Designing school gardens that last

Designing school gardens that last

It may sound obvious (especially to other permaculture souls) but I’ve found that the key to a successful school garden is just as much to do with engaging the teachers and school community as the physical designing of the space. There are many beautiful school gardens all across Britain, and far too many that are completely unused. Abandoned allotment spaces, empty butterfly houses, hidden ponds and lakes, greenhouses growing nothing but spectacular cobwebs.. not only unused but unavailable to the children even to enjoy their wildness, behind locked gates. For teachers (and therefore the children) to start accessing these spaces I’ve found that it can be really helpful to support the teachers in transitioning the learning outdoors whilst also bringing in support and encouragement from the local community.

I’d like to share a design I worked on for a primary school in Warrington in Cheshire. I displayed my initial ideas in the school for the children to choose their favourites, and after many visits and conversations I implemented it over the holidays. Seeing the children running through their new garden on their first day back was utterly lovely, but I feel that the main success with this design was behind the scenes. Before the children returned to school I held a training day which all the teachers attended, where we discussed linking the curriculum into the space and talked over challenges and solutions. I hosted a parents evening in the garden, and then started a weekly club with a group of children, two teachers, a parent, a governor and ladies from the local church which I continued for three months. Keeping this regular contact with the school was invaluable, as together we could work on any tweaks that the garden needed over those first few weeks, developed growing skills and an understanding of the basics of permaculture whilst also working on some longer term design ideas. By the time I left the garden really belonged to the children and was also becoming an integrated part of the local community.

As for the garden design itself, I worked on the idea of creating different areas: an outdoor classroom close to the school building (to encourage even the most reluctant teachers outside) with a storytelling area, writing space, and info board to display current topics. Next came the growing area, with raised beds, greenhouse, shed (with tools and gardening library), herb spiral, compost, rainwater collection and wormery. The creativity area held a huge weaving loom and performance stage, and the wildlife area had a wildflower meadow, bug hotel, hedgehog house, and many bird feeders and homes. A living willow dome and tunnel were planted to connect the different areas, fruit trees were planted alongside a path winding through the garden, and the fences along the sides were planted up with fruit bushes, perennial flowers and climbers. An existing prayer garden was regenerated with sensory flowers and plants, along with a water feature, bog garden and wind chimes. Another info board was placed by the main road to introduce local people to the garden.

The following year the school entered into a competition at the RHS flower show. The children grew their plants from seed, devoted lots of lesson time into designing and created a recycled fairy tale garden.. and won first prize! This just made my heart sing, as it showed that in such a short space of time the garden had become such a central part of the school.  

(This article was first written for a UK permaculture Association publication)