Parents, teachers and pupils all muck in to transform a dreary playing field into a much-loved garden where children can work, rest and play. Michael Leapman reports
Driving into Doune primary school in Perthshire, near the centre of the quiet, orderly village north of Stirling, the first person I see is a small girl struggling with a disproportionately large red watering can. She is aiming to give life to some sunflower seeds newly sown in a narrow strip of ground between the car park and the school building. It does not look promising. The ground has been hardened by the combination of sun and a brisk wind. The recently-planted shrubs at the edges of the patch seem to be struggling for survival. But the scene embodies the battling, optimistic spirit that is the hallmark of successful gardening.
Later, behind the school, I see the results of that spirit in action. Five years ago, a bleak playing field stretched from one perimeter fence to the other. Now, a stretch of ground 30 metres long and seven metres deep has been turned by children, parents and teachers into a play trail, a productive vegetable plot, a flower border and two small wildlife areas, one wet and one dry.
The 145 pupils love it, and even relish such mundane tasks as weeding. They were consulted at every stage about what the garden should contain. Plenty of seating was one of their priorities, so wooden benches have been placed in strategic spots for quiet conversation and reflection, and for eating packed lunches in good weather. As for the teachers, the garden adds an extra element to the curriculum in such diverse areas as science, mathematics, art, English and personal development. "Our use of it is growing all the time," says headteacher Jane Beattie.
The scheme took root in 1994, when the school's parent teacher association was looking at ways to improve outdoor play facilities. Its research led the PTA to Grounds for Learning (GfL), the Scottish branch of the charity Learning through Landscapes, which promotes the development of school grounds for educational purposes. At the suggestion of GfL, the PTA formed a grounds group, with Ms Beattie among its members. By 1996, they had formulated an ambitious plan for a new play area and garden.
A pound;500 grant from Stirling council set the project in motion, and another pound;500 came from Marks amp; Spencer, through GfL. Money has since been donated by Scottish Natural Heritage and the PTA, withfurther contributions from Stirling council. The cost so far is about pound;3,000, not counting the many materials donated by parents and local businesses. The council gave a compost bin, now supervised by two enthusiastic 10-year-olds who encourage children to contribute the recyclable elements of their packed lunches. This year, a lock-up toolshed has been bought out of grant money.
Most of the initial physical labour came from parents, working at weekends. The first sod was turned in spring 1997. By good fortune, this coincided with the resurfacing of the school's playground, so 300 redundant paving stones became available for paths and landscaping.
A protective beech hedge was planted in front of the plot, along with native trees in the wildlife areas. The original plan for the wetlands section was to create a peat bog, but the use of peat would have disqualified the school from a grant from environmentally-conscious Stirling council, so a plastic liner was used instead. Safety considerations forbade a full-scale pond, but an abandoned sink was recycled to provide a refuge for tadpoles.
The first crops were harvested that autumn, and every season the range of vegetables increases. Last autumn, each child was given a potato to take home, and a parent used part of the carrot crop to make soup for a real food exhibition. This year's pumpkins and courgettes are already well established, although the runner beans have been a failure. Grown from seed in pots, they were felled by bad weather just after being planted out, but a new batch is being started. In gardening, as in life, it is important to learn how to cope with short-term disappointment.
In only its fourth summer, the garden is already assuming an air of maturity. Shrubs and hardy annuals such as sedum, hellebores, buddleias and astilbe are established. Old favourites, including lupins, marigolds, irises and pansies add a touch of colour. There are blackcurrant and jostaberry (a cross between blackcurrant and gooseberry) bushes and, in the wild section, self-seeded raspberries of the kind that grow prolifically in Scottish hedgerows.
Wild flower germination has proved patchy - it invariably is - with the pervasive buttercup tending to assert its dominance over almost everything else. But successes have included the dainty Scottish primrose, and there are plans to introduce as many native Scottish plants as can be persuaded to take root.
The children play a pivotal role in deciding what to grow, and they do as much of the physical work as they can manage. Last autumn, every pupil participated in a mass planting of spring bulbs at the front of the school - so popular that they were still demanding more when the bulb supply ran out. Another hit was the "minibeasts" project, in which the children collected spiders, centipedes and slugs in plastic containers. They examined and sketched them before releasing them back into the garden.
New elements are constantly introduced. A "dome" of live willow was planted to commemorate the millennium and a Roman herb garden is being sown to mark the recent discovery of the remains of a Roman fort in the school grounds. A circle of flat stones, each one painted by a pupil, is being placed at the garden entrance.
Chief gardener in the grounds group is Jennifer Barrett, who visits the school with a group of other parents every Friday to do routine maintenance and work with the children. One of her colleagues, Elaine MacEaehern, says:
"It gives an opportunity to children who aren't maybe as academic. They're the ones who really enjoy doing something and seeing the result." And Kirsty Sharp, a founder member of the grounds group, adds: "You discover all these talents among parents and together we were able to create something. It was rather wonderful."
Grounds for Learning, the school grounds charity for Scotland, associated with Learning through Landscapes, can be contacted on www.ltl.org.ukscotland School Grounds Week in Scotland will take place from September 3 to 7 with the theme, Living Today for Tomorrow's World.Scottish Natural Heritage: www.snh.org.uk The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds publishes advice on encouraging birds and other wildlife to your school grounds. Classroom materials can be downloaded free of charge from the RSPB's website: www.rspb.org.ukeducation