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Unlocking the secrets of a school wildlife garden

Notley Green Primary School recently won the School category of our Wild About Gardens 2015 competition, by building an incredible hedgehog home. Here Kate Curtis, Forest School Instructor, talks about their wonderful wildlife garden...

“And the secret garden bloomed and bloomed and every morning revealed new miracles.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

The beginning of a wildlife garden

At our school we had a neglected corner of the grounds that in a former life had been planted up with trees, vegetables and flowers but was now very overgrown and unused.  An array of ruby red and gold tulips pushing through the scrub had surprised us last Spring and given us a glimpse of the garden’s former glory.

This sowed the seed to restore the garden and create an outdoor classroom for the school. Last April, after some fundraising from our School Council and match funding from our PTA (Parent Teacher Association) we were able to bring in Essex Wildlife Trust for a couple of days to help us plan and develop our garden. Parents, staff and children worked together to clear and dig the beds and build a bug hotel, stag beetle pyramid and bird houses.

The garden is now used every day for Forest School sessions, for nature club activities and outdoor learning. There is a lovely energy here, the garden has reawakened. We have also noticed that lots of wildlife is moving back in. We have a little robin that visits and sings to us every day just like the robin that features in ‘The Secret Garden’ book. A hedgehog recently wandered through, much to the excitement of our children, many of whom had not seen a live one before. Minibeasts have moved into the bug hotel and birds congregate at our bird food café and bird bath.

Upcycling for wildlife!

We have tried to be inventive and imaginative with our garden design, upcycling wherever possible. I also like to browse the internet and in charity shops and scrap stores for inspiration and ideas and for items that can be converted into a new feature or habitat in the wildlife garden. Old picture frames, mirrors and cds dangle from string so children can frame their favourite bit of the garden or look up at the sky or tree canopies. Old pipes and plastic sheeting we found when tidying up, together with plant prunings formed new hedgehog homes. Dustbin lids became bird baths and little ponds, with donated items like flower pots and pebbles adding the finishing touches to amphibian habitats.

We have a bird hide made from an old sheet tied to a branch. It has slits cut out of it for viewing birds with binoculars.  Slates and blackboards I have picked up for pennies have become interpretation boards and pallets now covered in blackboard paint have new lives as wildlife sightings boards and as a menu board for our popular mud kitchen! The Great British Bake Off has nothing on us - all sorts of weird and wonderful concoctions have been created here! An old sink and unwanted telephone table became the ‘cooker’ and wash up area! Children are just a bit disappointed the taps don’t work!

The wonder of nature

I also keep an eye out for competitions that the school can enter. We have won some wonderful wildlife garden goodies by entering photos of habitats we have created. It’s a win win thing to do whether you win the competition or not - children are inspired and enthused, the garden and school’s profiles are raised, wildlife benefit from our creations.  Fantastic schemes like The Woodland Trust’s Trees for Schools means we have been able to plant up new hedgerows for free.

Nature needs no help in creating a sense of awe and wonder throughout the seasons but I can’t resist adding a little bit of magic too. A bamboo butterfly curtain at the entrance to the garden means children have to pause before they enter.  There is an air of excitement and anticipation as they walk through the curtain and see the garden before them – a bit like walking through the wardrobe into Narnia!  Little fairy doors in tree trunks, wooden gnomes and spinning bug shaped windmills add a splash of colour and fun and spark imaginations.

“Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

Children have a sense of guardianship for the garden.  Many children offer to weed or water or mentor younger year groups thus keep connected to their wild space. Children love the thought that the saplings and  seeds that they have planted will blossom and grow just like them and be there in their wildlife garden even when they have moved on to high school.

And as for me – I feel blessed to do what I do. I’ll quote Dickon from The Secret Garden ‘I’ll come every day if tha’ wants me, rain or shine. It’s th’ best fun I ever had in my life. ’wakening’ up a garden. ‘


Kate Curtis is the Forest School Instructor at Notley Green Primary School, Braintree, Essex