Human Flower Project

Roots and Shoots: Garden Priority

Education, like great gardening, is high-maintenance work. A London school reaches out to children with special needs, turning out honey and horticulturists.


Inner city campus? Roots and Shoots is a gardening

school + in the Lambeth neighborhood of London

Photo: Courtesy of Roots and Shoots

By Allen Bush

There’s a little piece of wonderland in London, England. It’s not far from the Houses of Parliament and only a short walk from Waterloo Station. Roots and Shoots, a model gardening school, is tucked away off a side street, hidden behind council flats in Lambeth, in a neighborhood of Georgian and early Victorian houses.

When I visited in late May, Environmental Education and Resources Manager David Perkins was introducing a visiting school group to bees, bugs and baby birds. Smiling faces prove that something good was going on.

imageLinda Phillips, director of Roots and Shoots, walks among huge Echiums, native to the Canary Islands

Photo: David Perkins

The best gardens are full of surprises. Towering Echiums (E. pininana), native to La Palma in the Canary Islands, seem remarkably at home in the fast draining clay-shale soil.  Director Linda Phillips led me beyond the environmentally friendly Learning Centre, with solar collectors atop a partial green roof, along a narrow winding path past musk roses and beehives, into the wildlife garden. Eventually we reached the far end of the one-acre property, arriving at Blake’s Corner, surrounded by Acanthus, rosemary, and Phlomis. (William Blake lived nearby on Hercules Road and – rumor has it—occasionally enjoyed sitting naked in his tree.) A Blake quotation on the wall here sums-up the lessons from this schoolyard: “In seed time learn, in harvest time teach, in winter enjoy.”

Phillips could not have known how her vision of a garden school would expand —to include seven species of bumble bees, plus zebra and crab spiders.  A wealth of plant species provides enough nectar and pollen for Painted Lady butterflies, Jersey Tiger Moths and plenty of honeybees.  Gardens and children require nurturing and lots of time. Forget the nonsense that gardens can be low maintenance. The marketing mantra “Plant ‘em once, never worry about ‘em again” is fairy tale, as dubious as saying Latchkey Kids can’t fail.

The 25 students at Roots and Shoots, mostly from the boroughs of Lambeth and Southwark, arrive with learning, social or emotional problems. These children could have fallen through the cracks, but the committed Roots staff, in Linda’s estimation, “are fantastic at taming and turning their lives around.”

Though the 40-week course has become more complex over the years, there has always been a core focus on the environment, physical work, team effort and community involvement. Included now is a ‘holistic’ plan developed for students ages 16 +, a government-certified curriculum of math and English as well as horticulture. In addition, training in life skills prepares some students for the retail trade.

imageStudent-beekeepers harvested 80 pounds of honey last year

Photo: Courtesy of Roots and Shoots

Overarching this program is an infinite daily variety that reflects the wonders of nature and the garden. It doesn’t do Roots and Shoots justice to say it is merely a Gardening School. It’s a model for a good life. Socrates would have understood the virtue of honey produced from the school’s five hives and enjoyed the fresh organic apple juice. (80 lbs. of honey was produced last year, and the students pressed over 700 bottles of “Orchard Bounty” from ‘Ashmead Kernel,’ ‘Bramley’ and Monmouthshire Green’ apples produced by friends Gayle and David Whittingham from the Usk Valley in Wales.) After a taste of the Good Life, some of these young gardeners have found placements at the Buckingham Palace Gardens, Grosvenor Estates, the Royal Hospital Chelsea and the Chelsea Physic Garden.

imageThe school’s one acre site “before”: 1984

Photo: Roots and Shoots

Roots and Shoots might not have become a garden school at all except for Linda Phillips. At her job interview she was told about an idea the sponsors had for raising rabbits and raspberries. The rabbits would provide fertilizer for raspberries and meat could be sold to raise funds. It was an interesting sustainable notion, but Linda counter-offered. “I have a better idea,” she said. “I envision a horticultural nursery where we can sow seeds and grow liners for sale.” She got the job and a derelict site, then set-up an office with a cardboard box. “I was very lucky to have free rein,” Phillips acknowledges.  But freedom was a token concession; she knew she would need to live by her wits. Roots and Shoots would require as much pluck as gardening know-how. “I was thrown in the deep end on social work,” Linda confessed.

As with any non-profit, there have been nagging light bills and responsibilities for making payroll. Phillips has not been afraid to raise money for operating expenses and for capital improvements, too; she’s made it for more than 25 years, even during some lean times when the end looked near. In 1994, with news that crucial government funding might be cut, Linda jumped into action.  “We eventually had a petition of 60,000 signatures,” she said. “The trainees waylaid people on buses, trains and in the street to get the support, and it was delivered to 10 Downing Street.”


