Twenty questions with the first Kitchen Garden Program!

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

For the Foundation's 20th anniversary in 2024, we're asking members around the country to answer 20 quick questions about how they run the program to provide insights, inspiration and top tips. 

Below we hear from Desley Insall, the kitchen garden teacher at Collingwood College, where the first pilot Kitchen Garden Program was established in 2001. With experience as both a chef and a teacher, Desley was handed the 'kitchen garden pilot' baton in 2004. 

After 20 years running the Kitchen Garden Program, Desley has so many incredible tips including a plethora of activities that are real winners with students. Desley's tips reflect her passion for the program and the way it supports diverse learning needs.

Desley says, "For me, it's not only about a student mastering a cooking or gardening skill, but also, importantly, it's about the holistic nature of the program. The kitchen garden curriculum can provide each student with so many different opportunities to be engaged and therefore a multitude of ways to accomplish learning tasks and contribute to whole-class goals."

About your school

1. Sector: primary and secondary; includes Steiner stream in primary

2. Where: Victoria/Melbourne

3. School joined program: 2001 (pilot school)

4. Number of students in school: Approximately 820

Program basics

5. Year levels in the Kitchen Garden Program:
Years 3 to 6.

6. Number of students in the program each year:
169 students in 2024

7. Number of classes each student takes part in, and how often: 
Each student takes part in the Kitchen Garden Program for two terms, one class per week rotating between kitchen and garden, for a total of approximately 20 classes.

8. How long is a kitchen r garden class?
Each class is two hours long.

9. Number of staff running the program:
One specialist (me!), three days per week.

10. Number of helpers/volunteers per session:
Four to six volunteers, including Deakin students on placement and student-teachers.

11. Type of garden:
A very large established garden with over 33 fruit and nut trees.

12. Type of kitchen: 
Beautiful, well-planned open kitchen with seven stovetops and six ovens. Four tables that each seat 10 comfortably.




Program highlights

13. Your favourite garden activity to run with students:
I don't have a personal favourite, but the engagement and excitement of the students with garden tasks brings me so much joy. Here are a few (I can't name just one I'm afraid!):

  • Digging for potatoes. Over the years, purple congo potatoes have spread to every corner of the garden. The visceral excitement from students as they dig for these purple beauties and find them never ever gets old to witness. Shouts of excitement, collaborative counting of the haul, washing, discussing the next week’s menu ideas. It’s priceless to see their wonderment at what lies underground.
  • Sieving the aged compost. Teamwork in action, hands in gloves pushing the beautiful compost through the sieve. Eyes down, picking out bigger sticks and rogue plastic (and expressing that they're not happy with others putting it in the bays), and, more importantly, overcoming fears of insects and ‘messy stuff’. Oh and it's amazing to see the wonderment at the worm sizes.
  • Getting really, really physical and digging for Jerusalem artichokes. So much excitement at realising that each stalk connects to an underground vine of tubers. Being able to harvest hundreds of kilograms and taking home a 1kg bag each to cook with. Being excited by giant tubers and then finding teeny weeny ones! It’s all fun and very, very muddy.
  • Harvesting herbs, citrus, fruits, edible flowers to create a unique pot of tea to share with classmates. Every student loves this activity and cannot wait for their group’s turn. Delving into their creativity, grating ginger or turmeric root, snipping lemongrass, lemon verbena, pineapple sage, herbs, lavender, honey etc. Lining up tiny op-shop cups and then documenting their recipe by drawing the pot and all the ingredients.
  • Harvesting the required amounts of herbs, vegetables and fruit for the following week’s menu and then doing a show-and-tell for the class. Documenting the amounts and drawing the harvest.

14. Your favourite recipe to use with students:
I don't have a favourite as I use so many! I write four to five seasonal recipes for each cooking class, based on what our garden is currently producing and the cooking skills we're working on. (Ed note: you'll find many of Desley's recipes on the Shared Table, including salad of the imagination - read its inspiring backstory/teaching idea here! Plus another two: Desley's mum's silverbeet, potato and tomato curry and Braised pumpkin and rainbow chard in miso).

