Echo Earth Care

Project 2: Secret Garden

My local primary school was looking to reinvigorate their "Secret Garden" as it had become overgrown and was lacking colour and interest. I worked with the Head Teacher, a fellow parent and wildlife enthusiast Claire Taylor, the school Eco Council and the Primary 6 and Primary 7 school children to develop a Permaculture design for the garden, along with a long term plan for future Primary 7 pupils to be able to contribute something new to the garden each year as a parting gift to the school.

The Brief

Design a garden space that will be both an outdoor classroom for nature study and provide the children with a quiet place within the school grounds. The garden should be relatively low maintenance.

Up until this project it was only P7 pupils who used this area during breaktimes. Going forward P7s would still have exclusive unsupervised access at breaktimes, but other students would use the garden as an outdoor classroom under supervision.

Budget and timescale

The school was keen to enhance the garden by recycling old items, such as pallets, sinks, old plant pots etc, to minimise the energy and carbon footprint of this project. This would also deliver significant cost savings. The implementation of this project is intended to be over several years, as each class tackles specific projects, e.g. researching and making a container pond, researching and planting appropriate vegetation to attract wildlife.

The school did not have a specific budget allocated for this project as they wanted to recycle as much as possible, however they would fund the purchasing of plants as necessary. My time for the design and planting was given freely as a volunteer and mother of one of the pupils.

Permaculture Ethics

The Head Teacher was very excited to learn about the three Permaculture Ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share, and stressed the importance of these ethics to the children as part of the project.

This project encompasses all three of the key Permaculture ethics in that Earth Care would be addressed by striving to maximise biodiversity and habitat in the garden, and minimising resources by reusing and recycling as much as possible. People Care would be improved by providing an educational and restorative environment for the students. The school is also intending to improve the fair sharing of this garden as the garden will be opened up to all pupils, and not exclusively to P7s as it is currently.

Permaculture Principles

In terms of Permaculture Principles, the key focus for this design was to maximise diversity, edge and yield which, in this case, is the frequency of interactions between the children and the ecosystem around them, exposing them to as much wildlife as possible. Diversity and edge are being maximised by incorporating a rockery, with a variety of plants and habitats, along with a mixed border. Both of these new elements will provide interest at different times of the year from the existing plants.

The design process of SADIMET has been followed, very much designing from pattern to the detail, with Pinterest providing an ideal platform for storing ideas.

Use and value diversity

This project gave me an unexpected opportunity to work with a local artist who brought fantastic diversity to the design process itself. This led to much more creative, fun and people care focused design than might otherwise have resulted.

Permaculture Ethics and Design Principles
permacultureprinciples.com – Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 2.5 AU

The Process

The design process of SADIMET has been followed, although there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing between survey and analysis before finally agreeing a design with the school, so more like SASADIMET! I designed from pattern to the detail, identifying the broader areas of the garden before designing more detailed planting plans. I used the internet and created a School garden board using Pinterest to research and store potential ideas for interesting school gardens.

Survey

Brief description of existing garden

North Queensferry Primary School is located in North Queensferry, Fife, 56°N 3°W, elevation 45m. The Secret Garden is located at the front of the school and is South East Facing. It is mainly laid to lawn, with a steep embankment around 1.5m high all around the school building. The garden is edged with privet hedge on the South and East perimeters, with railings at the north and West , and the school building itself running diagonally from the North West corner to the South West corner.

Tall trees had recently been chopped down as they were interfering with overhead cables, leaving various tree stumps. A previous pond had been filled in due to safety concerns, but the wetland plants remained. There were two bird nesting boxes and a large dilapidated “bug hotel” to encourage wildlife. Elsewhere in the school grounds is a kitchen garden where vegetables and wild flowers are grown.

The secret garden is shown in green in the South East Corner of the school grounds. Below is a base map of the secret garden with the school building to the West.

