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In a Dry Country, Gardening Becomes Education

DOHA—In one of the driest countries in the world, where only 0.6 percent of total land is cultivated, what difference can a 25-square-meter garden make? A big difference, argues Paige Tantillo, a certified “permaculture designer” and master gardener living in Qatar.

Together with a local school principal, Tantillo established what she calls an educational garden—a space where the garden is used as a hands-on teaching tool.

“Children in Qatar don’t have many experiences with nature. That’s why I try to encourage and initiate such experiences,” Tantillo says, while she gives a tour of her own small backyard garden.

Tantillo installed pipes to carry out waste water from her washing machine into three containers holding lemon grass, papaya and basil trees. In a country where water is precious, the system shows how to use the water twice. Tantillo believes using gardening in experiential education can help achieve Qatar’s sustainable-development goals by raising children who are more responsible than their elders toward their environment.

Sustainable development is one of the key pillars of the rich Gulf country’s National Vision 2030, a national strategic plan.  Making careful use of natural resources, food security and healthy lifestyle are all part of the main goal of sustainable development.

“Gardening can teach children sharing, group work, water conservation, responsibility for growing what they are eating, and healthier eating habits,” she said. “It can teach several essential life skills.”

Responsibility for growing your own food is an important skill in a country where children’s relationship with food is often limited to grabbing packaged fruits and vegetables off chain supermarket shelves. Qatar imports 90 percent of its food. Agriculture contributes only 0.1 percent of the country’s GDP, according to the Qatar Statistics Authority.

The idea of establishing an educational garden in Qatar came about when Tantillo met the principal of Al Bateel International School, who wanted to incorporate gardening into the school’s curriculum. “I developed a curriculum especially for the school,” she said. “The curriculum starts off with talking about tool safety. Then it goes into seed planting, soil, water, organic fertilizers, etc.”

Tantillo started by teaching courses for kindergarten classes just a few times a week.  Next September the school will implement a full program for each level.

As the garden curriculum coordinator, Tantillo gave the children experiences such as capturing caterpillars from her garden in a container and seeing how caterpillars can turn into butterflies.

Using the empty spaces in the school, she had students work with her to grow plants in raised beds of several sizes. She recently added composting containers and some chickens to the site.

“Once the new school year starts, children will be very involved,” she says. “Every morning they will have daily chores. One class will go this day to make sure the chickens have food, water and are clean. Another class will add straw and collect the eggs and so on.”

Reducing food waste and encouraging healthy eating habits is another important lesson an educational garden can teach.

Discarded food accounts for more than half of the domestic municipal waste generated in Qatar, according to a Qatar Statistics Authority report published in June 2013.

Now, with the composting activity Tantillo started at the school, students are more careful about their leftover food.

“Children are quickly capturing these notions,” she says. “When they have left-over food from their snack or lunch they now give it to the chickens or put it in the composting container instead of throwing it away.”

Tantillo realizes her efforts will not create widespread change, but she compares her work at the educational garden with the process of planting a seed and watching it grow.

“You start one small thing and you just see it expanding. I started with my own space, then I established a community garden at the residential compound I am living in. Now I have established the educational garden at the school. So you can see how it’s growing already and kind of sprouting up in different areas,” she said.

“I have been able to reach a lot of children, teaching them valuable skills through these gardens, and most of the time these children are educating their own families,” she added.


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