Mary Cruickshank tours an enchanted garden in Dumfries and Galloway that has just won a UK prize.
Life will never be quite the same again at Glenluce primary school, Dumfries and Galloway, where an earth-moving enterprise has turned a neglected corner of the playing field into an award-winning garden. It was once a steep, slippery grass slope bordered by a concrete path, and attracted little more than litter. Now a focal point of school life, it enriches work and play and entices parents in to lend a hand.
The children of Primary 2 and 3 are getting used to showing visitors around the site. They leave you in no doubt this is their garden. They show off the brilliant rainbow corner with its hanging baskets and tubs full of colour even in late summer. And they proudly point out the wind chimes, the bird boxes and the smooth pebbles of the shallow fountain.
One parent has taken beech trees blown down in a storm and created beautiful child-sized tables and chairs. Now they cluster round the rainbow corner, a popular meeting point in play time. Broad steps lead to the woodland walk, with its hedgehog house and minibeast wood pile. From there you walk through the well-tended terraces and down past the dunes of the "seashore" garden, complete with lobster pot and seaweed. You can almost smell the sea.
The leaders of the Glenluce ground force, parents Willie and Rosalyn Halliday and class teacher Anne Wales, were determined the ideas should come from the children.
"We wanted to see the garden from their perspective and find out what would appeal to them," Anne Wales says. So they spent a lot of time discussing the design with the children, as well as thinking about how the garden could become part of the school's learning environment.
Most garden designers would quail at the thought of working with 26 advisers. But for Rosalyn Halliday, it was "the perfect partnership". The children were bursting with ideas. They wanted somewhere to sit, work and play. They wanted flowers for colour and scent. And they wanted to attract wildlife.
Rosalyn brought all these ideas together and found a way to fit them into the site's steep contours.
For safety reasons it was decided that parents should do the heavy work in the Easter holidays. The digging started on a grey Sunday in March. By the time the children returned at the beginning of term the basic structure of the garden - the seating area, the raised beds and the seashore - was in place.
The children came back armed with plants and eager to start.
After a flurry of April snow work began in earnest. There were activity days when whole classes would be out stone picking or planting the raised beds. The slope has been carefully tiered so that younger children can work on the lower terraces while the older children look after the higher slopes, with their larger shrubs and heavier work.
Each class is responsible for one area and very protective of its patch. Help came from all directions. The school is in the heart of south-west Scotland's rich farming country, where parents have access to diggers and tractors. "Things just appeared," Anne Wales says - bags of gravel, compost and top soil; railway sleepers for raised beds; hanging baskets and terracotta pots from local supermarkets; bird nesting boxes, plants and shrubs from friends and neighbours. The generosity of the village overwhelmed the school.
Last month, the school won first prize in the Beautiful Scotland in Bloom Greenfingers Challenge, sponsored by the Bank of Scotland. This week they were declared UK winners.
The UK competition attracted nearly 500 entries. It is organised by the Tidy Britain Group and the Royal Horticultural Society to raise environmental awareness and inspire a new generation of gardeners.
The future of the competition in the UK is under review. But in Scotland there is a commitment to nurture the enthusiasm and effort schools put into their gardens.
One of the joys of the garden, says Anne Wales, is that it is always changing and creating new learning opportunities. "We've covered many areas of the curriculum: maths, literacy, the arts, religious and moral education as well as science."
Links with the local community are stronger. Parents have found the garden has made the school a friendlier place. Above all, the children take pride in their grounds and know they have contributed to the project's success.
Anne Wales wonders how they managed before. "It's taught children of all ages and abilities to work together as a team to produce something wonderful," she says. Now they are busy preparing a winter heather garden, gathering seeds and taking cuttings.
Work in the garden never stops.
Mary Cruickshank is a judge of the Greenfingers Challenge
FINALISTS FOR THE UK GREENFINGERS CHALLENGE
Oaklands Primary School, Aberaman, South Wales The after-school club at this valley school has undertaken an ambitious programme of playground improvement, with the help of Groundwork and Learning through Landscape. Funding from the landfill tax scheme was used to put drainage in a barren corner of the playground, now planted with shrubs and annuals for colour and wildlife. A woodland area, willow den, bog garden and orchard are planned. The garden encourages cross-curricular work and computers are used for records and cataloguing.
Mill Lodge Primary School, Shirley, West Midlands The school's rather uninteresting facade has been transformed by a cheerful, colourful garden created by the after-school gardening club and enjoyed by the whole community. It has stimulated work in science and technology, and provides a beautiful setting for children's art work.
St John's Church of England Primary School, Eastbourne A short walk from the school, in a tree-lined hollow far from the main roads, is an allotment site that would test the most persistent gardener.
But in spite of the pigeons, rabbits, squirrels and foxes, the gardening club has turned an overgrown patch into a productive allotment and reaped its first harvest of beans and potatoes this year.
As well as science activities, the plot is used for art work, RE, English and history investigations.
For details of the Greenfingers Challenge contact May Wright, Beautiful Scotland in Bloom, 7 Melville Terrace, Stirling FK8 2ND. Tel 01786 471333