Urban Gardener: Child's play

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The Independent Online

I don't want to have to admit this. In fact I've spent a lot of time questioning the wisdom of owning up to something quite so disgusting, especially to an audience that is, I hope, very much concerned for the welfare of the planet. However, I need to get it off my chest. So here it is: I killed insects and other invertebrates as a small boy. My mother did her best to curb such habits. "That's cruel!" she shouted one day, seeing me stamp on a slug. I can only imagine her despair a minute later when I gleefully displayed a hideous gloop on the soles of my shoes and proudly proclaimed that I'd just squashed three of Cruel's brothers.

Some of you will be disappointed to hear a confirmed animal lover and vegetarian admit to such a thing, but I bet there are just as many thinking: "What's the big deal? After all, boys will be boys." Yes but, in light of our concern for the environment, using that clich as an excuse for splicing worms and doing unspeakable things with a magnifying glass seems just a little too lenient and today, in our family at least, monstrous acts like these just wouldn't be tolerated.

Fortunately, cruelty to creepy-crawlies may soon become a thing of the past as more and more schools create gardens and wildlife habitats, teaching kids a healthy respect for living things from an early age. I've seen the proof myself at the Clore Learning Centre at Wisley, where I helped develop a teaching garden. Recently I've had the opportunity to be involved in the Habitats for Wildlife Competition, sponsored by Thompson Habitats, which aims to help a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) develop its own space. The competition was organised to encourage and reward schools for improving the environment for wildlife within their school grounds and for raising awareness among pupils of ecological and sustainability issues. It was inspired by a director of the company who feels that such children deserve the chance to work on something that is usually offered only to mainstream schools.

The prize (500) would help the winner implement their plans, but choosing the best entry was difficult. Staff from one of the PRU entrants, Sycamore Centre Garden, had already embarked on a project of their own, in 2006. They said they had been apprehensive about how their groups would take to the task, but were pleased to see the pupils enjoying the experience, the biggest problem being regularly losing the workforce as children were reintegrated into new schools.

"After an initial desire to kill every worm, beetle or earwig was dispelled, the pupils were soon in awe of finding newts, toads and even watching the friendly robin who came to feed on the newly turned soil," explained science teacher Charlie Laing. "It soon dawned on me that the pupils had very limited experiences of gardens, of soil and the wildlife found in them." Helping to develop their own garden benefited the pupils as much as the local flora and fauna, giving them experience of design, horticulture and science plus teamwork.

At the Fordway Centre in Ashford, Middlesex, Mole Group wanted a better home for the frogs that frequent a shrub area. But the winning entry came from 12-year-old Ellie Foster at St Peter's Teaching Centre in Chertsey, who did valuable research at RHS Wisley before committing her design to paper. A pond, rough grass, hedging, piles of bark and stones will provide potential homes for a wide range of wildlife, while bird-feeders, and nectar-rich flowers such as roses and lavender will keep visitors well fed. Heartening stuff and, for me, all the more reason to continue relocating slugs on my own plot for, while others might find this laughable, it's the only way to atone for my boyhood abominations.

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