Sea of Sunflowers

“It’s been a tough year,” says Ardwick food teacher Haydn Bettles. “We could all do with being cheered up.”

Haydn has been inspired to create a sea of sunflowers around his school and is encouraging others to get involved too. “Each of our schoolchildren will plant a sunflower seed to bring joy and happiness… and serve as remembrance as we slowly emerge from the pandemic.”

His idea has caught the imagination and, with help from funders, he’s started giving away thousands of seed kits to other Manchester schools so they too can enjoy an explosion of sunflower yellow later this year.

Haydn has a fascinating role at Armitage CofE Primary School next to the busy Hyde Road. Originally employed as a regular teaching assistant, his enthusiasm became clear and he was soon given the responsibility to teach children all about food.

“Many primary schools avoid teaching food because they don’t have the knowledge or the confidence,” says Haydn, “but it’s an essential life skill.”

Haydn’s passion goes back to his childhood. At 16 he won North West Young Chef of the Year and was soon working in Michelin star and Rosette standard restaurants. By the age of 19 he’d already fulfilled a culinary ambition. “My dream was always to work with Gordon Ramsey and after a placement at his Mayfair restaurant I was actually offered a job there but, at the time, it wasn’t right for me.”

Haydn: “My dream was always to work with Gordon Ramsey.”

His job at Armitage is split, he says, between the indoors and the outdoors. At lunchtimes he ensures children’s packed lunches comply with the school guidelines. “We use a counter system to encourage children to bring in fruit and veg with their lunch. It’s one counter for each portion and those with the most counters at the end of the week get extra playtime. It works. Some lunchboxes are rammed with healthy food, which is great to see.

“Instead of banning crisps and chocolate,” continues Haydn, “we teach the children about balance. If they have a bag of crisps they need to balance that with two pieces of fruit. That way they take ownership of their own diets.”

Outside, on a patch adjacent to the road, the children learn where their food comes from. They grow a vast array of vegetables from garlic, shallots, onions, carrots, parsnips, fennel, peas, beetroot and beans. “This year we’re trying chillies for the first time,” he says.

Food grown in the school allotment is sold at 50p a box to pay for next year’s seeds.

But this is so much more than an allotment. “I try to come up with projects that benefit both the environment and the children,” Haydn continues, “so, for instance, we’re planting a wildflower meadow to attract pollinators and increase wildlife.”

Already he has introduced orchard trees – apple, quince, plum – and has secured funding to plant a hawthorn hedge near the busy road, all increasing the biodiversity of the site. There’s also a polytunnel, a fire pit, and a pen awaiting the arrival of six rare breed hens after Easter. “That’s another educational opportunity,” he says.

“Once fully grown the hedge will not only increase bird life but also help shield us from noise and air pollution.”

Armitage are only one of ten schools nationwide that also grow hydroponically – with just water and nutrients, no soil – and inside they can grow a lettuce in less than six weeks.

An advisor to the British Nutritional Foundation and an Ambassador for Love British Food, Haydn organises trips each year for children to visit one of 15 farms they partner with. “Teaching children about food is so important but we are always restricted by the funds we can raise.”

“I try to come up with projects that benefit both the environment and the children,” says Haydn.

Forever Manchester and housing provider One Manchester have supported the sunflower project by providing over 10,000 seed kits. “I was inspired by one of our farmers who last year hit the headlines with a field of sunflowers he planted to thank the NHS. It was so colourful and gave so much joy. I thought we could do the same here.

“Hopefully, in a few months, Manchester will just erupt in a sea of sunflowers.”

Any schools who would like take part are invited to fill out this online form: