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© Hilary Inwood, 2006

Something is growing in school gardens in Canada, and it’s not just the plants. Supporters of school yard naturalization have found an unusual way of capturing and sustaining community interest by having students plant art in their school gardens in the form of murals, sculptures, mosaics and mazes. This innovative approach is having teachers and students turn to their greened school yards as a source of natural materials for art-making, as inspiration for their artworks, and as exhibition space. As a teacher educator and parent volunteer involved in the blossoming of an artistic garden at a Toronto elementary school, my aim is inspire you to take a fresh look at your school yard and grow some art in the garden to cultivate an unique set of benefits for your school and community in the years to come.

Certainly a relationship between art and gardens is nothing new as artists have a long been involved in designing gardens as well as recording their beauty through drawings, paintings, prints and photographs. Those who have taken a trip to the gardens of Versailles or to Monet’s garden at Giverny have a deep appreciation of the benefits of these artistic interventions in nature. Yet few schools have considered developing this relationship between student artists and their school gardens until recently. Fortunately the growing trend toward schoolyard naturalization has planted ideas, as well as trees, in the minds of many educators. For those of us in art education, greened school yards provide an inspiring environment in which to nurture our art programs by using the garden as a source of images and materials as well as a site for artistic intervention. Through this we are helping our students’ develop artistic skills and aesthetic sensibilities, and providing an intriguing space in which to activate curricular integrations. Most importantly, we are deepening our students’ sense of place, an important step in developing their ecological literacy.

My original involvement was inspired by an artistic garden outside my own classroom at the University of Toronto. Situated at a busy intersection in the heart of the city, the Matt Cohen Park contains a nature-based installation by Toronto artists Susan Schelle and Mark Gomes. By integrating a grove of existing trees with grassy berms, rock benches and sculptural elements such as oversized granite dominoes and metal leaves, these artists have created a peaceful oasis that encourages students and faculty to reflect on the conflicted relationship between nature and culture in urban environments. My art classes use the garden to develop their critical thinking skills, to study plant materials for drawings and paintings, and to collect natural materials for printmaking and papermaking. Some have even created their own artworks for the garden in response to the permanent installation.

Excited by the multiple uses of the garden, I approached Runnymede Public School with a proposal for adding student art to their naturalized Hillside Garden. Four years later, the school yard boasts five permanent installations of art created by students from kindergarten to grade eight. The works include a set of six door murals, two pathways of hand-cast concrete garden stones, a large entrance mural, a twenty foot long wall mural, and a growing series of fence paintings. These works tell the story of the Hillside Garden, which is tucked behind the school: one shows the garden in the different seasons, another captures its wildlife and student life, and yet another shows the life cycle of the butterfly. The school community’s response to these artworks has been enthusiastic: students incorporate them into games at recess, and teachers use them to enhance learning in science, visual arts and language arts. The student artists involved in their creation proudly show them off to classmates and parents; other students beg to be included in the next art project. Their addition to the ongoing greening of the yard was formally recognized this spring as the school was awarded the Leonardo da Vinci Award for creativity in education. Their influence can be seen on the interior of the school; two new nature-inspired installations have recently appeared on interiors wall as well.

The benefits of this type of artistic undertaking can be translated to any school environment, regardless of the size of its garden. The visual arts are a wonderful way to achieve curricular expectations in a variety of subject areas; for example, having students sketch the life cycle of local plants can inform a science lesson as well as one in art. Translating those same sketches to door or window paintings can serve to illustrate others classes’ lessons on the same topic, inspire younger artists, or act as fodder for creating stories or poems. This type of curricular integration is a wonderful way to help teachers meet a wider range of learning styles and multiple intelligences in their students while developing their abilities in visual literacy as well as language literacy.

Other benefits are of a more practical nature. By using student artwork to enhance the garden, we have seen a decrease in the amount of graffiti on the doors and walls where the art now resides; even graffiti vandals appear hesitant to tag good art. This has translated into less clean-up for the school caretakers, who are impressed with the way the art has improved the overall appearance of the schoolyard. It has also helped to build our sense of community through the involvement of parents who have assisted on each project; new friendships are formed, and adults feel they have contributed to their children’s education. Overall, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks, which are primarily the costs associated with creating, installing and maintaining each artwork.

Through my experiences on these projects I have come to understand that there are three main ways to use a school garden to grow art: as image, as material, and as gallery. What follows is a description of each to inspire you and your students to grow some art in your own school garden in the coming year. Use these as a start-point by remembering that in art-making, cross-pollenization is considered a sign of a fertile mind (and garden, too!)

