A Living Classroom: How the Biodiversity Garden at Laois Education Support Centre can Teach Educators about Nature

June 20, 2024

Ornamental pollinator garden at Laois Education Support CentreDesigning a Garden for People and Biodiversity

A Living Classroom: How the Biodiversity Garden at Laois Education Support Centre can Teach Educators about NatureMaking space in a school yard for biodiversity can be a challenge. Often, the areas are made up of school buildings, a playground, perhaps a field to kick around a ball, sometimes a car park and little else. This was the difficulty I was faced with when asked to provide a landscape design for the Laois Education Support Centre in Portlaoise back in 2022. After successfully tendering for the project, my brief was to design:

“a biodiversity demo garden for teachers that could be easily replicable by schools, whilst inspiring and educating teachers and visitors to the Centre, providing opportunities for practical biodiversity enhancement and education in a school environment.”  

This was no mean feat! At first glance there seemed to be very little green areas ripe for transformation. Not to be dissuaded, following a site visit and survey I discovered several pockets of potential around the perimeter of the site and an idea was formed.

Gardening for Biodiversity

Gardening for Biodiversity booklet front coverSeveral years ago Catherine Casey of Laois County Council had commissioned a booklet entitled Gardening for Biodiversity. Authored by Juanita Browne and illustrated by Barry Reynolds, the booklet is packed full of easy and low budget ideas that we can all take away to our schools, communities and homes. It doesn’t matter if you live in Ireland, the UK, the USA or Australia, there are many activities that can be replicated and if you haven’t seen the booklet, you can view it here.

Alongside Gardening for Biodiversity, my second reference piece was the Pollinator Friendly Planting Code produced by the National Biodiversity Centre as part of the All-Ireland Pollinator Plan. This helpful publication lists varieties of plants that flower through the year, from bulbs to annuals, biennials and perennials, trees and shrubs. All of the plants should be available in the Irish market. In the UK there’s a similar but more extensive publication written by the RHS which is a handy reference too.

Armed with these publications, it then became a matter of figuring out where the different elements could be fitted in. Additional areas were added including a permaculture edible hedge, a creeping thyme lawn, red clover underplanting, a Hügelkultur bed, a green wall, a stumpery, a Pocket Forest, and it was during this project that I came across the wonderful work being undertaken by An Choill Beag from An Taisce. We were also able to include ideas for a small sensory garden, and on request, an all year interest ornamental garden containing only pollinator friendly plants, with a few grasses added for habitats. Craig Benton built a master composting demonstration site and there are plans for pieces of natural artwork and murals. All of this is in additional to a native wildflower meadow, examples of different mowing regimes, a school edibles area, many different habitats and an example of an outdoor classroom.

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An integral part of my design was the signposting. The signage went hand in hand with the concept as without it, where would the learning be? Starting from the main gate, it is now possible to walk around the entire site, and look at examples of pollinator and biodiversity friendly elements contained within both the boundary areas, and the car park islands. From the building entrance, walking clockwise, visitors can take a map with them that shares details of the different elements, along with the many organisations in Ireland that can support school and biodiversity gardening. All the signage contains a smartcode that links back to the Laois Education Support Centre website, that will be available for download, along with guides to create the elements. A virtual tour will also be available to watch, filmed by Nathan Booth.

Educational Advantages of a School Biodiversity Garden

A Living Classroom: How the Biodiversity Garden at Laois Education Support Centre can Teach Educators about Nature

I’ve had the pleasure of working with recent winners of the 2024 national winners of the Biodiversity in Schools Nature Hero Award, Carlow Educate Together School for the past couple of years in their school vegetable garden. I’ve watched and observed how the young people and teachers interact with the garden.

  • School gardens can highlight the importance of mini ecosystems as they attract various plant and animal species. By creating the different habitats, students can learn about the importance of diversity in sustaining a balanced ecosystem.
  • A school garden can instil a sense of environmental responsibility as everyone gets involved in composting, water conservation, organic soil management, seed sowing, planting and learning about weather patterns and how they impact growth.

And there is no better way to spend an hour or so on a Wednesday afternoon watching the faces of young people as they discover worms, leather jackets, butterflies and tiny baby snails. 


This project would not have been possible without the spark of an idea over three years ago from Catherine Doolan, Director of the centre and Suzanne Dempsey, Climate Action Coordinator at Laois County Council. Ross Boland of Boland Landscaping managed to interpret my pages of hand drawn designs, along with the support and guidance of Michael Buckley of Laois County Council. Thomas Carolan from the Heritage Department assisted with the several funding pockets that allowed this project to be created. My last and perhaps the most important word goes to caretaker Seamus, for minding the plants and grounds, along with Board Chairman Liam who has spent hours watering. 

Whilst I feel a sense of immense privilege to have designed this educational biodiversity garden that will help to educate many, as H.E, Luccock said:

“No one can whistle a symphony. It takes a whole orchestra to play it.” 

I’m looking forward to seeing how this garden develops. I hope it helps people of all ages to inspire and grow and benefits the many creatures that reside in and around the centre. And if you’re in Portlaoise at all, I’m sure Catherine and Liam won’t mind you popping in.

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