Desiccated flowers are fashioned

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
A visit to a walledgarden sowed the seeds for a small business at a special school. Seonag MacKinnon reports

From little acorns oak trees grow. From a visit to a National Trust for Scotland garden where flowers are grown and dried for sale, a special school in Midlothian has set up its own small dried flower enterprise.

Linda Armstrong teaches at Lugton school in Dalkeith, which has 145 pupils aged five to 18 with a wide range of learning difficulties. She was so inspired by a visit to Priorwood Garden in the Borders, that she requested a week-long secondment there seven years ago. When she returned to work she started overhauling a small piece of land attached to her school.

"I just loved the tranquillity and beauty of the walled garden at Priorwood, the love and care the volunteers have for the flowers. That was me hooked. The flowers you see in department stores are dyed. There everything is natural, " she says.

Priorwood is modest in its commercial ambitions, so it remains small scale and attractively laid out. The majority of flowers are chosen specifically for their drying capabilities, so on the left of the entrance just a few yards from Melrose Abbey are beds of flowers ranging from the four-foot high spiky Blessed Mary thistle to the dainty gilia aggregato and herbs such as bronze fennel, pungent after a shower of rain. Beyond is a small area of reclaimed woodland and of great interest to visiting children a small nursery area and compost heap. Adjoining this is an orchard containing pears, greengages and apple trees.

As the Lugton garden site formerly housed greenhouses belonging to the neighbouring estate of the Duke of Buccleuch, the concrete base first had to be covered with 12 inches of top soil. Next came the laying of numerous donated broken slabs. And then Mrs Armstrong and her husband built a shed.

The plants proved popular with rabbits and pheasants from the neighbouring land which came to dine. "I couldn't believe it," says Mrs Armstrong. "Rabbits were sitting on flower pots, not at all bothered when we came out." So the next project was to dig a trench just outside the garden to deter their burrowing friends.

Every year at the beginning of June, fifth year pupils plant out flowers such as statice, helichrysums and Bells of Ireland for harvesting in the late summer after the holidays. From October to December they make up baskets and cards to sell to parents, teachers and small businesses.

Although Lugton Enterprises turns over just a few hundred pounds a year, Mrs Armstrong believes it is a very worthwhile project. "The children experience the growing cycle at first hand and have to do things such as take money into the bank account and make some phone calls, for example to arrange a visit to Priorwood."

They also get some sense of where food really comes from. Many are amazed to see a teacher nibble a herb, since in their experience food comes from a tin, packet or chippie.

And the majority of children in the class of 15 will turn their noses up at the idea of getting their hands dirty in the soil. Cutting the grass with the lawnmower is a favourite task but other duties may have to come with the promise of a snack. After planting out four trays of seedlings, one girl said: "If this is what gairdening is all aboot, I'm getting a flat."

Some apparently simple tasks are quite hard for the children to learn. Teachers cannot just ask them to weed, since they have to know which of the many plants at various stages of growth are desirable and which are weeds.

Interest is partly stimulated by what has become a highly popular annual coach trip to a hostel near a similar school in the Loire Valley in France. Children experience the assault on their senses of the flower markets, from the vast quantities of pungent lavender in particular.

Last summer the floral theme was evident on the long coach journey when Mrs Armstrong whiled away the hours by inhaling soothing aromatherapy oils.

"What's she on?" was the question from the back of the bus.

Within minutes they too were dabbing tissues and breathing in.

"I recommend it to any teacher on a school trip," says Mrs Armstrong. "They had been so noisy, but were then so peaceful."

r = Priorwood Gardens: Seasonal visits are encouraged to benefit from seeing the different stages of plant growth, flower harvest and dried flower process. A site visit lasts at least one hour. Children in school parties are charged Pounds 1, accompanying adults are free. A study box of written resources and handling material is available for loan from the property, on 01896 822493 GUIDELINES ON HOW TO DRY FLOWERS

* Strip off the leaves, as they become unsightly and brittle and slow the drying process * Attach flowers to wire coat hangers with rubber bands.

* Fleshy sappy flowers need to be dried in a hot room in the presence of a desiccant (drying agent). The National Trust at Priorwood Garden uses modern silica gel for fine flowers, but for others, buckets of sand which has been washed in detergent then well rinsed and passed through a sieve. Drying time varies, eg delphiniums 48 hours, alliums 10-14 days.

* The vast majority of flowers are simply air dried at room temperature in an area which is dry with a through-flow of air and away from sunlight (to preserve colour).

* Do not exceed the recommended drying time for each variety.

* Some plants such as beech leaves lend themselves to being preserved in glycerine. They turn brown but remain supple. Heather can only be preserved in glycerine.

* Some flowers such as lilac, lily of the valley and euphorbia are dried in trays of sand. A handful of sand at a time is trickled over until all flowers are covered.

Poppy harvest: pupils at Lugton school in Dalkeith cut flowers to be dried The place of inspiration: Priorwood Garden, Melrose

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