The therapeutic value of gardening is legendary, so it is no surprise that horticultural activities are helping pupils blossom. In the first of a series on school gardens, Michael Leapman reports from Oxfordshire.
The climate for school gardens is brighter than ever. Cultivating grounds gives pupils the chance to be creative; to become involved in their environment and share their enthusiasm with whole communities. Marlborough Church of England secondary school at Woodstock, near Oxford, is an object lesson in what can be achieved with imagination and determination. For years, the school had a reputation as one of the greenest in the area, thanks largely to the efforts of Ted Adnams, a long-serving science teacher and enthusiast for rural studies. He was responsible for planting a range of trees in the 20-acre grounds and developing a wildlife garden and a duck pond. When he retired three years ago, staff feared the impetus might be lost.
"It's an unfortunate spin-off from the national curriculum," says assistant head Phil Morgan. "A lot of the practical work in science now has to be done on the lab bench rather than out on site. Ted was keen on environmental science, and some primary schools used to come and use our facilities. We've been trying to resurrect some of that."
The good news is that the green revival is well under way. A strong motivation for carrying on the tradition is the presence on the site of the Ormerod school, most of whose 29 severely disabled pupils suffer from cerebral palsy. Although they are not the only beneficiaries, most of the garden features are designed with their needs in mind. Many can carry out tasks such as sowing, planting, watering, weeding and dead-heading, and gain a sense of accomplishment.
The tone is set from right outside the main entrance, where Barry's garden, a heart-shaped bed at a convenient height for wheelchair users, was built in 1988 in memory of a much-loved pupil. It is planted to provide colour and scent through a large part of the year, with such flowers as hellebores, irises, lavender and begonias. Inside are two newer developments. Five years ago art teacher Megan Chappell started building a Japanese garden in one of three covered courtyards amid the single-storey school complex. She enlisted design help from the Japanese Gardening Society and sponsorship from, among others, the finance house Barclays New Futures.
Opened in 1998, the garden is a delight. The central bed, again raised to wheelchair level, is planted with bamboo, grasses, lilies, conifers and an elegant rust-coloured Japanese maple. It includes a picturesque fountain as well as a traditional bamboo deer scarer, powered by water, that periodically makes a pleasing clapping sound - an appealing novelty, even if deer are an improbable threat in the enclosed space.
More recently, another of the courtyards has been turned into a sensory garden, an oasis of visual, aural and olfactory pleasure. Beds of scented plants such as philadelphus (mock orange), lemon balm, honeysuckle and sweet peas surround a central water feature. Many of the garden's furnishings - tubs, plant stands, mobiles - are made by the students.
Ormerod teacher Celia Adamson says: "There's one child in particular with a mental handicap who loves to come and hear the sound of the water. He's visibly more relaxed as soon as he comes in here."
The gardens are maintained almost entirely by student volunteers. Marlborough school runs a system of electives, by which, for two hours every Wednesday afternoon, each of the 800 pupils follows a non-curriculum activity of choice, on or off the site. Options include horse riding, sailing, skating, trail-walking, mountain-biking, music and a second foreign language.
The gardening elective contains eight boys and girls, five from the main school and three from Ormerod. At least one is planning a career in horticulture and already has work experience with the parks department of the local council. Apart from the Wednesday sessions, the students water and maintain the gardens at weekends and during the holidays on a rota basis. They also look after some nearby war graves for the War Graves Commission, donating their fee to the local British Legion. Their current in-house project is to restore a wildlife garden at the back of the school that had become an overgrown jungle. Near it is a large pond with two islands that used to provide a nesting place for ducks. Ten years ago, foxes took advantage of a hard freeze to cross the ice and kill the birds. Since then, the pond had become a weedy and overgrown eyesore.
On the weekend before my visit, a party of volunteers - staff, parents and members of the gardening elective - organised a working party to cut back the overgrown garden and clean out the pond. They were helped by members of the Oxfordshire Beekeeping Association, which manages an apiary just behind the garden. Plans for the redevelopment include a "bee bowl" for growing flowers rich in pollen.
"When Ted Adnams was here, the wildlife garden was a nature reserve used as a basis for investigatory science," says Phil Morgan. "We want to maintain it more as a recreational than a scientific space." At the weekend, the weed was removed from the pond and the overgrowth on its islands and in the rest of the garden was hacked down. A local building firm donated some decking (in exchange for advertising in the school magazine), and this has been laid to provide wheelchair access to the edge of the pond, which will be landscaped and re-planted. Other schemes in the pipeline will maintain the momentum. Parents are being encouraged to take over part of the ground near the wildlife garden and turn it into allotments: three are already operating. And the one remaining courtyard will be turned into a garden when the necessary finance - about pound;2,000 - can be raised.
Although gardening attracts one of the school's smallest elective groups, it punches above its weight. The results of the team's work in the grounds and the courtyard gardens are there to be appreciated by the school at large, and its influence spreads into other areas - this year's school calendar had a horticultural theme and some group members have produced a handsome tapestry of floral motifs.
Marlborough is a popular school, with a constant need to upgrade and expand its facilities to satisfy demand. But acting head Bob Peterson insists:
"We've got to make sure our environment isn't just about buildings. And to do that we rely very much on the enthusiasm of the students" - the one vital resource that will not appear on any school budget.
Thrive is the national charity for promoting gardening and horticulture for people with disabilities. Tel: 0118 988 5688; www.thrive.org.uk. Last month it launched www.carryongardening.org.uk to encourage everyone, whatever their age or mobility, to enjoy gardening. It includes advice on tools, access and easy maintenance. Details of horticultural events linked with Japan 2001, including Japanese gardens open in the UK, can be found on the Japan Society website at www.japansociety.org.uk Tel: 020 7636 3029 (for the next two weeks, and then 020 7828 6330; fax 020 7828 6331). 'Japanese Gardens in Britain' by Amanda Herries, published by Shire Publications, pound;4.60, traces the history of Japanese garden-making in the UK since the 1860s