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Heaven and horticulture

Karen Gold looks at the impressive response to a cross-curricular challenge to design a school garden expressing religious themes

Savannah's path of promises, Emily's rainbow flowerbed, a cloister, a woodhenge and story-telling seat, stepping stones, zen pebbles, passion-flowers and honeysuckle - all these religious motifs and images have been chosen by schools to express ideas about creation, faith, fellowship, peace and sacrifice while making a garden.

When the RE think tank REEP (Religious Education and Environment Programme) launched its awards for garden design, no one expected so many schools to come up with such diverse and profound responses to the challenge of designing a school garden based on cross-curricular work in RE, information technology and art, according to REEP director Diana Lazenby.

Children used photographs, computer-based and freehand drawings, video and PowerPoint to put forward plans, which included cottage gardens, wildlife areas, mosaics, planted wheels and cross shapes, a Japanese garden of tranquillity, a memorial garden for a pupil who died and even a cloister.

Their designs often incorporated themes and symbols from several religions, and at the same time looked forward to the garden itself providing a spiritual haven according to Mike Calnan, the National Trust's head of gardens and parks and chair of the judging panel.

"We were keen not to choose designs that were just a makeover," he says.

"All the judges shared the view that gardens have the power to transform lives. Every entry was a vision of how to make the world a better place, but the best ones saw the design as the beginning of a process rather than the end."

Many of the gardens were new stages in work that schools had already done over several years linking RE and gardens. At Angley School in Cranbrook, for example, work had already begun on transforming an area between classrooms that was "a bit run down" into a zen garden with pebbles, flowing water and butterfly-attracting plants.

At St Wilfrid's Catholic Primary School in Ripon, the overall winner, a completely new wildlife garden was under way, with various habitats and a peaceful, natural log seating area around a pond. Meanwhile, Formby High School on Merseyside proposed a double-helix fountain representing the stream of life to celebrate this year's 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA as the centrepiece for its pergola-shaded walkway between classrooms.

The judges, who included Royal College of Art rector Sir Christopher Frayling and Tate Britain director Richard Humphreys, also wanted to see input from both adults and children, according to Mike Calnan. Some children's designs had needed a bit of adult realism - for example, how would they be watered over the summer? Others, such as formal shrines, seemed to lack the perspective of a child.

The best were community efforts, sometimes even proposing joint access to, or at least a view of, the garden. So at Ridge Primary School in Lancaster, for example, a small gardening project initiated by one learning support assistant and two unsettled boys eventually spread to involve the whole school.

At Ethelbert Road Infants' School in Faversham, parents, staff and children excavated a corner of the tarmac playground for grass, gazebos, a solar fountain and a sculpture, and daisies were planted everywhere in memory of Daisy, a pupil who had died.

The sculpture will be paid for by the school's pound;500 winnings, not only from the REEP awards, but also from the Art and Christianity Enquiry Trust (ACE), which also sponsored prizes for collaboration between school gardening projects and a professional artist.

Deansfield Primary in Eltham, east London, was the overall ACE award winner, with its proposed multi-faith "sanctuary in Greenwich", also taking over a corner of tarmac playground, designed in conjunction with University of Greenwich architecture students and containing a cloister, formal Islamic and Christian planting, flowing green planting and water in the Buddhist section.

This multifaith theme was taken up by many of the schools. At Bramcote Park secondary in Nottingham, for example, the existing RE and environment club decided against using specific religious symbols in their garden, an underused plot at the front of the school dominated by five mature trees.

Instead, symbolic planting was chosen, using honeysuckle and passion flowers to represent Christianity and yellow flowers to mark a Buddhist sacrifice. They also had a community focus within the school - a unit for visually impaired students who wanted to enjoy the garden. So they rejected roses ("too prickly") and opted for strong scents, colours and textures, as well as a chiming bell hanging from the trees.

There was also a community focus at Saxon Shore Infants in Portsmouth. The school contains several garden areas which are used not only by pupils, but also by adult learners in a project called New Leaf. The school's winning REEP entry, designed by New Leaf manager Alistair Martin, is called the Theatre of Good Companions and includes a stone performance space surrounded by natural tree boundaries, set in planting which celebrates companionship. It uses a lime tree as a symbol of marriage and rosemary to mark long friendship.

It is exactly the kind of balance of symbolism and practicality that the awards hoped to promote, according to Alison Seaman, one of the judges, a former director of the National Religious Education Centre and now an RE consultant. "The best gardens had children looking beyond symbols and into the meaning behind them," she says. "Children were connecting themselves to the garden in a deeper way, looking for a quiet or contemplative place or somewhere that could help them remember.

"If spirituality is about anything it's about making connections. We chose gardens that would help children make connections and live with them and grow with them."

REEP's 2004-2005 award scheme will be launched in January.

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