Children at an inner-city nursery have a jungle on their doorstep. Harvey McGavin explores the undergrowth.
Given the right conditions - a decent soil, some light and water - plants thrive in our temperate climate. But there are places where nature needs a hand, some encouragement and cajoling, before it can show its true colours. Clyde nursery school in Deptford, south London, is one such place.
Crammed between old terraced streets and new council flats, Clyde nursery school is on Alverton Street - literally. The school has been built in the middle of the old street - and whoever designed the building must have thought little gardening would be going on because they put the playground right on top of the old road, with just an inch or two of soil above the tarmac. But they were wrong. In this unpromising environment, staff and pupils have worked wonders, transforming a barren patch of ground into a flourishing inner-city oasis.
Nursery nurse and outdoor play co-ordinator (aka head gardener) Lorraine Hall remembers what it used to be like: "When the weather was dry, it cracked and the grass died, and when the rain came down it was a giant, muddy puddle. We were constantly having to tell the children to keep off the grass."
About eight years ago, the school was given pound;1,000 by Lewisham Education Business Partnership to create a small garden. "The idea," says headteacher Thelma Miller, "was to create a reflective place, somewhere the children could come to be a bit quieter." The garden, which sits in the shade of a wall, is the size of a parking space. Fenced in with trellis and approached through an arch, it is festooned with clematis, jasmine, honeysuckle and hops. Although it is right next to the main playground, it feels separate, like a sanctuary from the rest of the school. "It has led to a lot of imaginative play," says Thelma. "The children like to come down here and pretend it's a church. We have had quite a few marriages."
Encouraged by its first attempts, the school set about the more problematic main area, where a sorry-looking silver birch tree was the sole occupant of the patchy grass. "We wanted to make it a healthy place for children to play. Many of them come from tower blocks and have no gardens of their own. Many of their parents are working and don't have the time or are too exhausted to take them out to the park," says Lorraine Hall. She had a "very working-class upbringing, no pictures on the wall, no fripperies" but inherited a love of nature from her aunt, who would give her a few pence to buy seeds. When she talks about the garden, she has the enthusiasm of someone who has never lost her childish wonder at the way things grow, and is eager to pass it on.
But Thelma and Lorraine soon realised just how little the children knew about the natural world. "They would call the soil 'dirt'," says Lorraine. "Not in a derogatory way, but they didn't know it had a purpose. They didn't know about worms or minibeasts, so few of them had any experience of it." She remembers one child hearing a bird singing and asking "what's that noise?".
As they began planning the garden, they were guided by the children's instincts. They built a path along the well-worn route across the grass from the back door of the school to the playground and shielded it with a now majestic weeping birch and a flowering cherry tree planted in a bottomless half-barrel to compensate for the shallow topsoil. "Children call it the jungle," says Ms Hall.
Other small trees followed - a witch hazel, a crab apple, a rowan and a horse chestnut began to add variety and shape. It is only a small square of ground, perhaps 10 paces across, but it is bursting with so many plants and little pathways it feels much bigger. Fast-growing climbers were used to disguise immoveable objects. An unsightly container where the toys are stored is swathed with honeysuckle, and Russian vine has been trained along the tall wire fence on the opposite side of the playground, shielding it from the alleyway beyond and providing some shade for the sandpit.
As the garden took shape, all available space underneath and around the trees was filled with flowers and shrubs, and a low wall beside the classrooms is chock-full of pots of herbs and flowers - mint, basil, lavender, strawberries, chilli peppers, godetias and nasturtiums. "What is fantastic about this garden," says Thelma Miller, "is that everything in it has been planted by the children. And because of that they really do take responsibility for looking after it. Every child should have the kind of experience our children have."
Full-on physical activity - they've even found room for a climbing frame and swing among all the greenery - is as important as the gentler, sensory experiences. "We thought 'let's give them something bright and colourful, something they can smell and feel'. With the trees, we wanted to introduce them to the idea that all these things live in them such as birds and bugs, and that when the leaves fall off you can rake them up and make compost; to get the children into the cycle of what happens in the natural world. In an inner-city school like this, it is important to give children all those opportunities to understand growth and life cycles."
The school has regular fundraising events - such as a sponsored climb over the playground equipment - to raise money for the garden, and used its prize from winning the school section of last year's London in Bloom competition to build a greenhouse area to propagate seedlings, and a compost heap, now teeming with insects and worms and rotting down nicely. They are well on the way to becoming self-sufficient, as well as organic. "We don't use chemicals," says Lorraine Hall. "If something gets eaten by a pest, it gets eaten." They have begun growing vegetables, too - carrots, sweetcorn and potatoes - again prompted by the children's comments. "When I asked them where chips came from, they said 'Iceland'. And when I said where do they make the chips, they didn't know. So we thought we would grow some potatoes and make our own."
And her hope that her young charges will grow into green-fingered adults seems to be bearing fruit already. "A lot of parents comment on the garden and say 'what are you growing there?' The children bring their parents out to look at it. One of them said to me 'my balcony's never been the same since he came to this school'. The other day, I met a boy who used to come to school here, and the first thing he said was 'how's the garden?' It's a real, living thing to them."
To contact Peter Carne, head of Learning through Landscapes in London, or for details of the London Electricity School Grounds Awards, write to the Environmental Curriculum Centre, 77 Bexley Road, Eltham, London SE9 2PE; tel: 0208 850 3112; or email: firstname.lastname@example.orgDetails of London in Bloom's annual school grounds competition will be sent to schools next term. Further information from London in Bloom, 5th Floor, Premier House, 12-13 Hatton Garden, London EClN 8AN. Tel: 020 7831 2543.Grow Your Own Garden is a nature and wildlife campaign aimed at nursery schools and reception classes in association with English Nature and Collins Children's books, publishers of the "Percy the Park Keeper" series. Initial packs will be mailed out in September. Nursery and reception class teachers wishing to take part in this free campaign should write to: Grow Your Own Garden, Republic Media, Studio 52, Canalot Studios, 222 Kensal Road, London W10 5BN; or email: email@example.com