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Cornucopia - The ups and downs of school gardening

The ups and downs of school gardening
Jane Beattie

Wouldn’t it be lovely if there was just a path through here and all the rest was flowers - a thought from a boy, aged about seven, during a lunch-time gardening session in a small woodland area, at a primary school in Chester. The school serves an estate where there is significant social stress. Many children have free meals and many families have no gardening space to call their own. For this reason, as governors, staff and friends of the infant and junior schools we fought the Education Authorities for a large site for the newly amalgamated primary school rather than the smaller, cheaper site they preferred. We won.

The school is surrounded by about four acres of land - with excellent sport and playtime facilities. As a governor, I donated some bluebells to the new school, which the children planted around the mature trees on one side of the site. The following spring we received about forty small indigenous trees, (birch, hazel, rowan and cherry), to plant around the school perimeter. Friends gave us strong stakes, surplus to their requirements, and a highly enthusiastic gang of strong older children spent a happy afternoon digging, planting and staking. On my next weekly visit to the school I learned that the stakes had been stolen overnight and the contract groundsmen had mown all the grass including the new small trees and the bluebells. Not long after that our small greenhouse, ‘bought’ with Morrisons tokens, was also stolen and we were left with a basket of trowels and the children’s undaunted enthusiasm.

The lunch-time club was open to all comers and we concentrated on planting raised beds in the playground, one raised nursery bed for seedlings, a small butterfly garden and a small woodland all enclosed by the ‘Fort Knox’ security arrangement newly insisted on by OFSTED. Aubrieta, under planted with bulbs and followed by French marigolds were all successful. Above all the children loved to dig, and one of the raised beds was converted into a sandpit to satisfy the obsessive diggers, although there wasn’t the same bonus of finding a worm (always an excitement and an opportunity for learning!). The clumps of tete-a-tete daffodils planted in the woodland are now well established.

The first of the RHS Tatton Flower Show ‘Schools Quirky Container’ exhibitions was a challenge too good to miss. Parents responded wonderfully and we decided our container would be an outgrown toddler’s car with an extra box on the roof, all painted purple, (the school colour). We sowed and grew easy annuals which were transferred to sprout from the car interior, boot and roof. This was all surmounted by a willow arch with attached butterfly.

The day at Tatton was a joy for all. We were able to fill a minibus with the most enthusiastic gardeners and other trustees. We didn’t win the competition, but almost better was Tim Sandall’s photograph of our exhibit, which appeared in the September edition of the RHS ‘Garden’ magazine. Needless to say an enlargement of the photo is in the school entrance hall with other trophies and certificates. We worked hard to provide two more Tatton exhibits on subsequent years; one year growing a range of mainly purple vegetables and later cooking and consuming them in filo parcels, and the next year using drum containers for a musical theme. Children came early to school to water the plants and gained a real sense of ownership. One Flower Show highlight was being invited into the Tatton Garden tent where we talked to Sam Youd and shared our sandwiches with him.

Over the years we have had support from the school staff but, though some have ‘tapped the ball forward’, no-one has picked it up and run with it.

This year our designated Friday was frequently rained off and we have concluded that we should withdraw, hoping that gardening continues by someone who works in the school or lives nearby, rather than ten miles away. We noted that new hanging baskets contain plastic flowers, realistic ivy but unlikely looking purple pansies. However we have planted and sown a quantity of forget-me-nots in the small, enclosed woodland so that if they spread and flower after the daffodils the young gardener’s vision of the area may yet become a reality.

First published in the Cheshire & Friends Group Newsletter, Autumn 2012
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 31.
© Copyright for this article: Jane Beattie

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2013. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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