“Sometimes since I’ve been in the garden I’ve looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden – in all the places.”

― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

To some, the existence of the beautiful garden that lies behind ISL’s South Building may still be a secret; a magical place hitherto undiscovered. This is why it is time to share the story of how the garden came to be – a story spanning the past five years, during which time a dedicated team of ISL staff and students, with some parents and younger siblings also playing a part, have worked in all seasons and all weathers to construct what is known today as the International School of Lausanne community garden – a miniature eco-system in which local wildlife finds sanctuary, and where ISL students can learn about sustainability by immersing themselves in nature. Keep reading to discover the story behind the garden’s conception and creation….

At eleven o’clock on the morning that Jay Gatsby – bootlegger, millionaire, and host of the literary canon’s most legendary parties – is to be reunited with his long-time love, Daisy Buchanan, at the home of her cousin and his neighbour, Nick Carraway, Gatsby sends his gardener across to Nick’s house in order to mow his lawn – as our narrator, Nick, puts it: “ – there was a sharp line where my ragged lawn ended and the darker, well-kept expanse of his began.”

It’s a small detail, easily overlooked amidst the more sumptuous visual images of Gatsby’s romantic preparations – the gold tie, the silver shirt – but it is as much a part of impressing Daisy with his wealth as his showy sartorial selections. For Gatsby, devoted to his dream of winning back Daisy, a ‘ragged’ lawn, with its cultural connotations of disorder and destitution, could mean the difference between failure or success.

Similarly, in her fascinating exploration of American lawn culture and symbolism for The Atlantic, The Life and Death of the American Lawn, Megan Garber writes that “Thomas Jefferson…surrounded Monticello not just with neatly rowed crops, but with expanses of sheared grass that served no purpose but to send a message—about Jefferson himself, and about the ambitions of a newly formed nation.”

So what is the message sent by “expanses of sheared grass”?

Essentially, an immaculately manicured lawn has come to symbolise two ideas: status and order. Go back several centuries to when humans first began to talk of “conquering” mountains; and, simultaneously, a corresponding philosophy was emerging in the gardening world.

Versailles: “The gardens were a way to display and symbolically reinforce that power and at the same time assert a model of discipline over people and nature…” (Image Credit: Gary Todd, 2000)

Gardens, long seen as a functional space in which one grew vegetables, fruits and herbs, began to transition, particularly for the wealthy, into status symbols of aestheticism and power – consider the design plans for the gardens of the Grand Trianon at Versailles, created by the brilliant landscape architect, André le Nôtre: not only are the geometric and linear divisions starkly at odds with the free-flowing formations of the natural world, but the design and statuary were intended to convey a stern message:

“The military had helped to solidify the power of Louis XIV and the absolutist French state, and the gardens were a way to display and symbolically reinforce that power and at the same time assert a model of discipline over people and nature that testified to the power of the state.”  (Chandra Mukerji, author of the new book Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles (Cambridge University Press))

Slide down the scale of social hierarchy from King Louis XIV, and the signals that our gardens send about our status remain potent:

“Lawns are often about self-image; the identity with a manicured lawn suggests higher status,” explains Bruce Butterfield, the senior researcher for the US National Gardening Association, in Harvard Magazine’s feature, When Grass Isn’t Greener. “People think of golf courses and country clubs and mansions. The big fertilizer companies really play into this with their commercials. The message is: If you have dandelions in your lawn, you’re a bad person; you’re lazy and you’re an eyesore in the neighborhood and you should be ashamed of yourself.”

Fertiliser companies may present dandelions as a scourge, yet they are a valuable source of pollen for bees and other vital pollinating insects.

However, over three centuries have passed since le Nôtre conceptualised and created the ornamental elegance of Versailles, and we are now living in a time when the swathes of neat lawn that can be seen in towns and cities around the world, are now being regarded by an increasing number of people as an environmental eye sore – green space, yes, but close-cropped green space kept aggressively free of pollinator “weeds”, such as daisies and dandelions and buttercups, by harmful pesticides and fossil-fuel powered frequent mowing.

As a society, we have been conditioned to derive a sense of order and, to a varying extent, aesthetic pleasure from the sight of a well-watered, immaculately manicured green lawn. But at what cost?

A recent 2023 study found that “the global loss of pollinators is already causing about 500,000 early deaths a year by reducing the supply of healthy foods.”

As the hum of pollenating insects fades from gardens and meadows and orchards around the world, there is the inevitable belief that technology can once more save us: as the bee population nearly halves in many countries, in something like a scene from dystopian literature, scientists are now using AI and robotics to pollinate plants.

