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Plumcots and compost: creating a healthy orchard

Year 5 and 6 students at Midhirst School in Taranaki are investigating how they can create healthier soil for their school’s newly planted fruit trees.

Students and experts carrying a young fruit tree to the orchard

Starting with their family connections to farming, and a preference for eating fruit over veggies, 9- to-11-year olds at Midhirst School have embarked on a new science project exploring how to create a long-term orchard in their school grounds.

With guidance from organic and permaculture farmer Sue Rine and soil scientist Cherryle Prew at Soil Foodweb, the students have planted young trees that will eventually produce plums, pears, peaches and plumcots (a cross between a plum and apricot). 

The team is also investigating how to improve the fertility of the soil for healthier trees and better quality fruit.

Students digging a hole

Before planting the trees, the students counted the number of worms that were in each newly dug hole that the trees were about to be planted in, and found something strange. The closer the holes were to a large old tree at the edge of the school grounds, the more worms they found.

“There were 30 worms in this hole [closest to the large tree], but in that hole [furthest away] we only got two worms,” says Blayke, 10.  

The students think that this difference might be because the soil is healthier closer to the large tree – perhaps due to having more fallen leaves on the soil, which carry bacteria and fungi that worms eat.

Students looking at the soil

The kids are also exploring how the worms respond to light.

“Different types of worms might prefer lighter and darker areas,” says Laurelle, 9, explaining how she and the other students are testing this by covering one side of a box of soil while leaving the other side exposed to the light, to see which side worms move to.

Cherryle with student using a microscope

The students haven’t just learned about worms, though.

“Fungi are cool because they have hyphae that run through the ground and communicate with the trees,” Cayden, 11, explains.

Cherryle, who has shared knowledge about what creates different soil structures and how this relates to trees, says that she has particularly enjoyed seeing just how invested the whole school is.

“It’s so rewarding having a school, principal and teachers who are really focused on the importance of having decent soils and how that’s all related to growing trees, and the fact that they’re getting outside and actually growing food with the kids is really neat. Kudos to them,” she says.

“I’m really taken with the kids’ enthusiasm and how much knowledge they’ve retained. They have to be interested in it to hang onto it – and they took it on board and took ownership of it.”

One of the key ideas that Cherryle introduced to the students is that fruit trees need different types of environments in the soil, grass and paddocks around them. One size doesn’t fit all, and different plants have different requirements – just like people.

Georgia, 10, adds, “I liked learning about how to plant the trees properly and care for them, because I have fruit trees at home too.”

Students analysing soil

The students also plan to look at different types of composting over the next year, after being inspired by the CAPOW (Curious About Processing Organic Waste) project jointly run by Matapu and Stratford Primary schools.

Principal Graham Sands says, “The highlight for me is seeing just how engaged these students are. As soon as I mention the project, their eyes light up.

“They really do love the science and I can’t wait to see what they’re going to find out.”

Teaching outdoors

Photo credits: Graham Sands/Midhirst School; Josh Richardson/Venture Taranaki.

About the Project

Midhirst School logo
Soil fertility and health trials
is run by Midhirst School, Maranui Farm and Soil Foodweb, with support from the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform.


Scientists and locals collaborating around a table

Participatory Science Platform

The Participatory Science Platform supports collaborative projects that bring together communities and scientists or technologists on research investigating a locally-important question or problem.

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