The Green Plan It Challenge is an RHS project designed to expose secondary school students to the breadth of career options in the fields of garden/landscape design and horticulture. 

Teams of students work for 10 weeks with a teacher and industry mentor to design a garden for their school grounds or other community space, before the finished product is judged by a panel of landscape professionals.

Here, garden designer and horticulturalist, Mary Swan, shares her experience of mentoring students, and sheds light on why the project is so essential…

This year, for the RHS Green Plan It Challenge, I was an industry mentor for the team at Allerton Grange School – a large comprehensive school near my house in Leeds.

The school educates 1500 students, of over 50 nationalities and religions, while 70 different languages are spoken on site. For the challenge, the students wanted to design a garden that resembled their varied school life and would stand out from the other entries.

My aim as the team mentor was to show students the wide range of skills used in garden design, demonstrate how art and science works together in shaping a space, and show just how exciting it is to watch your creative project unfold!

Teamwork played a huge part in this challenge. Students worked together across all stages of the project, making group decisions about their developing design, and learning from each other in the process! It was so interesting to see how the team dynamic grew across the weeks, and to watch the students gradually take on more responsibility.

Students from Allerton Grange begin the design process

In the earlier stages, just as you would with a professional garden design, I encouraged the students to analyse the site – paying special attention to it’s levels, areas of light and shade, where we may provide shelter against any wind. They also took soil samples and analysed them for their pH and texture.  With all of this new knowledge, the team drew together the responses into a written brief for the new garden.

Then it was onto the actual design process! A highlight of the project was taking the students out for site visits for inspiration.

We visited York Gate Garden in North Leeds; a one-acre garden developed in the second half of the 20th century and now owned by the horticulture charity Perennial. Here the students thought about how key design principles are used to shape a space.  They were struck by the division of the garden into rooms, and translated that into a decision to design different sections for their garden.  They also learned lots about plants and how a designer can use them to create atmosphere. At York Gate, the Senior Gardener, Jack Ogg, talked with the students about his career path and his job.

Our second visit was to the Art House in Wakefield.  Laurie Cummins, a member of staff, worked with the team throughout the project to help them develop their design skills – and this had a huge impact on the students! Through this visit, they were able to see artists at work, using a range of media, styles and language, and enjoyed a hands-on workshop in printing skills, which they translated into 2-D patterns they could use as ground plans for their design!

This experience helped the students push on to a final design for their garden. With the deadline approaching, the team divided up the workload – some students focused on making the 3-D scale model of the garden, others the mood board, some on gathering material for the written report, and some on organising the presentation to be given to the RHS judges. It was fantastic to see the students explore their different skill sets throughout this part of the project.

The school celebrate receiving funding for their new garden

And all of the students’ hard work has really paid off! The project resulted in RHS funding the school’s new garden, which was fantastic news! Students and staff worked together to build the final product, and my most exciting day on the project was when I joined Tom Hanson, the teacher leading the team, to guide Sara and Ahmed, two of the students, in their first-ever time planting up a border!

Here’s Tom’s thoughts on the project:

“The RHS Green Plan It Challenge has been a fantastic success at Allerton Grange School. As an inner city school, we feel it is incredibly important for our students to learn about the value of horticulture, especially in a bustling urban environment. This project has given our students the opportunity to work with gardening experts and discover the wide variety of pathways available in the horticultural industry. Our new outdoor space should establish a wonderful legacy for staff and students to enjoy for many years to come.”

A total of 560 young people from 92 secondary schools were involved in the Green Plan-It Challenge in 2018.  That’s a lot of exposure to new potential career paths, and a lot of increased appreciation for landscape and its value.

The Allerton Grange students were clear that they gained a lot from the Challenge – Sana, one of the students, said “The RHS Project is a great way to show the importance of green spaces and plants and I now appreciate nature more. I also now know what it is like working in one aspect of the horticulture world”.

Sara planting borders in the new garden

I gained a lot too!  It’s energising to work with secondary school students who are mostly completely new to the worlds of garden design and horticulture – and so flattering to get feedback like this, from Sara:

“I am enjoying having Mary as a mentor because she’s good at giving information about plants and other cool things.”

I would definitely encourage any landscape/garden professional to take part in this challenge – and for any student who wants to learn more about garden design, encourage your school to apply too!

Learn more about Mary and her work.

Learn more about the RHS Green Plan It Challenge.