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Flowers, fruit and a musical washing line

Potatoes don't grow on trees , although some city children apparently think they do. Harvey McGavin reports on a hands-on venture aimed at teaching pupils about the wonders of the natural world

It has taken nine months to plan, been through six redesigns, and taken three weeks to build, but on Tuesday it will finally be complete. The Growing Schools garden, a showpiece combining some of the best features of school grounds great and small, makes its debut at next week's Hampton Court Flower Show.

Prize-winning designer Claire Whitehouse is the guiding hand behind what is the biggest, perhaps the most ambitious and probably the most unusual plot of the lot. Ms Whitehouse has shown gardens at the previous eight Hampton Court shows, but this year has been particularly hectic. Between trips to South America to collect seeds for a Brazilian garden she is creating for the charity Christian Aid, she has been busy arranging the inspiring home-grown talent of almost two dozen schools.

Come show day, everything will have fallen into its carefully chosen place and this hive of activity will become a calming oasis. Ms Whitehouse says it's been "a logistical nightmare" to organise, but she hopes teachers and pupils will go away inspired and dreaming of projects they can do in their own school yards.

It's certainly an inspiring collection. "The amount of imagination in these schools is amazing," she says. It is not the first time she has worked with schools, "but working on this project has made me realise there are fundamental, practical things, like seating or raised beds, that all schools can make. It's not the money, it's the ideas."

Growing Schools is a joint venture between the Department for Education and Skills, the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens, the school grounds charity Learning Through Landscapes, and Gardening Which?, launched last year to "enhance teaching and learning through farming and growing".

Twenty-one schools - special schools, nurseries, primaries and secondaries, urban and rural, and ranging in size from 30 pupils to several hundred - have contributed to the Growing Schools garden. At 24 metres by 12 metres, it is large by most schools' standards. Ms Whitehouse's brief was to recreate the school environment by including a building, a tarmac section and a grassed area. Beyond that, the only limit was the imagination of the schools involved.

There are new twists on old favourites such as tomatoes (in hanging baskets) and sunflowers (arranged in an avenue) alongside more unusual - but no less achievable - features such as a medieval herb garden and decorative gourds. A shaded story-telling circle and a curved seating area acknowledge that school gardens are places for people.

"The wonderful thing about Hampton Court," says Ms Whitehouse, "is that the public are allowed to walk through the garden." This is not a garden for quiet contemplation - there's a musical washing line for one thing - but an active hands-on area, full of things to do. Beautifully fashioned learning tools such as mosaics and compasses illustrated with landmarks are landscaped into the surroundings. There are proud demonstrations of local culture - such as well dressing, the Peak District practice of arranging flowers around a water source.

The project aims to make school grounds pleasing to the eye, and serve as an outdoor classroom. There are ceramics that illustrate the life cycle of a butterfly, soil towers filled with differing grades of stones which could be props for a geology lesson, and the most ambitious - a wind-powered watering system.

More than 70 schools in the UK are fortunate enough to have farms of their own, where fruit and vegetable growing, and animal husbandry are all in a day's work. But as surveys continue to show alarming levels of ignorance about food production, the Growing Schools initiative hopes to show that everybody has a lot to learn about the natural world. Those who still think potatoes grow on trees can see root vegetables, in all their underground glory, displayed in Perspex pots. In the classroom-cum-kitchen, fresh fruit smoothies and multicultural recipes will be served. The classroom doubles as an information centre.

"The idea was to do something that not only demonstrates how it can be done but also provides learning materials afterwards to capture pupils'

imaginations," says Martha Godfrey, who has been co-ordinating the Hampton Court project for Gardening Which?. She visited dozens of schools during the selection process, filling a photo album on her travels, which she leafs through with the enthusiasm of someone just back from a holiday. She has been amazed by the sheer inventiveness of schools, from the technology of wind-powered watering systems to the humanity of a friendship stop where young children can wait for a playmate.

Other gardens at the show may look prettier or win more prizes, but none is bursting with so many ideas. "We want people to come to this garden, walk through it and be inspired; and to take things away that they can do in their own school," says Ms Godfrey.

The Hampton Court Flower Show runs from July 2-7 (July 2 and 3 for RHSmembers only). Tickets: 0870 906 3791. Hampton Courtis 30 minutes by train from London, Waterloo; by Tube: District line to Kingston and R68 bus; www.rhs.org.uk for park and ride facilities; www.schoolsgarden.org.uk for more details on the garden.l Don't miss our Growing Schools series starting on July 19. Every week, The TES will visit a school that has contributed to the Hampton Court show garden; our experts will tell you how to create its features in your own school yard Key to main picture

1. Cookery and smoothie- making demonstrations

2. Friendship stop

3. Well dressing

4. Wind-powered watering system

5. Storytelling circle

6. Willow sculptures

7. Musical washing line

8. Medieval herb garden

9. Decorative fencing

10. Mosaic

Digging in

The 21 schools contributing to the Growing Schools garden are: Alvanley primary, Frodsham, Cheshire

Beaconside infants, Penrith, Cumbria

Boyne Hill infants, Royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead

Brockhill Park secondary, Hythe, Kent

Cardinal Wiseman RC secondary, Coventry

Chaddesley Corbert End primary, Worcestershire

Collingham Gardens nursery, Camden

The Coombes infants, Reading, Wokingham

Ebchester CE primary, Consett, Durham

Elton CE primary, Matlock, Derbyshire

Godwin primary, Dagenham, Barking

The Loddon special school, Basingstoke, Hampshire

Long Eaton secondary, Derbyshire

Mapledene early years centre, Hackney

Meldreth Manor special school, Hertfordshire

Normand Park primary, Hammersmith and Fulham

Palatine special school, Worthing, West Sussex

Royston high school, Barnsley

Selwood middle school, Frome, Somerset

St John's CE first school, Kidderminster, Worcestershire

Areley Kings the Windmill first school, Stourport, Worcestershire

Claire Whitehouse: hopes to inspire visiting schools

Illustration: Helen Mills

Photograph: Peter Searle

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