Visiting gardens has become something of a national obsession. There's the great historic landscapes of the National Trust, the plantsmen's gardens of the Royal Horticultural Society, or the exciting new ecological projects in Cornwall and Wales. There's nothing like a public garden to inspire an interest in plants and horticulture, or send us home fuelled with ideas for adapting a particularly eye-catching feature to our own humble plot.
The staff at many of these gardens are happy to share their expertise and there are many opportunities for schools to become involved, either through in-service days, or specially tailored visits for children, which focus on a particular aspect of the garden or curriculum.
The education department of the RHS has grown from six to 16 members in the past four years, an acknowledgement of the increasing awareness in schools of the rich source of teaching ideas and practical work which gardens offer. Two of its gardens, Wisley in Surrey and Rosemoor in Devon, have their own education staff.
At Wisley this term, Fiona Cauley will lead in-service training days on teaching citizenship through gardening at key stages 1 and 2,and on how plants function. National Tree Week, from November 22 to December 3, will be celebrated with activity days on tree identification, leaf art, and magical trails through the gardens' woodlands.
Themed walks will explore scented and medicinal plants, as well as species from other countries. Occasionally, schools are invited to help with a particular task. Children from Hoebridge School, in Old Woking, Surrey, recently took part in a tree-planting session at Wisley.
At Rosemoor wildlife trails focusing on colour, texture and the senses are popular with pre-school children, while key stage 1 and 2 classes enjoy using the garden as a stimulus for art and writing projects.
Carol Bond, a reception teacher from Sampford Peverell primary school, near Tiverton, visited the garden during a project on plants. "It was wonderful," she said, "a completely educational day".
Alan Crocker, a teacher at Sticklepath county primary school, Devon, was just as enthusiastic about a visit with Year 3 and 4 classes. "It was well-taught with a lovely pace. The hildren were gripped by it," he said.
Equally important, teachers are offered support in developing a school garden and using it as the starting point for numerous learning activities. This includes science investigations, data-collecting, designing and making things. Special features, such as a wildflower meadow, vegetable garden, recycling area, a pond, trees and hedgerows can all enhance learning opportunities and show how plants and animals adapt to different habitats.
Helen Ward, senior lecturer at Christchurch University College, Canterbury, who will be running an in-service training day at Wisley next term, says the garden provides a "brilliant context" for all aspects of scientific inquiry, surveying and links with information technology. "Learning from first hand experience is vital." As a science advisory teacher in East Sussex, she worked with a town planner in creating environmental gardens in schools where children had limited access to safe outdoor space.
The free RHS schools membership scheme offers a bumper pack of services. There's a termly newsletter, a copy of the RHS monthly magazine The Garden, free school visits to any of the RHS gardens, reduced rates for INSET days and free horticultural and educational advice. There is also guidance on important safety issues as well as on the challenges of planning a garden for term-time interest and maintaining it through the holidays.
The Greenfingers Challenge, the schools' gardening contest run by the RHS and the Tidy Britain Group and sponsored by Legal and General, is now in its third year of encouraging schools to create gardens and use them as outdoor classrooms.
This year's competition highlights the importance of the environment and working with the local community. The winners will be announced on September 27, when there will be plenty of evidence of the life-enhancing qualities of school gardens.
RHS, Education Department, Wisley, Woking, Surrey GU23 6QB. Tel: 01483 224234.
Education officer:Fiona Cauley.
RHS Rosemoor, Great Torrington, Devon EX38 8PH. Tel: 01805 624067. Education officer: Sarah Chester.
RHS Hyde Hall, Rettenden, Chelmsford, Essex CM3 8ET.
Tel: 01245 400256; www.rhs.org.uk Greenfingers Challenge, Tidy Britain Group, Freepost, The Pier, Wigan WN3 4BR. Freephone hotline: 0800 783 7838.