The award winning St Winifred’s Primary School garden in Heaton Mersey

PUBLISHED: 00:09 07 October 2013

Olivia and Rory bring a splash of sunshine

Olivia and Rory bring a splash of sunshine


We visit the winner of the schools’ category of last year’s Cheshire Life Garden of the Year competition


Do you recall those adverts from the 1990s, ‘Everyone remembers a good teacher’? Well, today it can be equally true that everyone remembers a good classroom assistant.

And Julie Willoughby at St Winifred’s Primary School in Heaton Mersey is certainly someone who has set out to make an impact on her pupils’ lives.

There’s a calm and purposeful atmosphere as you walk down the corridors: learning here is a serious business. But it’s an urban school on a main road close to Stockport. While the planners were generous with outdoor play space, they also seemed to be over keen on covering it with concrete. Julie’s mission has been to put a little bit of green back.

She’s a keen gardener herself and has brought her enthusiasm to the school. ‘Sheer mud’ is her favourite phrase as she describes the former state of the gardens she has helped to transform with her pupils. ‘Look at this picture of the grounds before we started – sheer mud!’ Since then she has woven wonders.

As the idea of developing green spaces took hold, parents and grandparents came on board, donating plants and the funding for a garden seating area. Unexpectedly Melvyn Taylor, a retired decorator who lives 20 miles away in Saddleworth appeared. He has a grandson at the school who he drives over to support twice a week….there was free time when Luca was in school and Melvyn is a keen allotment holder…you can guess the rest.

Together Julie and Melvyn are a powerful force. They have created a children’s allotment where every year group has its own raised bed. The contribution to learning is obvious from the clear labelling of species to promote literacy, to the weighing, packaging and pricing of their produce which is sold to parents. They’re learning to understand rotational planting, the science of plant growth and development and it’s easy to slip some ideas about good nutrition into the discussions.

The school even has compost monitors! Julie packs all the tubs into her car every holiday to maintain them at home and, when the children return to school, something magical has happened.

There’s also colour. Borders are being developed to brighten the greyness. Tubs of bulbs and annuals are planted (children need quick results) but perenniels are being established for the long term. The first cherries have appeared on their tree this year and apples and pears are now established. There’s a conservation element too with hedgehog boxes, bird feeders and nesting boxes.

But most magical is a sense of wonder. Something quite simple as digging up a first carrot or potato (of course all good teachers will furtle underground first to make sure that there’s something there). And many pupils have gone home and asked their parents to let them establish growing spaces in their home gardens so the good work inspires a future.

The school won the Cheshire Life School Garden of the Year prize last year. Bents Garden Centre gave a thousand pound prize and the school has valued every penny, spending it on the basics that many of us take for granted: fencing, compost, perennials, trees. Luxuries that would be otherwise impossible with today’s budgets.

Claude Monet said that he owed having become a painter to flowers. The great American journalist Hodding Carter wrote that ‘there are two lasting bequests that we can give to our children: one is roots. The other is wings.’ It seems to me that St Winifred’s is doing both.

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