With the long summer holidays over, and the prospect of a productive autumn term ahead, this is a good time to think about gardens and gardening, both in and out of school. There is a great deal of evidence that shows that kids and adults are happier, make better food choices and have improved self-confidence if they can spend some time outdoors in a garden setting.
It can be difficult to find the time to do this in a busy school day. However, there are lots of fun and interesting ways to get kids into gardening.
Projects for home
Autumn is a time when the days are getting shorter, and the weather is less appealing so think about ways that you can get growing and use the space that you have.
Spring flowering bulbs like daffodils and crocuses are best bought from September onwards, when the choice is broadest and the bulbs are still fresh. These are terrific when grown in pots for a balcony or terrace, and with some careful planning, you can have colour from January right through to June. The trick for long-lasting colour is to “layer” the bulbs in the pot. Each type of spring flowering bulb will then push their way to the top of the pot when it’s time for them to bring the fireworks, and you can pack in a surprising number of bulbs into a small space. You can buy kits of different kinds of bulbs, or you can make your own.
Start off with a pot intended for use outside, that has drainage holes in it, and fill the base with expanded clay balls to help keep the drainage holes free of roots and soil. Then you can add a layer of soil or bagged compost, about 10cm, and start planting. The biggest and latest flowering bulbs, such as alliums or tulips, go in on the bottom layer. They need to be at least 10cm from the top, but can be up to 25cm from the top. Cover them over with soil or bagged compost and put in the medium-sized bulbs, like daffodils. Repeat with the smallest bulbs, like crocuses or muscari. I like to tuck some winter-flowering plants like pansies in on the top, for some extra colour before the bulbs start to appear in January or February.
Keep the pot watered over the winter, and you’ll be rewarded with masses of pretty blooms for months. You can try pots with just one colour of plants, or clashing, multi-coloured ones, or even search out some sweet-smelling combinations like the daffodil “Cheerfulness” with the tulip “Prinses Irene.”
Projects for school
School gardens make fantastic outdoor classrooms, not just for learning about growing food, plant development and reproduction but also for topics like ecology and the environment. As we head towards the winter, this is the time to think about what helpful insects you might like to find in your school garden next year. Lacewing and ladybird larvae are voracious consumers of aphids, those common garden pests that can transmit diseases and stunt plant growth.
Ladybird and Lacewing Hotel
If you want these predators to help you control aphids in the garden, then you need to make the garden inviting for them to want to spend the winter there. It’s an easy project to make your own ladybird and lacewing hotel, and there is plenty of interest to see if the hotels are occupied, and discussing why might they prefer one over another – is it in a more sheltered position? Are the bamboo tubes a better size? Is it warmer in one place or another?
Choose a selection of tubes, like bamboo canes, hollow straws and grasses that you think your guests might like. Bind them together with string or pack them tightly together in a flower pot. Find a spot in a warm, sunny place, out of the wind, and either hang up the tubes or tuck them into a space in a wood pile or somewhere safe, so that the tubes are horizontal.
You can even try a very low-tech version of this by cutting the base off a 2l plastic bottle and rolling up some corrugated cardboard to fit inside. Punch two holes towards the bottom of the bottle and push a stick through the holes so that the cardboard can’t fall out. Hang the bottle, with the lid on it, from a tree or near a building. Then watch to see your aphid exterminators move in!
Perhaps an entire class could work together to make a large-scale insect hotel? These can easily be constructed using stacked pallets, or a Swiss railway box pallet. Paper tubes and flower pots are great for bundling materials together. The contents can vary hugely, depending on what insects you would like to attract. Moss, grasses, bark, twigs, slate and small pebbles are all easy to find and inexpensive.
Once the hotel is in place, in a sheltered and warm spot, then the roof needs to go on. Old roofing tiles work well and are easily removed if you want to move or dismantle the hotel. You can even put some wildflowers on the very top in some gritty soil to “green” the roof.
If you’re lucky enough to have your school garden in an area near woodland or lots of gardens, then you can plan space for hedgehogs to overwinter at the base, or put in some stones and moss and rotting logs in the centre to attract overwintering toads.
Gardens to visit in the autumn
There are hundreds of fantastic gardens to visit, all with their own special charm throughout the year.
If you don’t have woodland near you, and would like to enjoy the best of the leaf colour and playing in fallen leaves, then the Ermitage at Arlesheim is a perfect family outing. This is a very romantic and exciting place to visit. The beech woods are a great place to play or collect leaves. The hill is pretty steep, so plan for a climb to get to the top. Then enjoy the wonderful views and “follies” like the caves and the wood cabin.
FIFA Garden in Zurich
Near Zurich there is a remarkable garden which surrounds the headquarters of FIFA. It’s right next to the Zoo, so you can add a visit to the FIFA garden to a visit to the Zoo. The garden is structured to represent all the continents where football is played. There are characteristic plants from each of these regions. There are a large number of ornamental grasses in this garden, and they are at their best in the autumn. The garden surrounds the offices, but is fully accessible to the public. Pop in and take a trip around the world.
Alpine Garden at the Schynige Platte
The extraordinary alpine garden at the Schynige Platte is worth a visit at any time of year, but the access cog railway is a little less busy in the autumn. You’ll find there are still lots of plants flowering once you arrive. Parts of the garden are quite steep and require good footwear. However, some of it is also accessible with strollers or wheelchairs. All of it is well signposted, the plants are well labelled and the team that run the garden are hugely knowledgeable and very enthusiastic. Entrance to the garden is free with the cog railway ticket. Go while you can, as the garden and the railway usually close at the end of October.
All the botanical gardens in Switzerland are free to visit. You can expect to find lots of family-friendly activities in the autumn. Bulb planting, making a modern herbal, observing bees, following in the footsteps of giants. You’ll find all this and more at your local botanic garden.
Check out www.botanica-suisse.org for a full list of gardens.
Hester Macdonald is a garden designer, journalist and the founder of the Swiss Gardening School. Her new book “Gardens Switzerland” was published by Bergli Books in 2019. It’s the first trilingual guide to gardens across Switzerland.