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You don’t have to get your hands dirty but… - Using horticulture to teach biodiversity, conservation and science to 11-18 year olds

Volume 7 Number 1 - April 2010

Lauren Gardiner

French: Vous n’avez pas besoin de vous salir les mains… en utilisant l’horticulture pour enseigner la biodiversité, la conservation et la science

Spanish: Usted no tiene porque ensuciarse las manos ...usando horticultura para enseñar biodiversidad, conservación y ciencias

Horticulture, biodiversity and conservation are usually taught in the science curriculum in UK schools, yet rarely venture beyond the basics –photosynthesis, variation and food/energy webs. However, the Writhlington School Orchid Project, has taken a radically different approach, engaging students in hands-on species propagation, and marketing their plants to fund both the project and exciting field trips. Lauren Gardiner reports.


The Orchid Project has involved hundreds of students over the twenty-plus years it has been running. Led from the start by teacher Simon Pugh-Jones, this unusual venture grew out of an after-school Gardening Club that still forms a central part of the project. The club took over a set of old greenhouses, left from the days when the school offered rural studies as part of its vocational curriculum. After a small collection of orchids was donated to the club, Simon went on to instil in his students some of his own schooldays passion for this charismatic and diverse group of plants. Exhibiting and selling orchids at horticultural and local shows, and gaining awards for their plants, around 10 years ago the students took the next step to orchid propagation, growing their own plants from seed, using sterile techniques to grow the seedlings on nutrient agar.

In UK schools, primary schoolchildren may be lucky enough to have a school vegetable garden where they learn how to sow beans, have a ‘Tallest Sunflower’ contest, and cultivate pumpkins for Halloween, but there are rarely gardens at secondary schools. In lessons, students may learn the chemical reactions that plants use to survive, but the science (and craft) of nurturing plants is rarely touched upon.

Box 1 - Writhlington School

Writhlington School is a state-run secondary school with a business and enterprise specialism, in rural SW England. Over the last decade, the school has built its ethos around sustainability, enterprise and partnerships with other organizations and businesses.  Under head teacher Marie Getheridge, activities such as the Orchid Project have been encouraged, and the once-poor exam results are dramatically improved (from 22% of students attaining five or more A*-C GCSE exams in 2000, to 98% in 2009). The school is now heavily oversubscribed, and has been awarded £26 million of government funds for its new campus, opening May 2010.


At Writhlington, Simon has successfully worked aspects of the Orchid Project’s horticultural work into the school curriculum, incorporating the aseptic techniques of seed sowing and seedling reflasking into science classes, also into the subjects of enterprise and manufacturing, for which the school offers diploma courses. Science teachers receive ‘masterclasses’ from Simon in the techniques used, which they pass on to the students in lessons. GCSE and A Level students use the Orchid Project as the basis for coursework assignments, satisfying the criteria for experimental design and statistical analysis in their experiments on altering the nutrient composition of the agar mix on which the orchids are grown in vitro.

The after-school Gardening Club (nominally Friday, but in reality taking place after the school bell rings most days), has spilled over into break and lunchtime –  in the greenhouses, in the lab sowing fresh batches of seed (collected by the students from their hand-pollinated plants in the greenhouse), transferring seedlings onto fresh media, or folding boxes and glueing on information labels. The latter are for ready-to-sell in vitro plantlets at shows and other outlets, a ‘mini orchid kit’ the students developed and designed. They wholesale their in vitro plants through botanic gardens and the Eden Project and sell them alongside adult ex vitro plants to the public at events such as the Royal Horticultural Society London’s Orchid Show each March. Plant sales generate sufficient funds for the project, and its annual fieldtrips taking small groups of students to orchid hotspots and see conservation in action around the world. In recent years there have been many trips, including to the Sikkim Himalaya, South Africa, Laos, and Belize – rewarding experiences for the students who have given their time and commitment to the project.

