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Thrive Outdoors Blog Series: ‘Our wee garden’


Blog 2

Read on as we share Blog 2 in our blog series on bringing Outdoor ELC to the Botanics in Edinburgh. This week’s blog contributor is Cath Ashby part of the learning team at the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh.

Hi I am Cath Ashby and I have worked at the Botanics for 23 years first as a horticulturist and for the past 16 in the Learning Team working with schools pupils of all ages.

During this time, I have seen the challenges and pleasures of sparking wonder about plants in children who often arrive thinking that a garden is boring and instead wishing they were visiting the cuddly (or not so cuddly) animals in the Zoo. ‘Plant blindness’ is an often talked-about phenomenon in research circles and basically humans are more wired to notice moving things with faces like ourselves (our survival as a species depended on it).

But research also shows that green spaces are beneficial to our health and wellbeing, we just need to slow down enough to notice and connect! If we, as outdoor educators, manage to encourage this, the magic of plants and nature does the rest and children often leave saying being in the garden has been the best thing they’ve ever experienced.

Our Wee Space

Our outdoor nursery space started as a meadow and photos from May show a wild untouched area where native plants flourished alongside remnants of past curators’ gardens when the visitor welcome East Gate Lodge was a home. It has some mature fruit trees and also some gorgeous specimen trees like the paperbark maple (Acer griseum) and the candyfloss tree (Cercidophyllum japonicum) which is named after its heart-shaped leaves that smell of burnt sugar in autumn when they turn from bronze to yellow to orange and pink.


We chose the name ‘Our wee garden’ as it gives a sense of ownership to the children and I almost imagine the larger garden encircling and protecting and nurturing the smaller space and the growth of the children within. This space has a different feel and different rules and is theirs to really explore and love, then over time this love can hopefully spill out as they explore the garden and the natural world outside our gates.

Let’s take a look at the transformation that our education, horticulture and maintenance team have been part of.

First the shoulder high grass was strimmed and cut with a mulch mower that can cope with more uneven ground and longer grass. This was the first time we could see the bare bones of the site. It is quite enclosed and sheltered with a steep bank on the west side and a tall stone wall with climbers on the east.


After the mow we were surprised by the large number of frogs of every size – so many that we could hardly walk for fear of stepping on the tiny froglets. A black and white cat is a regular visitor from the wall shared with the houses, badgers and foxes pass through and the peaceful mornings are full of birdsong.

Key learnings

The Gardens team have learned loads about this space and what it would take to be ‘play friendly’ and we will keep on learning.

We did a survey of plants present noting any sensory plants and toxic species, such as the yew, or other health and safety issues. One common meadow plant grows on site – the native smaller hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium) which shares the properties of the non-native giant hogweed for inducing potential skin blistering and rashes when sap on the skin reacts with sunlight. We regularly scan the site to dig out the plants, but strong branching roots mean this will keep popping up.

Rushes growing meant that there would be wet areas and as time has gone on, after a very dry summer, we now find ourselves finding creative solutions to deal with boggy areas. This pilot gives us a chance to see how a new site that isn’t under tree canopy copes with lots of tiny feet through the winter in increasingly wetter weather due to climate change. The site will continue to evolve.

We have a shed and a pop-up toilet, handwashing stations and fluid activity areas that encourage independent play and exploration.

Using nature’s materials!

Whenever our arboriculture team have been cutting down diseased trees we have been given some wonderful large logs and tree rounds. Many of this team have young children and have helped us by saving treasures and imagining how their children would love to play on them and with them. Of course, they are living the dream career for children who love climbing trees!

We have giant bamboo from the glasshouses, big pebbles and have been scouring areas for anything that is being thrown out or recycled around the organisation like office inbox trays, old slide boxes, offcuts of wood and old metal buckets.

Caroline, our wonderful creative early years practitioner has eagle eyes!

She has also made some fabulous decorative items, like a weather board and a welcome archway entrance hung with willow wreathes and leaf bundles made by the children.

We really are lucky to be part of an organisation where we have access to abundant natural and other materials like pallets and old slabs. We are aiming to be as sustainable as possible repurposing and reusing items.

Sharing Spaces: What do RGBE staff think?

There has been much negotiation to get to this pilot stage with input from staff across the RBGE team. We will continue to see how things develop and to see what staff think of the idea of an outdoor nursery in a botanic garden over time.

Many staff members that have come to the site have wistfully wanted to stay and play from the most serious scientist to our own education staff. One horticulture team member recently witnessed the interaction of the children on the site and told me that

‘The kids look like they love it…all the children were engaged with the space, there was not one bored child there.”

They were all interested and had found something to do.

I asked them:

‘Do you think you would have enjoyed it as a child?’

They said:

‘Probably, I didn’t mind getting dirty and messing around outside.’

This made me reflect on whether that is a potential far-reaching impact of projects like this. Will children who see getting ‘dirty’ and being in contact with soil and mud, weather and plants as normal, be more likely to consider careers like horticulture? I certainly was that child!

Through gardening with primary children, I have observed some who are fearful of and hate getting dirty hands. Does some of this stem from never being exposed to experiences like outdoor nurseries and forest schools when younger which are relatively new approaches?

So, the site is developing into its own character – being something between a forest school space and the rest of the more cultivated garden. Just now it resembles a mud monster in places which we are tackling, but it is really special and children (and grown-ups) love it. There really are fairies at the bottom of the garden too!

Enjoy this blog? Then keep an eye for the next blog coming on Friday the 19th of November ,where both the up’s and downs of piloting a new outdoor ELC in a botanical garden will be shared as well as the key learnings along the way!

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