Map of North Queensferry Primary School
Map downloaded from Google Maps, annotated by Carole Egner
North Queensferry Primary School Secret Garden Base Map
North Queensferry Primary School Secret Garden Base Map

Observations

A series of observations were made of the garden over the course of six months, between February and July 2015, including measurements, photos and survey of flora which was limited to silver birch trees, a Scots pine, two apple trees, a few shrubs and daffodils, brambles and a lot of perennial weeds. This data was used to make a base map of the garden.

The students performed baseline surveys of soil, air and hedgerows using citizen science OPAL resources.

A survey of the end users of the garden was obtained by observing the children using the garden along with discussions with what the children would like to have in the garden.

Sectors

  • Roads run along the East and South perimeter, generating noise and exhaust fumes, although protected somewhat by privet hedge.
  • The train line runs to the East of the school generating noise.
  • Prevailing wind is from the West, although the high hedges protect the garden from most of the wind.
  • Overhead cables limit size of any trees to be planted.
  • Other children playing in rest of the school grounds generate noise.
  • There is a steep embankment all around school building.

OPAL: Open Air Laboratory

The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) network is a UK-wide citizen science initiative run by Imperial College London. They develop activities and resources, including national surveys, to enable people of all backgrounds to get closer to their local environment. The students used the OPAL citizen science resources to perform baseline surveys of soil, air and hedgerows.

OPAL pond sample

Analysis

I analysed my notes from the discussions I had with the children to identify the most common words and their frequency. From this data I made a word cloud to visually represent what the children wanted the garden to be, and identified the key functions and potential elements that would deliver these wishes. I then performed a SWOC analysis to identify the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Constraints of the garden.

A list of Functions required in the upgraded garden was identified, along with a list of potential elements that could be included.

Word cloud
NQPS Secret Garden word cloud

Functions

  • Opportunity to study wildlife and participate in citizen science projects
  • Shelter from elements
  • Quiet space
  • Space for performances
  • Social space
  • Beauty

Possible elements

  • Wildlife friendly vegetation
  • Hedging
  • Container pond*
  • Arbour/shelter
  • Benching for performances
  • Tree stump chess board
  • Bird feeders*
  • Hedgehog bottle planters*
  • Bug hotel bench*
  • Butterfly feeder*
  • Bird bath*
  • Meditation zone/sitspots
  • Meditation stones*

* Projects for kids to research and make

SWOC Analysis

An analysis was performed to identify the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Constraints (SWOC) of the garden.

Strengths

  • Site of previous pond contains wetland plants and habitat, with plentiful vegetation in late spring.
  • The embankment with stone bench provides a natural seating area, with a natural stage area in front for outdoor performances.
  • The evergreen privet hedge to the south and east provides privacy and protection from wind, noise and street pollution all year round.
  • A large part of the garden is south facing.
  • The nearby kitchen garden contains a large number of pollinator-friendly plants, providing more habitat to encourage more wildlife into the secret garden.

Weaknesses

  • There is very little plant life in late autumn and winter, and very little plant diversity, providing little habitat or food for wildlife in winter.
  • The bird boxes are sited in unsuitable locations
  • There is a real lack of flower and colour in the garden, with vegetation predominantly being green. Only daffodils and wetland plants provide a splash of yellow.
  • There are several tree stumps located in the garden, some of which are showing signs of regrowth.
  • The old bug hotel is now empty and dilapidated.
  • The wetland area is becoming overgrown with vigorous weeds, such as brambles, cleavers etc.

Opportunities

  • The kitchen garden area of the school has excess plants, many of which can be divided to provide instant improvement diversity of habitat and colour.
  • There are numerous old pallets available at the North Queensferry community walled garden that can be used to build structures where necessary.
  • There are several gutters in ideal positions to feed water butts for watering potential flower beds.
  • The children have completed baseline wildlife surveys of soil, air and hedgerows of the existing garden and should therefore be able to demonstrate a real improvement in wildlife as the diversity of habitat and food increases.

Constraints

  • Access must be kept to all walls, railings, hedges and boiler room door for future maintenance.
  • Overhead cables limit the height of plants that can be included in the garden.
  • Wheelchair access is required.
  • The garden needs to be low maintenance.
  • Budget and resources for implementation are limited.

