The raised vegetable beds behind Farnborough Grange nurseryinfant community school in Hampshire would be the envy of many an allotment holder. Though small, and even allowing for the fact that they were tidied up for public display at the annual PTA summer fair, there is unmistakable evidence of skill, care and devotion.
Each bed, about three metres wide and a metre deep, is shared by two classes. No two are exactly the same but they contain similar arrays of produce, arranged in neat rows: carrots, radishes, tomatoes, potatoes, climbing beans and strawberries are most in evidence. Tinfoil jam tart cases and a few CDs dangle from bamboo canes, glinting as they catch the sun, to deter hungry birds. These beds are by no means the only signals that horticulture is integral to what Farnborough Grange offers its pupils. Each class has its own flower garden, bright with summer colour. A sizeable orchard has been planted in front of the school. There is a greenhouse (donated by a local garden centre), bird tables, bat boxes, a log pile to attract insects, a compost bin, a herb garden, three sensory gardens, a rockery, a pond with tadpoles and a solar-powered fountain.
Outside the office of the headteacher, Maggie Bonfield, is a display of certificates won by the school's green-fingered pupils and staff. And if any further confirmation is needed, there is the carved wooden sign near the entrance: "We care for our grounds."
Mrs Bonfield began the green revolution when she arrived at the school 11 years ago and found that all was not well there. She explains: "This is a little pocket of social deprivation in mainly leafy Hampshire. The community wasn't part of the school at that time. There were bars on the windows and a high level of vandalism. People weren't allowed past the gate. What we had going for us were wonderful children and lots of school grounds, mainly covered with trees and grass. It seemed a good idea to develop the grounds."
The first thing she did was to arrange for the removal of a derelict building at the entrance, covered with unsightly graffiti. During its demolition some butterflies were found hibernating inside. "The children were thrilled to bits and we decided to make a butterfly garden. We took expert advice and put them in a box while the building was being demolished, and the children researched what plants attracted butterflies. In the summer, the butterflies were released and for a while afterwards every time the children saw a butterfly they said it was one of theirs."
Then a member of staff who was leaving donated an apple tree to the school. As an exercise the teachers asked the children to draw their idea of an apple tree, and were shocked when some depicted the apples being produced underground, like potatoes. That convinced Mrs Bonfield and her colleagues that a big effort was needed to make the children more aware of how nature works. They received a grant to plant an apple and pear orchard in front of the school - including the donated tree - and another for a hedge all the way round the grounds, planted by the pupils.
They began creating small gardens outside each classroom, as well as the vegetable plots in the playing field. Every Friday afternoon, weather permitting, the whole school pours out of doors to engage in horticultural projects, seemingly oblivious of the dreadful roar of traffic on the M3 that runs alongside. Sometimes a few parents join them. In the event of rain the children work on garden-related projects in the classroom. There is also a garden club run by Maria Bolland, a learning support assistant. Every day in the lunch break she gathers four or five children from Year 2 and puts them to work on garden chores such as weeding, sowing seeds or picking vegetables. "None of them ever says no," she declares. "They love it."
The teachers try to relate the garden to as many curriculum subjects as they can - maths, science, art, geography and much else. The herb garden, for instance, is part of the maths trail along which children learn about the days of the week, shapes and colours. Among the sage, marjoram and mint the word "Wednesday" stands out incongruously. The school celebrates apple day and organises a "Focus on Food" week, where the produce of the vegetable garden is cooked and eaten. "Gardening at their age is a great way to show care," says Mrs Bonfield. "They sow a seed or plant a plant and then they have to nurture it. It's part of our education for sustainable development, and it's part of their life."
It has also become an important part of her life. When she applied to the Hampshire Gardens Trust for a grant to erect a pergola, the trust told the Royal Horticultural Society what was going on at the school. The RHS sent its education committee on an inspection where each member was paired with a child who ushered them round. They were so impressed that Mrs Bonfield was invited to join the committee, and she is now an active member.
At the PTA summer fair, as the children proudly show visitors the results of their labours, parents sit in the sun and speak admiringly of Mrs Bonfield's achievement in developing gardening. Sharon Grant, whose son is a pupil, says: "It teaches children respect for plants so that when they're out playing they're not going to run through a garden. And it makes them keen to help in the garden at home." Another mother, Lemar Tran, agrees:
"It teaches them about nature and the environment and how things grow. They all enjoy it. I find gardening very therapeutic myself."
Chris Hicks, a school governor, was chair of the governing body when Mrs Bonfield was appointed. "We have a fairly high number of special needs children here," he explains. "When she expressed an interest in using the grounds constructively we thought that it might help them, and so that's what we went for. It's been useful for education and it gives the school a distinctive character - and we've won nearly everything in sight."
School membership of the RHS is free and includes a termly newsletter, a monthly copy of the RHS magazine and concessionary rates for Inset days. Details from Jennie Beaver on 01483 224 234. Website: www.rhs.org.uk