15. Top learning activity related to the program:
I also don't have a favourite learning activity, but I plan for interesting and achievable learning tasks to provide evidence for student assessment within VCAA-Design and Technologies.



16. One useful tip or hack that could benefit other members:
I've found that it is good to keep a list of tasks in addition to a session's planned learning tasks. These extra tasks provide flexibility to support diverse learning and behavioural needs, and also help with the ongoing (huge!) organisational and cleaning load. 

For example, in the garden:

  • Seed saving and threshing – a calm and mindful activity that keeps students within the learning space
  • Botanical drawing – also calm and mindful, and keeps students within the garden space
  • Tidying the shed – provides a sense of ownership of the space
  • Using the leaf blower – a very sought-after prize for being responsible
  • Raking and sweeping other areas of the school (close by) – for a student who needs space
  • Filling up and decorating birdbaths with flowers and twigs (for bees to be safe)
  • Cutting posies for staff – great for a struggling student who needs calming down as they get positive affirmation from staff and classmates

Similarly, here are some ideas of extra tasks in the kitchen:

  • Offering assistance to another group, e.g. doing their dishes
  • Processing excess harvest, e.g. freezing cumquats for a preserving lesson
  • Tidying cupboards and shelves, e.g. the dry store or platter area, or the preserve shelf
  • Filling condiments, e.g. salt and pepper grinders, oil bottles
  • Taking compost out to the garden
  • Harvesting soft herbs and greens for the next lesson
  • Setting tables, e.g. filling water jugs, picking flowers
  • Taking a sample of food to other staff
  • Picking a calm-down activity – I have folders of these, including word puzzles, word search of cooking words/utensils/edible plants
  • Sharpening coloured pencils
  • Being my assistant

17. What have been your biggest successes/wins/breakthroughs:
After 20 years, there have been so many experiences of personal, teaching, student, school-wide and family impacts. Many of the most important to me are not about a student mastering a cooking or gardening skill. Instead, I find joy in the holistic nature of the Kitchen Garden Program and how it supports a student to feel, engage and therefore accomplish. With its living, seasonal curriculum and collaborative and inclusive approach, this program provides so many avenues for positive change for a student, class, school and its community. I could talk about many profound student-centred positive stories, but many are private. I can say that 95% of my students enter each class with an eagerness and happiness to learn! The other 5% - I support them to find something over four years that they can relate to and enjoy learning.



18. Have you seen the impact on the students’ lives over time, whether that’s throughout the term/year, or as they head into high school or beyond?
Yes, yes, yes! The Kitchen Garden Program remains a central positive school experience for almost every primary school student as noted above. Once the students head into high school, I've had the pleasure of seeing previous students coming back to visit me - or even returning to volunteer as adults! I've had thousands of previous students enthusiastically tell me how much they remember about their kitchen garden lessons and what their favourite dishes/tastes/volunteers/activities were. They tell me about what they still cook, what they’re doing in their own gardens, what the sessions meant to them and how much they enjoyed kitchen garden lessons ... Plus many comment that I am not as tall as they remember!

19. How do you fuel your passion for the program?
Reflection, creating new curriculum, talking to students and their parents, cooking, gardening, seeing art exhibitions, spending time with family and friends... Most importantly, physical and mental rest at the end of a school term is essential!

Occasionally when I have some quiet time at school, I get the chance to go through past photos, media stories, student work … and I reflect on the extraordinary privilege of being handed the ‘kitchen garden baton’ back in 2004. I reflect on the contributions, ongoing camaraderie and essential support of over 160 volunteers in the past 20 years, and the many supportive teaching colleagues and parents who have given their time to ensure the pilot program could succeed. My ongoing passion is refuelled by this, but most importantly each new kitchen garden student’s excitement and connection to this curriculum enables me to feel profoundly positive as a teacher.

20. What have you learnt that you wished you’d known when you started?
I can’t really answer this question as, for me, it’s the journey into the unknown that has made it so meaningful – I thrive on the adventure of creating something new, and struggling and stretching myself.



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