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One tree at a time at Mount Maunganui College

We might think of classrooms with desks and whiteboards, but one class at Mount Maunganui College has swapped these out for glasshouses full of seedlings.

“It has become quite a nursery when you look at it,” John Devery, self-proclaimed “greenie” and head of the Horticulture Academy at Mount Maunganui College says.

What started out as a group of 15 students in a work experience class growing vegetables in a converted sandpit, has since become a thriving community of 110 students who plant thousands of native trees each year.

Since 2009, John’s students have been achieving the tree planting unit standard through the school’s rapidly expanding planting project.

These days, the students don’t only plant at the school but on properties all around the area, including nearby Welcome Bay and Mana Ridge. This season, John’s students are planting an impressive 4,000 native trees in the Bay of Plenty region.

The programme now includes around 50 students from the work experience class, a further 50 general science students, and the school’s environmental group, who dedicate their time (including some weekends) to getting their hands dirty and learning about conservation.

Initially, John would have to beg and borrow trees from farmers around the area for the project to go ahead. In the first year, he came up with 500 trees for his students to plant. Now, John’s days of “scrounging” for trees have come to an end.

The project has long been sponsored by Trees for Survival. In 2019, John’s colleague and the head of Mount Maunganui College’s environment club, Jim Critchley, organised for the project to be sponsored by Trees That Count too. Together, these organisations provide over 2,000 trees per year for the students to plant.

On top of this, John and his students have grown nearly 2,000 trees from cuttings and seeds in their home-made glasshouses.

It’s hard work, John admits, but it’s worth it to be outside overlooking the spectacular views of the Bay of Plenty while planting.

One of the greatest aspects of the project is the connections the students form to both whenua (land) and whānau (family). The budding conservationists say “my cousin planted those flax trees up that ridge”, or “my brother did that”, with pride.

The project is a way to get students learning in a more practical way that is meaningful to them and has a positive effect on their own confidence as well as on the environment.

John believes that many of these students will be conservation leaders in the future. “They come in at Year 11 and go out at Year 12 with confidence, whether in horticulture and tree planting, or in another area,” he says.

For John, seeing his students go to polytechnic or find employment through this work experience is the true sign of success.

“We’ve got some amazing, driven kids in the programme. Some are keen to head to the Department of Conservation, and others want to go into the local environmental workforce. Real movers and shakers.”

"I say to the kids, when you go home today, what do you have to tell your mum and dad? And the correct answer is, ‘well I’m glad you asked. Today I saved the planet – one tree at a time’.”