At the heart of this city park, there is a haven for pollinating insects – surrounded by the uniformly green sweep of tidy lawn, the wildflower meadow is a rainbow of pollinator species. Image Credit: Creative Commons Licence

However, if the thought of wandering through a silent wildflower meadow disturbs you, and you want to be part of the rapidly expanding number of people seeking to use their gardens to support nature, then there is still time to act:

“…there is a solution out there in pollinator-friendly practices,” according to Dr Samuel Myers, of Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health. “These include increasing flower abundance on farms, cutting pesticide use, especially neonicotinoids, and preserving or restoring nearby natural habitats.”

And, at the International School of Lausanne, there is a team of staff and students dedicated to cultivating these “pollinator-friendly practices” in ISL’s own community garden.

The idea for the garden was born back in 2017, when Mr Aldersey (Teacher of Chemistry, Teacher of Science), found himself troubled by the green space at the back of ISL’s South Building. While some fruit trees had been planted, it was otherwise a “lifeless, sterile environment, that was being kept short so that nothing, other than grass, could grow or live there, despite the fact that savagely pruning, cutting, weeding and watering so that everything looks immaculate all year round is horrible environmentally. It seemed to me a wasted opportunity, not to mention the waste of time and resources spent keeping it looking like this.” (Mr Aldersey)

Recognising the potential of the area to be transformed from a neat lawn that no one was allowed to use to a nature sanctuary, Mr Aldersey and a group of similarly progressive-minded staff and students got together to conceptualise a new vision for the “sterile” space.

“A wasted opportunity…” – Back in 2017, Mr Aldersey and the garden project team recognised the possibility to transform a sterile green space into a sanctuary for local wildlife and pollinators.

“I joined the garden team because I thought that it would be nice to be part of something that would impact the school over a long time – not to mention that every day in the south building, I got to see the fine work that we were doing.” (Mathilde – International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2019 – 2020)

“I thought it was a great initiative to get people together, to work on my own project management skills, and to be a part of giving the south building a bit more ‘life’.” (Constanza – International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2020.)

“I was always intrigued by the project, especially on the days when we could help take care of the bees as part of the activity. Beekeeping, planting trees, creating a pond and rockery from scratch sounded so ambitious, but really fun and exciting!” (Layane, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2018 – 2021)

“I loved the outdoors so wanted to get involved in an outdoor IB service project. The garden project inspired me as I just loved the idea of students creating a biodiverse garden that could both sustain a range of wildlife and plant life, and also produce food! Something where progress could be seen every week by the students working on the garden was such a great motivator for everyone involved.” (Ms Childs, Teacher of Biology, and International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2019 – 2021)

The initial brainstorming from the students engendered the idea of having a pond as a core component of the garden, with the rest of the vision growing from this. Awaiting confirmation from SELT regarding breaking ground for a pond, the creation of the garden began with the building of raised vegetable beds, with Mr Guillet (Teacher of Science, Teacher of Physics, Teacher of Chemistry, Extended Essay Coordinator) facilitating the students in the conceptualising and construction of these, and many students from the primary school joining to help.

The raised beds were completed by the end of the school year in June of 2019, with support from staff and students throughout the International School of Lausanne primary and secondary school.

The beds were completed by the end of the school year 2019, so when Year 13 garden project team members Ping and Connie arrived back at the International School of Lausanne in the Autumn of 2019, they were eager to break ground for the pond. On a September day, with confirmation from SELT still pending, the two students strode out into the garden with shovels, and started digging.  SELT then gave the thumbs up, and by January 2020, the pond was fully dug out…

“For six months, I was out there every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for an hour each time, with a group of students, just digging,” recalls Mr Aldersey.

In fact, the digging of ISL’s garden pond was, for many of the students involved in the garden project at the time, an unforgettable highlight:

“Although it may not sound that nice, digging the pond was very fun. I remember my feet being twenty centimetres deep in mud as I worked with my friends to dig deeper every week. Furthermore, when we got to the stage where we could ‘decorate’ the pond, and work to make it look like more than a pool of mud, was very rewarding. I am very glad to see how well this project turned out.” (Mathilde, International School of Lausanne garden project team member 2019 – 2020)

“I remember trying to convince the higher ups that having a pond was a good and safe idea; at first, we were met with a lot of concerns and questions, but we managed to make it happen. I also remember Ping and I thinking we had the green light to start digging, so during one of our free periods we decided to grab a couple of shovels and begin digging with no plan. The making of the pond was very fun; we met a lot of different people from different years, and we definitely bonded over being freezing cold and digging through mud. Going back to the pond today is so nice – to see the fruits of our labour, I guess you could say!” (Connie, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2017 till her graduation in 2020.)

