One potato, two potato, three potato ..

4th April 2008 at 01:00
'You reap what you sow' has never been more obvious than at Overton Primary, Greenock, where Shirley English goes gardening

Vegetables traditionally have few fans among children. But give pupils the chance to plant a seed, watch it grow and harvest the resulting crop, then suddenly attitudes can change.

Overton Primary, in Greenock, has witnessed such a transformation thanks to a pupil-run vegetable and herb garden, which began as a small project to increase biodiversity in the school grounds and broaden opportunities for outdoor learning. It has now snowballed into a money-making enterprise that has captured the children's imagination and enthusiasm.

Last year, the nursery class grew rhubarb, potatoes, carrots, leeks, corn, turnips, cabbages, peas, lettuce and herbs and sold their crop to parents and staff, raising pound;53 for Ardgowan Hospice in Greenock.

They also harvested apples, pears and plums from their small orchard and established a composting bin, a weather monitoring station and bird boxes on site. Aside from that, they had lots of fun digging for worms and generally getting muddy and wet. All this took place in an area which just two years ago was a bare concrete playground.

With spring in the air, discussions have now started on what to plant for the coming season. The consensus among the children is that carrots are an absolute must.

Connor Watt, 4, explains: "They grew and grew and when we pulled them out they were funny shapes. It was good fun watering them. I almost got soaked."

Like some of his older classmates, he is relishing the chance to witness once again the cycle of life at first hand. However, for some of the children, many of whom live in high-rise flats with no garden, this will be their first year as organic gardeners and they can hardly wait to grab their trowels and watering cans.

Elise Wood, 4, wants to grow "mashed potatoes. They're my favourite, with gravy," she says.

She may not have grasped the concept, but the garden's benefits are obvious. It is just one of three grounds improvement projects that Overton Primary has embarked upon in the last two years with the support of pound;2,000 worth of grants from Scottish Natural Heritage. It assisted 300 schools across Scotland last year - 18 of them in Inverclyde - with school grounds grants totalling pound;150,000.

Work is ongoing, but the impact at Overton has been substantial. Previously, the play areas were bare concrete, and a tangle of overgrown bushes greeted visitors at the front entrance. The so-called school "garden" - a quadrangle at the centre of the school - was a featureless space of grey slabs with a couple of neglected flower pots to break the monotony.

Now the overgrown bushes and trees have been pruned back and heathers and bulbs have been planted at the entrance. The uninspiring garden at the centre of the school has been transformed into a stimulating outdoor classroom, with four large wooden planters to encourage wildlife, hanging baskets for every class and a small vegetable patch. A greenhouse is due to arrive shortly. Weather permitting, every opportunity is taken to take lessons outdoors, from story-telling to maths and science.

Liz Ruddy, an Overton pupil in the 1970s who came back as headteacher three years ago, says that until recently the grounds were "quite barren and certainly not as interesting as what we had outside the gates".

The school does have an enviable location, sitting near the top of a gorse-covered brae with uninterrupted views across the Clyde estuary. Pupils regularly see cows from a neighbouring farm being herded past the classroom windows and most days a family of deer wanders down from nearby fields. If it were not for the mechanical cranes at the waterfront far below, it would be easy to forget that this is an urban school, rooted in an industrial town.

"It is a school, in theory in a town, but it has a very rural aspect," says Mrs Ruddy. "We are close to lots of Greenock's rural areas, which have always offered lots of opportunities for outdoor learning, but you cannot have children downing tools and walking up the hill all the time.

"We wanted more opportunities close at hand to enrich the curriculum and so developed the outdoor classroom and vegetable garden. The project has been fantastic and we couldn't have done it without the help of parents and the commitment of staff. "

Inverclyde Council, which administers the school grounds grant scheme for the area, in partnership with SNH, is now inviting bids from other schools from the pound;5,000 pot.

An SNH spokeswoman says: "We want to encourage enjoyment, access and understanding of biodiversity, and schools play an important part in that. We want every teacher to step outside the classroom into the outdoors. Outdoor learning is an important part of the health agenda, by getting children outside into the fresh air."

SHOPPING LIST

Nursery vegetable and herb garden: pound;500 (setting up phase)

Fence posts and slats: pound;170

Nails and pegs: pound;10

Cement and sand: pound;60

Logs for path: pound;30

Eight pairs of wellies and five waterproof boiler suits: pound;180

Plants, shrubs and fruit trees: pound;50 (plus an extra pound;300 to spend from second SNH grant)

Compost bin: (donated).

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