If you walk along the busy Bowbridge Road in Newark, Nottinghamshire, ignoring for a moment the industrial estate and grey skies, you could imagine yourself in the south of France. A magnificent wall of sunflowers suddenly fills the view and lifts the spirits of everyone who passes. Sunflowers have long been a staple of primary school gardens, but these are stunning - taller, wider, and more brilliantly multi-headed than any the children at Oliver Quibell infant school, just across the road, have ever seen.
And they should know. Last March, the 145 children, teachers and support staff each planted and labelled a seedling to mark the perimeter fence of their new allotment garden. Since then, the sunflowers have grown to fairytale dimensions, the children shelter from the rain under the lower leaves, and the allotment has been transformed from a weed-infested plot into a flourishing organic garden bursting with flowers, fruit and vegetables. It has also rooted itself firmly in the east Midlands school's curriculum and provided a lifeline for a community badly hit by unemployment.
Last week, Oliver Quibell won the national schools gardening competition, the Greenfingers Challenge, and a cheque for pound;1,000 at the Britain in Bloom awards in Durham. But, for the children, the real rewards have been the daily harvests of beans and tomatoes, the enormous pumpkins and marrows, the courgettes, sweetcorn and potatoes they take home for tea. And the school has reaped many more benefits - the garden has strengthened links with parents, motivated children and provided an outdoor classroom that is used every day in science, geography, technology, art and RE.
The first seeds of the Oliver Quibell environmental arts project were sown by deputy head Gill Curtis, who wanted an outdoor teaching resource that was "always there and easy to get to". Newark town council offered a rent-free allotment a few hundred yards from the school two years ago, but it wasn't until New Perspectives, a community arts group, provided vital funding of about pound;8,000 in February this year that the project took off. Soon Oliver Quibell had its first artists-in-residence - poet Andy Croft and Newark artist Gerry Price, who designed the garden and is managing the project until next summer.
A trained artist with an MA in fine art, Gerry Price likes working in gardens because they're spaces everyone uses. "People who may never set foot in an art gallery feel comfortable in a garden, where they can engage with the same ideas." A garden, she believes, is also a metaphor for showing children how they can change their lives.
There are many living in Hawtonville, the estate the school serves, who would like to change their lives. Long-term unemployment has brought social disaffection and crime. This is where teenage housebreaker Fred Barras, excluded from formal education at the age of 13, spent his short life of petty crime before being shot dead by Norfolk farmer Tony Martin in August 1999.
The tragedy shook the community, says headteacher Rosemary Connole, who believes schools have a crucial role in breaking the cycle of unemployment, poverty and crime. The Oliver Quibell environmental arts project is about giving children confidence and skills to take an active role as citizens. Working together in the garden, understanding how plants grow and where their food comes from, and achieving such tangible success, all help children develop "a true feeling of self worth".
The staff were determined the project shouldn't be run on a shoestring or become a further financial burden on families already finding it difficult to make ends meet. (Almost one in two of the children at Oliver Quibell receives free school meals.) Six local companies were asked for sponsorship and all agreed - donating a shed, seeds, plants and money for the spiral gravel pathways that wind through the cottage garden planting; each path ending in a wigwam of tangled beans, sweet peas and morning glory. (This inspired design not only looks wonderful, but gives easy access to the beds, so reducing the risk of muddy feet.) More help in kind has come from families and friends of the school and other allotment tenants, delighted with their new neighbours and impressed by their organic methods. Parents and children maintained the garden throughout the summer holiday and much of the success of this autumn's harvest is due to their work. Gerry Price has also run weekend and after-school clubs to give parents further opportunities to become involved.
All this has reinforced the school's work with Share, the project for promoting joint activities between children and parents. Parents and carers at Oliver Quibell are encouraged to stay for 10 minutes at the start of each day to help their children with handwriting. But some find this difficult, so the garden has offered another way into school for parents who feel more confident sharing their skills in practical activities.
Like most allotment sites, the one in Bowbridge Road attracts vandalism. Nothing valuable is left in the shed and all tools have to be wheeled over from the school. When two apple trees were stolen the children were outraged, but the incident was turned into a valuable learning experience as they talked and wrote about what it felt like to be a victim. One of the results, a fearsome poem entitled "Apple-tree Thieves Beware!", written with the help of Andy Croft, will be inscribed on the shed to ward off further intruders.
The garden also channels the energies of lively and potentially disruptive children. "Give them a trowel and they're marvellous," says Rosemary Connole. With the literacy and numeracy strategies now filling the mornings with structured, whole-class work, it's even more important to have some hands-on, physical activity in the afternoons.
The two semi-finalists in the Greenfingers Challenge, Cowick first school in Exeter and Moorings Way infants' school in Southsea near Portsmouth, are equally enthusiastic about the ways community gardens transform school life.
Cowick's garden is an object lesson in education for sustainable development - lovingly created out of a former car park and overgrown orchard for the past 14 years. Each new intake of pupils has made its own contribution and left something worthwhile for those who have followed. Started by former head Zoe Evans, this beautiful space in the heart of the city is full of opportunities for discovery and learning.
There is a wildlife garden and woodland, with bird hide, pond and log piles; and a wildflower meadow and miniature Devon bank planted with native species. The kitchen garden supplies ingredients for food technology, and when the lettuces bolt they're fed to the hens and guinea pigs. Other areas offer scope for imaginative play - among the gnarled branches of the old apple trees, or the willow dome and tunnel overgrown with clematis and passionflowers. The "Celtic mound" is the scene for Anglo-Saxon role-play sessions.
Headteacher Catherine Gibson believes children learn best when they are given real experiences. "With all the new initiatives and pressure on children to achieve ever higher standards in English, maths and science, it's even more important for schools to restore the balance in childhood," she says. "The national curriculum is only a framework - it needs to be enriched."
Cowick's motto is, appropriately, "a place in which to grow". The children are educated in an environment that encourages them to question and take responsibility for themselves. Decisions about the school grounds are put to the school council and eco-committee, and the children take home their interest, badgering their parents to save energy or recycle waste.
The Greenfingers Challenge, organised by the Royal Horticultural Society and the Tidy Britain Group and sponsored by Legal and General, is open to all groups of young people under the age of 18 who develop a local site. Now in its third year, it has generated some remarkable environmental projects which demonstrate not only that gardens are powerful tools for learning, but also underpin the social ethos of a school.
Coleraine girls' secondary school in Northern Ireland, winner in 1998, converted the courtyard of a day centre for the blind into a sensory garden full of aromatic plants, chime bells and a fountain. Glenluce primary in Dumfries, last year's winner, also made a garden enjoyed by the whole community.
Other schools have used their gardens to form links with the past. The gardening club at Southover primary school in Lewes, East Sussex, restored a herb garden on the site of a Norman priory, while Moorings Way infants school, Southsea, Hampshire, which is built on reclaimed land, is developing imaginative marine features to reflect the area's nautical history. All these schools are "places to grow" with visionary teachers who believe in education for a sustainable future. Or, as they say at Cowick:
"We all need space to plant a lettuce and cuddle a guinea pig."
For details of the 2001 Greenfingers Challenge, call the freephone hotline on: 0800 783 7838.Mary Cruickshank is curriculum editor of The TES. She is a judge of the Greenfingers Challenge and a member of the Royal Horticultural Society education committee