A school garden can work wonders for pupils of all abilities. Hilary Wilce reports on where to find advice for getting started
It is natural for people to want to connect with the earth and things that grow in it. It is, after all, what sustains us. That is why more and more schools are discovering that tending a garden does wonders for their pupils. It not only helps them understand the world they live in, but also feeds their spirit.
Special needs pupils are no exception, although setting up a garden for them can be more challenging. Planning a layout may be different, with raised beds for easy access, or more plants that stimulate the senses, and more thought about the careful use of implements. However, help is at hand from a number of sources.
The Royal Horticultural Society is keen to put children in touch with the natural world and to counteract the urban and sedentary life that many lead. Three and a half thousand schools are now signed up for society membership and nearly 10,000 school visits a year are made to its four gardens, all of which have disabled access. It has plans for a new learning centre at its lead garden, Wisley, in Surrey, and is also running a Flourish campaign, to help teachers develop school gardens and use them in the curriculum. Any school wanting to start or regenerate a garden can get advice and fact sheets, and for projects that benefit the community funding might be available, usually Pounds 1,000. Clare Dudley, the Flourish campaign co-ordinator, says: "You don't need a big green space to do this, and garden centres will often offer seeds or plants, and you might find a company will donate a shed."
The campaign includes schools of all types and the in-service programme includes days for special needs. Haseltine School, in south London, is one that has benefited. Its cramped playground used to boast only plastic play equipment and milk crates for sitting on. Now lettuces, broad beans and courgettes flourish in raised beds, there's a dinosaur garden and a "beach" of sand with a ship wreck. Three silver birches have been planted and there's lavender, thyme and rosemary, as well as jasmine and other climbers, which attract butterflies.
The outdoor classroom is used for teaching all kinds of things, from story-telling to maths, and even the youngest pupils are keen to show visitors their crops - a revelation to most of them, who live in city flats with no outside garden. "It used to be horrible," they chorus. "Now it's nice." "It's ours." "We eat the lettuces."
"This project shows what can be done with an inhospitable, windswept space," says Clare Dudley. "Now the teachers can't get them inside."
Also of interest to schools is the Duchy OriginalsHenry Doubleday Research Association Organic Gardens for Schools project, which helps set up small gardens in or near schools so children can learn how food is produced.
Membership is free and there's lots of advice for teachers and pupils, including a huge array of factsheets on subjects from pest and disease control to composting and wildlife gardening.
Colette Bond, head of education, says interest is growing and more than 1,000 schools have signed up, including many special schools. "Once a school is a member it can speak to any of our advisers by email or phone, there's a quarterly newsletter and we suggest things to do in the garden for each six-week period."
Gardening enthusiasts point out that the range of skills pupils can acquire through gardening is extensive. Science, maths and creativity can all be enhanced, and pupils also learn manual skills and how to co-operate and work together. And - this is a really big bonus - teachers say pupils will eat anything, no matter how green and healthy, provided they've grown it themselves.
Eighteen-year-old Chris Hodding is puzzled by the bean plants on his school's allotment.
"These red flowers are where the beans will be," explains his teacher, Robin Buchan. Chris stares intently, still perplexed.
"Not baked beans, Chris. Runner beans. Those are green beans. You must have had green beans? Your mum must have cooked you green beans?"
He stares some more, then slowly makes the connection. "Green beans. I know. Roast dinner," he says triumphantly and heads off to fill a watering can to water them. Students at Walton Leigh School, a school for 11 to 19-year-olds with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties in Weybridge, Surrey, are getting used to taking mini-bus trips to the school's new allotment, five minutes away. The school is on a cramped site with restricted space, so the garden is a welcome chance for them to get out and enjoy tending their own fruit, flowers and vegetables. Once the plot is established, all these will be used at the school - the flowers for brightening the building, the fruit and veg for lunches.
School governor and allotment holder Virginia Liebner dreamed up the idea one day during a finance committee meeting. "I brought the head down here and said, `What do you think?'"
She thought it was a good idea and the Weybridge Allotment and Gardeners'
Association was happy to offer a spare plot. The nearby RHS gave pound;1,000 as part of its Flourish campaign to encourage school gardening and gardeners from the RHS helped plant a small orchard at the back of the plot. Carillion, the construction company, created the raised beds, fencing and paving for wheelchair access, and Unilever offered a team of company lawyers for mass weeding. "Everyone was so willing to help, and so many of the people who came along turned out to have connections with the school," says Virginia.
One goal is getting pupils to mingle in the community. There were some initial anxieties among allotment holders, she says. "People wanted to know: are they violent? I said, `Gosh, no. These are the gentlest people you'll ever meet'."
Dee Stone, chairman of the allotment association, who has pitched in to help get it going, says you can see what a keen interest students take when they get involved. Any job, whether raking or weeding, is done with enormous concentration.
Royal Horticultural Society Tel: 01483 224234 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Duchy OriginalsHDRA Organic Gardens for Schools project Tel: 024 7630 8238 Email: email@example.com
Thrive is a charity bringing the benefits of gardening to disabled and disadvantaged people
Gardening for Disabled Trust offers advice on adapting gardens for people with limited mobility www.otford.orggarden