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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the July 2011 issue

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Steffie Shields highlights a Lincolnshire Gardens Trust initiative to encourage children to learn the joys of gardening.

As we rush about our busy, increasingly gadget-driven lives, many of us forget that, as toddlers, often the first views of the wider world, the first place where we try to make sense of our surroundings, is outside in a garden. We learn to explore in a garden, or should that be we explore to learn? Our first encounter with Nature, and her changing outfits according to season and weather, makes us observe the often miniscule co-habiting wild-life, especially insects and birds, being so near to the ground ourselves!

I was brought up in a block of flats set in a large, rambling garden with plenty of grass and trees and winding gravel paths amongst rhododendrons and shrubs, where all the residents’ children were allowed to play. How lucky we were! I can still remember sitting on compacted, dull soil underneath overhanging trees, examining one small plant that had caught my eye. Why? Simply because it was new to me, with tiny, heart-shaped leaves and an innocent little flower with a bright shiny, yellow face that seemed the colour of sunlight. It was just one of hundreds, weaving a splendidly dotty carpet that dominated the grass with butter-coloured stars. A few days later, or so it seemed, sadly, the yellow carpet had disappeared. However, next spring, as if by magic, there it was again. The perennial lesser celandine, Ranunculus ficaria, amongst the first flowers to appear after winter, grows from a spreading, tuberous bulb. Some folks view it as a weed - not I.

Most will agree that every school should have some semblance of green space, a safe environment that can be explored at playtime. It is natural for the young to engage in everything that arouses their curiosity, especially out of doors in relative freedom of space. Children are attracted, just as bees and hoverflies, to perfume, form and colour. They also begin to appreciate that Nature does not just happen, but is constantly evolving and changing. They find out that a garden actually needs nurturing and watering, that a garden is enjoyable, and helps their health and well-being. By watching mustard and cress unfurl they witness a tiny miracle of new life. Perhaps most important, they learn how and where their food is grown, find out how and when to plant new seeds, taste the first fruits of their labour and learn the rewards of harvest. With more to school life than Ofsted and Sats tests, a school garden enhances both play and learning, and provides a pleasing space to give staff respite too. Everyone enjoys, in clement weather, a change of venue for lessons. A school garden captures children’s attention and imagination, enriches and enlivens the curriculum, serving as an outdoor classroom for maths, English, art and games, or the first steps in science and botany.

The rewards for volunteers are great, and will unite the efforts of staff, parents and trustees. Yes, you need someone, not necessarily trained in horticulture, but hopefully someone with Jamie Oliver’s drive, vision and ‘down-to-earth’ enthusiasm. A tub of bright flowers by the school entrance, perhaps intermixed with herbs and vegetables, makes a start. Children sense straight away if theirs is a welcoming school with a special sense and pride of place. There are many local businesses, organisations and charities that, when approached, will willingly support school garden initiatives in landscaping and tree-planting projects.

After waving her gardening wand at Mablethorpe Primary School, an extraordinarily generous and enthusiastic teacher, Emma Daniel embarked on a new challenge at Boston West Primary. Here too she inspired a band of ‘eco-warriors’ and started a school garden club, and then built on her successes by beginning to advise other schools on environmental education county-wide. Yes, she is now married to Mike Schofield, the Headmaster! Their extraordinary partnership, with untiring effort in challenging times, has helped the school to raise thousands of pounds in sponsorship to develop innovative, motivating school grounds, enough to employ a professional landscape designer, to commission wood sculptures from Nigel Sardeson, and to win a national award along the way, having recently received their fifth ‘Eco Schools’ green flag. Boston West Primary continues to be a beacon of inspiration for all who visit.

Looking through photographs taken on garden visits last year, there is one day, last July, which gave particular pleasure. I accompanied Mrs Annetta Turner, President, Lincolnshire Gardens Trust, and Emma Schofield, now the Trust’s Education Officer, to Gosberton House School to present the 2010 winning shield in the Trust’s Annual ‘Celebration of School Grounds’. Originally the home of the Welby-Everard family, and purchased by Holland County Council in 1952, the old house is now a residential care home. So the school already stands in attractive grounds, with mature trees, pond, remnants of an orchard with espalier fruit trees and a nuttery ‘lovers walk’. The children are sometimes allowed to play among the stumps, laurels and yews of what was once an area of Victorian shrubbery and woodland walks, a perfect ‘nature area’ for the children and where a bird hide has now been built.

We were greeted by the Head, Mrs Stanton. The whole school gathered expectantly, all smiles, in the Assembly Hall and sang to us ‘Got a Sunflower seed in my hand’. They were obviously excited about winning the Lincolnshire Gardens Trust shield, along with vouchers to spend on the school garden, and organic compost donated by Lincoln-based MEC Recycling Ltd. A handful of Year 6 children had been chosen to show us their individual class gardens. They were confident and proud to do so. Every class has ownership of a raised bed, about one and a half metres square. Both class teacher and pupils decide what seeds and plants to incorporate in their design, whether edible or floral or both. The beds were very varied – here a spring onion, there some strawberries. One class had ‘planted’ decorative friendship rings in amongst petunias. They had made the rings themselves from cane and coloured, wavy streamers, tying knots for their special friends, or in memory of some friend or relative that they have loved, and lost, a touching idea. Assistant Head, Lee Gregory, showed off an unusual, very colourful gazebo seat, adorned with striking, painted and moulded clay tiles of animals made by the children. She oversees an enclosed area in the grounds specifically for growing all manner of vegetables tended by the gardening club, a dedicated band of enthusiasts, and a Sensory Garden area begun in 2004/2005. Her passion for gardening is clearly being passed on to the children. As we left, charmed and uplifted, she simply said: “It works for our kids”.

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