Sky’s the limit for school sustainable watering

Find out how Richard Cloudesley School in north London is future-proofing its rooftop gardening practices to address watering challenges.

08 April 2023

At Richard Cloudesley School in north London, students with physical disabilities and additional sensory needs develop independence through activities in their school rooftop garden where vegetables grow alongside plants that appeal to the senses.

“Gardening and learning about nature and the environment is one aspect of the enriched curriculum we offer students here. We try to incorporate gardening in as many ways as we can - in Design Technology students build planters and in Science we talk about what plants the children should grow,” explained teacher, Katerina Jedlickova. “The roof space is the only accessible outdoor space at school so it has to be multifunctional, not just a garden. For some students it offers a chance to be outside when they might have little other opportunities due to accessibility and lack of space where they live.”
“After the very hot, dry summer we experienced in 2022, we knew we needed to future-proof our school gardening activities to ensure longevity. We applied for an RHS Sustainable Futures grant and plan to use the funding to tackle climate-related challenges.”

Sustainable watering measures

This year, the school will introduce a number of sustainable watering measures. Collecting and storing rainwater in water butts will ensure there is less reliance on mains water. Two 200-litre water butts with planters attached will contain sensory planting. The school is keen to follow the principles of sustainable gardening and already uses peat-free compost, chooses pollinator-friendly plants and has started composting to reduce waste.

The school will also launch a smart remote watering system that will be fully compatible with students’ existing communication and environmental control devices so that it is fully accessible for all. This will enable students, whatever their ability, to water without the need for hoses or watering cans that are difficult to use independently and not sustainable. Instead, students will control the smart system either through touch via a tablet or by using their augmentative alternative communication systems such as eye gaze. As well as encouraging independence, this will widen participation in gardening activities and enable the school to further enrich its year-round gardening curriculum offer - especially the careers programme for Key Stage 4 and 5 students.
“Students will have the opportunity to gain first-hand experiences that will help them to prepare for adulthood and we hope that even those students with the most severe physical disabilities will now be able to take an active part in gardening activities,” added Katerina.
The smart watering system will also address watering problems that arise over the summer holidays when the school is closed and the garden does not get watered regularly. In the past, plants dried out forcing the school to restart its planting schedule meaning students didn’t get to see the fruition of their hard work. The new system will use technology that detects exactly when plants need hydrating and by how much, so water is saved. The technology can be controlled remotely so that will also help with weekend and out-of-hours watering.
Other initiatives for 2023 include the creation of a garden club. Nine students will be responsible for the garden space, although others will also participate through other areas of the curriculum. Depending on their ability and skills, some garden club members will plant, others will water and build, some will design the layout of the garden and others will be responsible for writing a blog to help evaluate the sustainable watering project. All decisions about the roof garden will be made by students.

The school is also keen to build further connections with the wider community. Last year, students grew tomatoes from a seed swap initiative with local residents and the aim is build networks with local groups such as Hackney Herbal to organise future seed swaps.