The Orchid Project engages some of the school’s most disadvantaged students, as well as the most able, and youngsters may be directed towards the Gardening Club by teachers or parents, even before they have started at the school. Very shy students, perhaps bullied at other schools, or with behavioural problems over authority, attention, and social interactions, rapidly focus on a subject they perceive as ‘less academic’. They are given a ‘mentor’, usually the same age but already involved in the project, to guide them round the greenhouses, teach them how to care for the plants – thus they begin to learn leadership and teaching skills for themselves. Students are assigned a particular taxonomic or geographical group of orchids whose care is their responsibility – watering, weeding, repotting, under the watchful eyes and guidance of Simon and their peers. In just two weeks, the students absorb an incredible amount of information, and are able to talk about ‘their’ species to visitors they have never met with a remarkable degree of authority. Some with behavioural problems may take time to settle down, but all are treated equally, no matter what. All are expected to live up to the high expectations Simon has of them, and it is recognized that they, like Simon, are there because they want to be, rather than ‘have to be’. If a student wants to be involved, they have to take responsibility for part of the collection in the greenhouse, and all take great pride in looking after their charges, showing them off to visitors and at shows. Very rarely are plants neglected by their carers, who are encouraged to make real decisions about how best to look after them – such expectations really seem to engage the students. They carry out research on their species and attend the weekly lunchtime Orchid Science Club, where Simon explains pollination, orchid anatomy, and evolution of different morphologies.

A diverse group of plants such as orchids offers multiple learning opportunities. Collaborations with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, BGCI, the Royal Horticultural Society, the Eden Project, and orchid growers, conservationists, botanic gardens, and schools around the world have built up over years, giving students the wider context. They learn about careers in horticulture, science, botany, conservation, business, policy even, and the value (in economic and biodiversity terms) of the species. For science studies, the plants provide a ready supply of demonstration materials and props for lessons. Different groups can be used to teach biodiversity and ecology, from pseudocopulation (ideal to pique the interest of teenagers studying botany!), to mycorrhizal fungi linking all the trees and terrestrial orchids in a forest, the interactions and dependencies orchid species have with and on other organisms graphically illustrating ‘webs of life’. Geography and climate change go with evolution – why species live where they do, and why they look so different. Conservation, habitat destruction and human’s impact on populations of species – even ‘what is a species?’ and ‘why a species orchid is different from one bought from a supermarket’ are engaging topics. Questions are more interesting, and answers more memorable, when students know the species they are responsible for, engendering a far more holistic understanding than they would gain from school lessons alone.


Dans les écoles au Royaume-Uni, les matières se ralliant à l’horticulture, la biodiversité et la conservation sont en général englobées dans le curriculum des sciences sans qu’on en dépasse le stade des besoins à la croissance des plantes, la photosynthèse, la respiration, les différences existantes, et l’importance de la dépendances nourriture/énergie. Le projet Writhlington School Orchid, mené dans le sud-ouest de l’Angleterre, permet aux instituteurs de faire participer les élèves, des plus indisciplinés au plus performants. Le projet a déjà été primé et permet aux étudiants d’en savoir plus sur l’immense diversité de la famille charismatique des orchidées et leurs habitats à l’échelle mondiale, de reproduire des espèces in vitro et dans leurs propres serres, et de vendre leur plantes au public, générant ainsi des fonds nécessaires pour faire en sorte que le Projet, ses collaborations et les sorties éducatives aux  hotspots internationaux des orchidées soient complètement autonomes.


En las escuelas del Reino Unido, los temas relacionados con horticultura, biodiversidad y conservación son comúnmente impartidos dentro del currículo educativo, pero frecuentemente estos no van mas allá de las bases como son qué necesitan las plantas para crecer, fotosíntesis, respiración, la variabilidad existente,  la importancia de los alimentos y redes energéticas. El proyecto ‘Orquidea’ de la escuela Writhlington, en el suroeste de Inglaterra, habilita a los maestros de ciencias atraer tanto algunos estudiantes sin muchos privilegios, como  a los mas hábiles, en un espíritu emprendedor, donde ellos aprenden la enorme diversidad y carismas de la familia de las orquídeas y sus habitats alrededor del mundo, por medio de la propagación en Vitro en sus propios invernaderos, se producen plantas que se vende al publico, generando así fondos para la auto sustentabilidad del mismo proyecto, y dan la oportunidad a sus colaboradores de realizar trabajo de campo en las  áreas criticas de biodiversidad alrededor del mundo.

Lauren Gardiner
Assistant Botanist, Herbarium, Library, Art and Archives
Royal Botanic Gardens



Visit Writhlington School Enterprise Orchid blog at:

Email: Simon Pugh-Jones at