Survey Part 2

Creative input from the children

A scale map of the garden was prepared and given to the children, along with scale models of elements that they might want to see in the garden. Following this the children then made models of their own. The models were highly imaginative and creative and it was important to capture the essence of these limitless models and translate them into something achievable. Photos of the models were taken and common themes identified for inclusion in the garden design.

Photos of the models were taken and common themes identified for inclusion in the garden design.

Analysis Part 2

Common themes: wildlife, plants, water feature, somewhere to sit and socialise
Common themes identified from 3D models

Proposed Design

Secret Garden Proposed Design

Structures

  • Make archway from pallets at gate and cover with climbing plants to make more of an entrance (ensure gate opens!)
  • Create seated archway from pallets to West of meter cabinet and cover with climbing plants.This will create an entrance to the quiet, reflective area of the garden, whilst providing a sheltered area to socialise.If the seats are made from pallets then these could be filled in underneath to provide bug hotel habitat.
  • Make a bug hotel bench to be placed at the North East corner of the garden to provide additional seating overlooking the wetland and performance areas, whilst also providing mini beast habitat.

Wetland area

  • Create more diverse habitats by including micro ponds, logs and rocks.
  • Remove the perennial weeds
  • Relocate the bird boxes to more suitable location (to be advised by Claire Taylor)

Wildflower meadow

  • Create a wildflower meadow between the wetland area and the meter cabinet by stopping mowing and seeing what grows.Yellow Rattle can also be sown to discourage grass growth if need be.This area currently contains some tree stumps and tree roots at ground level and will be difficult mow anyway.

Water management

  • Install two water butts at the base of existing gutters to collect and store water to facilitate watering of new flower beds, ponds and wetland areas.

Sit spot/reflective corner

  • Plant a self sowing biennial border along north edge (e.g. Higgledy seeds biennial collection) to give habitat and colour in spring and early summer.
  • Create a container pond to increase diversity and provide focus for meditation/contemplation.
  • The borders should include some evergreens, including lavender (calming) and rosemary (memory), to provide habitat and colour in winter, and citronella to prevent insects from interrupting meditations.
  • The existing tree stump is showing signs of vigorous regrowth.This could be encouraged to continue growing to provide habitat for birds, or the tree stump could be partially drilled out to provide a bird bath.

Perennial borders

  • Create evergreen border at the Western border of the garden to provide a wind break and privacy from the rest of the playground for the sit spot (ensuring access to the railings for maintenance).
  • Create perennial borders at the North East garden to provide colour, interest, habitat throughout the year for both users of the garden and all users of the playground as they enter the school gates and main school door.
  • These borders can be created largely by taking cuttings from existing perennial plants that can be found in the kitchen garden and remaining school grounds.
  • The borders should include some evergreens, including lavender (calming) and rosemary (memory), to provide habitat and colour in winter.

Implementation

The design was presented to the Eco-council in June 2016 along with an initial implementation plan. The Eco-council were very excited to approve the design and the plan. However, in reality things took a lot longer to implement due to changes in staff at the school.

June 2016 The wildflower meadow area was created by taping it off and adding instructions not to cut the grass in that area. This part of the garden is also where some trees had been removed and the children spontaneously used the stumps for playing jumping games.

In December 2016 the evergreens gardens were created. Whilst digging over the area at the NE corner of the garden I came across several large boulders. It was therefore time to apply a few more Permaculture principles - Creatively use and respond to change, Produce no Waste and Use Edges.

I worked with the children to create a rockery in this section of the garden, planted with evergreens that flower largely in winter time. This provides interest for the children and habitat for wildlife. Similarly, an evergreen border was created at the Western edge of the garden for colour and to screen off the garden from the rest of the playground. This included some cuttings from elsewhere in the school garden, from pupils gardens and some bought from the local garden centre.

