SSIS Garden Project

[From May 2006, this article written for IS (International Schools) Magazine tells something of the early history of the SSIS Garden Project. Since then Charlie McBride has moved on to Nanjing International School; the ‘school gardener’, Mr. Yu, was retired; the school did not hire a replacement garden caretaker; and I was timetabled out of working in the garden. Today a handful of teachers and students spend a bit of time in the garden, surrounded by weeds. For photographs of the Garden Project as it was born and grew, please go to —May 2010]

‘The garden makes the gardener’

The Garden Project at Suzhou Singapore International School

Suzhou, the well-known city of gardens and canals about an hour’s drive west of Shanghai, has a new garden being made by international students and teachers.

Chemistry teacher Charlie McBride arrived at Suzhou Singapore International School in 2002, when the secondary school was housed in a small three-story quadrangle with an empty courtyard at its centre. Director Jon Lane gave the green light; McBride began digging. For two years he worked, assisted by a few student volunteers, and by the end the small plot included a pond, a pavilion built with a parent’s help, bamboo, hostia, vegetables, and McBride’s pride & joy: tulips.

With the school expanding rapidly, however, a new campus was needed. In the spring of 2005, Charlie and I proposed a larger Garden Project for the new school, including a market garden, an ornamental garden, and a greenhouse. Again Jon Lane was very supportive. When the new 14-hectare campus was ready, we made the move, and sure enough there was a bare piece of ground just north of the secondary classrooms set aside for our community garden.


Every Friday at 2:45, forty students and five teachers head out to the Garden. Divided into groups, they have specific tasks to complete by 3:30, when they must run to catch their buses home. Some sow seeds in flats, others sow outdoors. Some dig out pathways, then lay down sand and gravel. Some dig garden beds, or transplant seedlings, or help a group of Kindergarten students plant flowers. Wheelbarrows cross back and forth, sacks of potting soil are dragged or carried, shovels, hoes, hoses, and watering cans are shouted for, fetched, returned.

In just a few months, the area has been transformed. After the workmen removed a layer of sod, we spent two or three cold, windswept days clearing out rocks, bricks, broken concrete, plastic sacks, and other rubble left over from the construction work. It was a vision from One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. When we were done, the “topsoil” we had ordered was brought in, but it turned out to be clay. When we objected, the workers returned and dusted the clay with a mixture of sand and some unidentified black substance. We objected again, shoulders were shrugged, and we went to work.

A Grade 10 student, Vivian Lee, designed the pathways for the ornamental garden on the east side. Mr. Yu, the school gardener and our best worker, moved trees and shrubs from the old campus and started planting. A small greenhouse and a tool shed were built on the west side for the market garden. Tools and supplies were purchased, beds prepared, seeds sown, and slowly a garden came to life.

As I write this at the end of May, the tulips are long gone. The pyrethrum have been cut back and are putting out a second crop of white daisies. The potato plants are deep green, healthy and flourishing alongside a row of cosmos that are just budding, scarlet runner beans climbing a bamboo tripod, swiss chard, rosemary, carrots, broccoli, basil, and more. Office staff stroll during their lunch breaks. Primary classes visit to touch, smell, and gaze.

Inspiration and Perspiration

My personal inspiration for gardening came from Alan Chadwick, the eccentric visionary who in 1967, at the age of 58, began turning a hillside of heavy clay and poison oak into the paradisal Garden Project at the the University of California, Santa Cruz. “The garden makes the gardener”, said Chadwick, and his gardens produced hundreds of gardeners who have spread around the globe like wind-blown seeds. It is an honour to walk in his footsteps.

Every week I see Chadwick’s legacy at work as young people who have never put their hands in soil feel the joy of working with plants, seeds, and earth. They exclaim in wonder at the discovery that potato plants are bushy, with dark green leaves and white flowers. “The plants are my brothers”, says one. Watching them, one of the teachers shakes her head in wonder. “Magical!” she says.

Secondary Head Frank Davis remarks on the “sheer sense of industry and purpose that I see each Friday. When one takes into account that the students who are happily pushing wheelbarrows around, getting their hands dirty, etc., probably have little background in such physical labour, it’s gratifying to register their effort . . . . Shouldn’t we be looking for similar things to do?”

For Jon Lane the Garden Project means “students gaining a real ‘hands-on’ approach and making a school environment which has been designed and created by them.”

The last word, however, belongs to the man who began it all. “Everybody is good at something,” says Charlie McBride. “I’m good at digging.”

—May 2006


1. Suzhou Singapore International School is in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China in the heart of the Suzhou Industrial Park, a joint venture of the governments of China and Singapore.

2. Introduction to Suzhou’s famous classical gardens.

3. Chadwick’s Garden A profile of Alan Chadwick and his work.

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