School Garden as Image Bank

Having a school garden is a teacher’s best response to the student who says forlornly “I don’t know what to draw.” A plethora of images are available in the garden year round to inspire wonder and excitement in the blankest of minds. Before they make any art, however, just have students look. Ask them go on a treasure hunt to search for all of the flowers, insects, plants, rocks or flowers they can find. Use a viewfinder made of cardboard to look at long vistas as well as the tiniest of details. Have them search for the basics of visual communication – the elements of design such as lines, colours, shapes, and textures – in plant life as well as in the built components of the garden. Have them talk about what they see, as this will help them to build a language for talking about their own art in future.

Once they have done some careful observation, have them draw what they see: a leaf, a rock, a snail, or an icicle. Visual journals are a wonderful way to develop their observation and drawing skills, which equally important to both studies in science and art. But just like reading or playing a musical instrument, have your students take adequate time to draw and be patient, as their drawing skills will only improve with practice. Provide them with some basic instruction such as how to draw in contour and gesture styles, or how to shade and cross-hatch. For those reluctant artists (“I can’t draw” they will protest,) have them trace what they find by placing overhead transparencies directly on the ground to capture a bit of the garden. Experiment with a variety of materials and tools – draw with pencils, pens and watercolours; make rubbings of leaves with pastels; draw on a rock with charcoal; create solar drawings on light sensitive paper. Their journals will quickly grow to inspire and inform the next in-class art project.

As students’ skills develop, be sure to provide examples of professional artists’ images of gardens and nature for them to see; the history of art has developed by building on the images of others. Move beyond Monet by showing them Albrecht Durer’s highly detailed drawings of plants, Georgia O’Keefe’s vivid paintings of flowers, Emily Carr’s pastels of soaring trees, or Ansel Adam’s majestic photographs of nature. Have them talk about what they see, and how the artists used the elements of design to interpret their vision of nature. Ask them to choose their favourites, or to incorporate aspects of these styles in their own work. Build a class library of these images to inspire students to continue looking and creating; after all, a picture is worth a thousand words!

School Garden as Art Store

You need look no further than the school garden to stock your art supply cupboard. With a bit of advance planning, the garden can act a bountiful source of materials to spice up your art program, for little or no cost. Leaves are a classic in this regard; available in a multitude of shapes, sizes and colours, they are great for rubbings, paintings, prints and collage. Along with flower petals and grasses, they can also be a terrific additive to pulp for paper-making. Scottish artist Andy Goldsworthy shows what a little imagination can do with this tradition material; he arranges them into glowing colour wheels, delicate weavings hung from branches, and exquisite paintings floating on water. Mud, stones and snowballs become similarly magical in his hands. British artist Richard Long demonstrates a different kind of creativity with these same materials, making patterned rock sculptures to track his journeys and creating mud drawings using nothing but his feet. What could be more fun for children than squishing mud between their toes in the name of art-making?

Natural materials such as leaves, twigs, feathers and grasses have tactile qualities that appeal to children, and help to broaden their sensory responses to school gardens. Used for sculptures and weavings, these same materials bring olfactory and auditory dimensions to artworks that help to trigger memories of the garden even when displayed inside, deepening students’ experience of and connection to place. Ice, snow, sand, dirt or clay can further expand these experiences by bringing a distinct temperature and moisture level to an artwork, forcing students to think creatively about their use. In many cases these conditions will encourage students to revel in the process of art-making, rather than obsess about the final product. Capturing an ephemeral sculpture in a photo before it melts is usually enough to satisfy any young Michelangelo, especially if the photo gets posted to the school website.

With some selective planting and scavenging, you can create all-natural pigments for making your art projects using garden ingredients. Berries, onions and cabbages can be grown to create a range of colours; boil the plant materials down to concentrate the color or dry them before pulverizing. Coffee grounds, tea leaves, spices and soil can be used in similar ways. Blend the pigments with water, eggs, alcohol or gel medium (a type of clear acrylic paint) to get the desired effects on paper, fabric, wood or stones. Or load these pigments into ice cube trays to make frozen markers or into spray bottles for making graffiti art on snow.

