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The power of pocket gardens

A blog post by Anthony McCluskey
Anthony McCluskey
Chair, Garden for Life Forum & Conservation Officer, Butterfly Conservation
Posted 31/05/2019

Gardens are the places where many of us encountered wildlife for the first time as children. It may have been a pond full of frog spawn, a bird’s nest in a tree, or bumblebees on flowers. But for so many of the people I meet through my work, gardens hold special memories as places where they have experienced and enjoyed the natural world.

And this is what we have been trying to do over the past four years, when the Garden for Life Forum has been working with Keep Scotland Beautiful to empower schoolchildren to design and then build their very own pocket gardens at Gardening Scotland. This initiative is called ‘One Planet Picnic Pocket Gardens’, and has been part funded by the Scottish Government.

Each year we run a design competition with a theme, and the children and their teachers submit designs to show how they would like to build a garden which has food for humans and homes for wildlife. Over twenty entries are then selected to come and build their gardens at Gardening Scotland, a yearly show attracting over 30,000 visitors.


We have a network of mentors, myself included, who help the schools to realise their designs. We help with plant choice, sourcing plants, and suggest alternatives which we think would work well. This year I’ve given away some wildflowers I have grown for ‘machair habitat’ gardens, and spoken to several teachers over the phone to help them navigate the world of gardening which is often new to them too.

The ultimate reward is seeing the children actually building their gardens at the show. Over two days they are invited to come to the showground, rubbing shoulders with expert garden designers and landscapers and seeing that their contribution is just as important as any of the professionals.

I’ve been struck by how insightful some of the children are when it comes to wildlife. They don’t have hang-ups about neat lawns and perfect roses; they don’t yet care what the neighbours think. For them it’s all about the wildlife: the minibeasts which they make little homes for; the bees which will feed upon the wildflowers planted just for them; and the larger animals which may nest, hibernate or just seek shelter in a ‘house’ the children built. While some of the designs and ideas are fanciful or impractical, to me the important thing is the motivation. When they go home and start to look around their own gardens they may start to encourage their parents and guardians to leave a bit or long grass, or plant more wildflowers and flowering shrubs.

But it’s a long-term thing, and as any good gardener knows, all good things start with a seed. Not to over-do the metaphor, but I like to think that this collaboration does start something in these children which we can only hope will stay with them as they grow older. We want them to remember that we are just another part of the natural world, and the plants which feed and nourish us can also sustain a whole ecosystem which we need to respect.

If you would like any more information on this initiative or becoming a mentor please email me.

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