Linda Phillips with Quercus robur at Roots and Shoots. In 1994, the lean Thatcher years, the school needed to attract publicity and raise funds. MP Kate Hoey planted this English oak, the students, staff and supporters collected 60,000 signatures, and Hoey pressed the school’s case in Parliament. Today, both the school and the oak are thriving.

Photo: Allen Bush

Kate Hoey, MP from Vauxhall (that encompasses the London Borough of Lambeth) and a long-time supporter of Roots and Shoots, raised the issue in Parliament. The arms of civil servants were twisted and a little breathing room was found. The City Bridge Trust agreed in Spring 2009 to fund Phillips’s post for three years.  Linda laughed that some of this money originated from investments going back 800 years, when the City of London charged the Tower of London a shilling each time the severed heads of the prisoners were displayed on London Bridge. 

Linda praises the Roots Staff: “David Perkins, Education Coordinator Ruth Mitchell and Administrator Elsa Cole, in fact all staff are very wonderful and committed, especially given we can’t afford to pay them a great deal - such is the joy of the voluntary sector, hence my endless search for funding.”

Phillips, a native of Twickenham, Middlesex, has impressive roots. “My grandfather was the head gardener for Reston House,” a Victorian villa of about 6 acres, now the site of 1930s semi-detached homes beside Kew Village, near the railway. Linda’s mom, one of nine children, grew-up nearby in a small cottage on Sandycombe Road. So Linda got an early start.

“I had my first garden when I was 3 years old and used to buy amateur gardening magazines with my pocket money. I must have been a rather strange child who would rather gaze at Mr. Nightley’s garden next door who had a greenhouse…my dream!  I was eventually very lucky to get a ‘classical’ horticultural education—not really available these days—from my late teens on.” Phillips speaks modestly about her impressive credentials, that include time at Hampton Court and a Diploma in Horticulture from the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

Yet her qualifications run deeper. “My mother was a political activist, and instigated in me a deep social conscience that re- emerged with my work at Roots. I realized that horticulture went hand in hand with social work. I had a once in a lifetime opportunity to do something with my horticultural expertise and make a lovely place for everyone to enjoy.”

And plenty of visitors do enjoy Roots and Shoots (a name conceived in a nearby pub one Friday at lunch). 1150 visiting children spent 2500 hours learning in the Wildlife Garden last year.

Aude de Leidekerke arrived at Roots and Shoots from Belgium as a casual volunteer. Intelligent and articulate, she’d considered architecture and floristry, but she was not quite sure what she wanted to do. Phillips talked her into horticulture.  She applied for the Diploma Program at Kew and was turned down. She needed more practical experience, and Linda sent her to friends Sarah Wain and Jim Buckland at West Dean Gardens. Aude stayed two years there, got on the Kew Course and graduated with Phillips in attendance, as she says, “…in loco parentis and I’ve never been so proud.” After working on Green Roof research with Nigel Dunnett at Sheffield University, Leidekerke is currently setting-up a business as Green Roof consultant and garden designer.


From the roof on the new Learning Center at Roots and Shoots, 2006

Photo: Courtesy of Roots and Shoots

Phillips admires the work of Will Allen of Growing Power whose success in community gardening in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is now being modeled elsewhere around the United States. Will Allen has been hard at it for over fifteen years. Linda Phillips is no Johnny-Come-Lately to gardening or community organizing, either. This year Roots and Shoots received the Sustainable Cities Access Award – London’s “Green Oscar.”  The citation read: “Over the years, they have transformed this ex industrial site into an award winning wild life garden and eco-centre, and when their extensive work with the local community, on issues such as sustainable food production and biodiversity, are taken into account, it is apparent that this gem of a project is a worthy winner of this category.”

Phillips envisions an expanded role for Roots and Shoots. She wants to improve the volunteer program, do more community gardening, educate more people, provide more environmental training and spread the net wider. “We’re limited now by the numbers of staff, but the quality we have is excellent,“ Phillips said. “We can do more. I believe in a better quality of life. It’s within reach.”

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/14 at 10:24 AM


Impressive all around.  How fortunate for the “casual volunteer” whose path through Roots and Shoots led her to work with Nigel Dunnett!

Posted by Georgia on 07/14 at 07:28 PM

Great post! The Farm to School movement in the USA is promoting this sorta thing as well.  We feature some great examples of schoolyard gardening on our blog, check them out,

Posted by Krissy Hopkins on 07/19 at 02:03 PM

Thank you Georgia and Krissy. Roots has been a great blessing for lots of kids and I’m excited to read about schoolyard gardening.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/20 at 09:56 AM
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