School Garden as Art Gallery

Finally, consider transplanting some of that great garden art into the school yard premanently. At Runnymede PS, drawings by primary students of the Hillside Garden serve as the basis for door murals leading from the yard into their classrooms; everyday proud artists see their drawings writ large for others to admire. Paintings, prints and photographs can translate equally well into wall or window murals, bench or asphalt paintings, cast concrete paving stones, mosaic or clay panels. Individual artworks, such as paintings created on small pieces of fencing or on bird houses, look impressive if installed as collections in one area. Collaborative artworks also function well for large-scale installations, as they develop students’ co-operative learning skills by involving a group in the work’s design and creation. Hiring an experienced artist or art educator to facilitate these types of large scale installations is of great benefit; not only do they bring a wealth of technical expertise, but they provide an unique learning experience for the students who work alongside them.

For permanent installations, considerations of safety, maintenance and funding should play a role in determining the nature of each project. Artworks should be securely attached to a surface to avoid becoming flying or tipping hazards; they also need to be inflammable. Unfortunately little can be done to make them graffiti-proof, though a layer or two of a protective UV coating can make some graffiti more easily removed. Maintenance issues relate to this; if an artwork is vandalized, whose responsibility is it to clean up? Who pays for any repairs, or the cost of the project in the first place? These issues need to be carefully considered before the project begins.

Not all of the installations in the garden need be permanent, however. Letting nature lend a hand to the transformation of artworks over time can be fascinating to watch; artists such as Andy Goldsworthy, Roy Staab, Chris Drury and Diana Lynn Thompson have built their careers on this approach. Designing the plantings in a school garden can also create wonderful combinations of colour, shape and texture over the course of a year; turning to the landscape design shows on television is a great way to gather ideas. Using the bounty of the garden after the summer season to create site-specific temporary artworks (like dried grasses, twigs, flower petals and garlic tendrils) is equally satisfying. In the Runnymede garden a rich harvest of grapevine each fall ensures sufficient materials for fall wreaths; this year it may form the basis for fence weavings as well.


No matter which approach you take to planting art in your school garden, be sure to follow some of the basic tenets of art education: ensure the activities and materials are age-appropriate; provide a range of materials and techniques to inspire experimentation; focus on process as well as product; and stimulate students’ imaginations by showing examples of others’ art. Above all, encourage creativity and individuality in art-making; if all of the students’ garden art look the same at the end of a lesson, something has gone amiss! And once you have planted the seeds, stand clear and see what takes root - art will be sprouting in your classroom as well as in the school garden, demonstrating that your students are growing and learning in ways you’ve never dreamed of!

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Sidebars in the Article:

Gardening Artists

Andy Goldsworthy, Maya Lin, Richard Long, Ian Hamilton Findlay, Chris Drury, Alan Sonfist, Roy Staab, Isamu Noguchi, Susan Schelle and Mark Gomes, James Pierce, Walter de Maria, Diana Lynn Thompson. Many more can be found on the Green Museum website.

Artistic Gardens

The Music Garden
Spiral Garden
Yorkville Park
Cloud Forest Conservatory

Ideas for Growing Art in School Gardens

• plant vegetables and flowers to harvest for materials
• cast concrete patio stones or mosaic stepping stones
• model ceramic tiles for mounting on walls, fences, or garden stakes
• paint murals on walls, doors or windows
• create asphalt paintings (maps, games, labyrinths)
• make fence paintings (paintings on wood and wired to a chain link fence)
• build rammed earth sculptures
• carve engravings in rocks
• grow a maze using grasses and stepping stones
• make chalk and pastel drawings on walls or sidewalks
• create fence weavings (weaving natural or found materials into fencing)
• build artistic bat or bird houses
• engrave or paint large garden stones

Related Websites

Green Museum
Evergreen: “Artistic Elements” Murals and Mosaics
Community Arts Network: Arts and the environment
Ecoart Space
Spiral Garden
Kids’ Gardening: Art in the Garden
Garden Mosaic Stones
The Tree Museum


Clare Matthews. Great Gardens for Kids. Sterling Publishing, 2002.

Gwen Diehn et al. Nature Smart: Awesome Projects to Make with Nature’s Help.
Sterling Publishing, 2003.

Laurie Carlson. Ecoart! : Earth-Friendly Art and Craft Experiences for 3-To 9-Year-Olds.
Williamson Publishing, 1992.

MaryAnn Kohl & Cindy Gainer. Good Earth Art: Environmental Art for Kids. Bright Ring Pub.,1991.

Bobbe Needham. Ecology Crafts for Kids: 50 Great Ways to Make Friends With Planet Earth.
Sterling Publications; 1999.

About the Author:

Hilary Inwood is currently teaching Art Education in the Initial Teacher Education program at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. Her research focuses on using art education to develop ecological literacy.


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