Evergreens brought from garden centre
Evergreens brought from garden centre

Maintain

A maintenance plan was agreed with the school, including:

  • Performing OPAL citizen science surveys of soil, air and hedgerows every 5 years to evaluate the impact of the changes being made.
  • A list of future projects to be researched and implemented by each P7 class as their gift to the school, such as the creation of mini ponds and addition of logs and rocks to wetland area, bird feeders, meditation stones,etc
  • Regular removal of perennial weeds throughout the garden.
  • Fabrication of a seated archway and other seated areas (a job for the parents)
  • Installation of water butts
  • Put on a play in the "stage" area (see notes under evaluation)

Evaluate and tweak

The wildflower meadow, rockery and evergreen borders have been highly successful in providing year round interest and habitat for the children and wildlife. Future OPAL surveys should be able to quantitatively demonstrate these improvements.

It was always part of the design that the implementation of the ideas generated in this design would be fluid and would be carried out by successive generations of children, such that every child leaves a gift for the remaining children at the school. It is intended that the children will continue to implement the ideas in this design, and repeat their soil, air and hedgerow surveys every 5 years to assess if there has been any change.

Unfortunately the school has been subject to significant staff turnover and all of the staff who were previously involved have left the school. The current head teacher is shared with one other primary school and has neither the time nor inclination to pursue the further development of the Secret Garden. In addition, as I have now moved to a different town and my son attends a different school I no longer have the time nor motivation to push this project further.

Reflection

My biggest technical challenge in this project was in taking sufficient measurements to be able to draw the basemap. The school building itself is a very awkward shape and it took repeated visits to the school to get enough measurements to draw the map. However, this was a great learning experience as every map I have drawn since has been much easier! I have also found that downloading maps from Google Maps and council websites was extremely useful in getting a reasonably accurate outline in which I could then fill in detail.

Observing and Interacting proved highly beneficial in this project. Monitoring the garden over a period of six months was invaluable as the garden changed so much, going from very bare to overgrown in a very short space of time. Observing the children interacting with the garden prompted me to change some of the original design as I saw them using tree stumps in ways I could never have imagined!

This project was my first time working with a large number of children which was exciting and challenging. I learned very quickly never to ask a hypothetical question, and also to give short, very focused tasks when asking children to work on a project. This has come in useful when I've been involved in my sons new school... although I think I will largely leave working with children to the professionals in future!

Part-way through this project I had the opportunity to collaborate with an artist who had been brought into the school by the Head Teacher to work on various projects. Having already had my design agreed by the eco-council I was initially resistant to the idea of someone else coming in to change things as I saw it as undoing my work, which I had spent considerable time and effort on. However, this became an opportunity for me to learn to self-regulate and accept feedback. Working together with Debbie turned out to be highly inspirational as she brought a completely fresh perspective of how the garden could be used more creatively, and brought People Care and Fair Share to the fore.

Debbie envisioned working with the children to create a children's story set in the Secret Garden, incorporating permaculture ethics. Together we then had the idea that the children would use promenade theatre to perform the story in the garden itself, including costumes that they would make. The garden would also be used as an outdoor gallery to exhibit sculptures made by the children. Access to the garden would require a special Passport, and adherence to a respectful behaviour code that the children would write themselves, but based on the three Permaculture Ethics of Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Unfortunately the school were not able to secure funding for any of these great ideas to be implemented, and the Head Teacher moved to another school.

On a personal level this experience has made me not only more open to working with others from different backgrounds, but I would now actively seek out more creative people to collaborate with and bring a more holistic, creative, artful dimension to projects that I work on.

I recently returned to the school to see how the secret garden has evolved was deeply saddened to find that not only had nothing been implemented since my departure, but the rockery had actually been removed. There have been three different head teachers in only 3 years, and the school intake is continuously decreasing with the resultant reduction in classes and teachers. Whilst I really enjoyed volunteering at my child's school and contributing to my local community, this (and sheer lack of time since taking over the small holding) has made me more reluctant to become as involved in my child's new school other than for one off events.