only one symptom of a growing interest in getting children involved in gardening. This year's Chelsea Flower Show in May will have several child-

related exhibits. For the first time, the display of work by the Junior Flower Clubs of the National Association of Flower Arrangement Societies will be shown on all four of the show's days, instead of just two. And the garden sponsored by the Daily Mirror will be the first at Chelsea ever designed by children.

Last year the Mirror, in conjunction with the RHS, organised the first garden design competition for schools. The winner was Littleham Church of England Primary School at Exmouth, and the design, by year six pupils, will be built at Chelsea.

'We had 30 designs submitted but we didn't give them much time to get them ready last year,' says Jenny Worsfold, head of the RHS's Department for Education and Regional Activities. This year's theme is Far Away and Long Ago. Early signs are that by the time entries close on 31 March the judges will have rather more to assess. The winning garden will be shown next year at the Hampton Court

show in July, rather than at Chelsea in May.

'We have to be conscious that unless we encourage children and young people we won't have gardeners for tomorrow,' Ms Worsfold says. 'We're trying to show what a good medium gardening is for teaching some elements of the national curriculum. And it gets the children away from the computer screens into the fresh air.'

The Tenterden school did not enter last year but hopes to do so this time, with a design created by fifth-year pupils who were members of Greenfingers last year.

'A lot of them were disappointed that they couldn't go to the classes this year but so far we can only do it for year four,' says Ms Tweedle. 'So the design project is a good way of keeping them interested in gardening. And we can relate it to the national curriculum.'

The half-hour class is coming to an end. Mr Smith reaches into a box, takes out some potatoes and passes them round. 'These are seed potatoes. Find out which end is which. I'm going to give you all one to take home.'

He holds up a bucket. 'Find a bucket and drill holes in it. What did we put in the bottom of the pot when we grew crocuses? Stones. Why did we do that? It stops the compost falling out and it helps them stay dry.' He explains how to chit the potatoes, to get them to sprout before planting.

'All you need is a windowsill. When the shoots are about an inch high put the potato in a bucket and cover it with soil and put more soil in until it's within an inch of the top. Then we'll see who can produce the most potatoes.'

The children bear their trophies aloft as they go out to meet their parents. I talk to a few before they go. 'It's really excellent and interesting,' says Rachel, while Oscar is even more excited: 'You get to do a lot of things. And I like growing stuff I can eat.' The voice of tomorrow's gardeners may not be much different from the voice of today's; but it is good to know that is now being listened to. -

(Photograph omitted)