“The digging of the pond was very memorable! When I joined the project in September 2019, the pond was just a small hole in the ground. I struggled to picture how we could get to what Mr Aldersey was imagining from just a few students and teachers digging in very hard, very stony ground, but every week, progress was made…The day we had students wading in the freezing cold pond in the rain – thanks, Peter! – to plant the pond plants was a really special day.” (Ms Childs)

“A memorable moment was digging in the mud with rain dripping on us, and us trying to lift the heaviest rocks and taking them to the pond with a wheelbarrow.”  (Andres, International School of Lausanne garden project member 2019 – 2020.)

It took six months of digging in hard, stony ground, but for the members of the team who took part, this remains one of the highlights of the garden project.

By March of 2020, as Covid 19 increasingly dominated the headlines, the digging of the pond was complete. As the pond was excavated, the team began building a rockery with the earth and stones that emerged. “Mr Allen (Teacher of Biology and Science, Head of Sciences, Ethics Officer) was a big help with this,” remembers Mr Aldersey. Then, the pond liner was fitted, and the hard-working and committed group of diggers were rewarded with the sight of the pond slowly being filled with water…

Spring of 2020 – The pond lining was added, and the pond filled with water just before the world went into lockdown.

As the world entered lockdown in the Spring of 2020, Mr Aldersey was kept busy balancing teaching remotely with looking after the vegetable beds: “I came up to the school every afternoon after teaching my lessons online so that I could work in the garden; it was Spring, so there was lots that needed to be done to keep the garden going. The first harvest from the vegetable beds took place in 2020.”

And, by summer of 2020, the soulless uniform tapestry of green lawn, left to nature’s design, had grown into a lush meadow woven through with an ever-increasing variety of wildflowers and grasses.

Top: Mr Aldersey used the traditional method of scything to cut the meadow. Bottom: Mr Nieuwhuis’ horses, Calette and Spirit, enjoying their ISL grass…

In order to avoid both noise and air pollution, Mr Aldersey scythed the long grass, and gathered it up by rake. Mr Nieuwhuis (ISL Laboratory Technician, Sciences) brought the grass home for his horses to eat, promising in turn to deliver some of their manure for the garden team to use as natural fertiliser each Spring.

In Autumn 2020, the team were reunited, and able to take the next steps in bringing life into the garden. The rockery gradually took shape; and, on a cold and rainy afternoon, a dauntless group of students coordinated the installation of the pond plants…

The gardeners constructed a beautiful rockery, with thanks due to the ISL parent who kindly donated most of the rocks for this.
By Spring of 2021, with a particularly brave effort from “cold water hero” Peter, the rockery and the pond were filled with plants.

It was always of fundamental importance to Mr Aldersey and the team to try and pick plants that were native, and that would encourage local wildlife. Along with Ms Williams, Helga Aldersey (Mr Aldersey’s Mum, who loves and has some training in landscape gardening), was invaluable in helping to choose these.

“The idea was that everything would be as natural as possible; it wasn’t intended to be ornamental, but rather like a nature reserve,” explains Mr Aldersey.

Spring 2021: The garden continued its transformation into a nature sanctuary, filling with carefully chosen native plants that would attract local wildlife.

As the garden began to produce its annual harvests, it started to bring in an income in the form of the sale of its produce – such as quince, and honey and soap from the International School of Lausanne bees (article on beekeeping at ISL to be featured soon) – on the ISL website and in the ISL shop (currently located in our North Building foyer).

To make the quince jelly, Mr Aldersey, Mr Allan, a team of volunteer students, and ISL parent Mrs Piedrabuena, devoted a weekend to the harvesting, preparation, cooking and bottling process. Helga Aldersey also helped out in the summer of 2022, making sixty jars of tomato chutney from ISL garden tomatoes.

“Some memorable moments for me have been digging the pond with my friends, chasing and being chased with rotten fruits, getting completely muddy, and making and packaging products from the garden to be sold.” (Emanuele, International School of Lausanne garden team member from 2021 – present.)

“Besides volunteering to walk into the freezing cold pond in the very early spring whilst it was tipping down with rain, in order to plant the plants that we had ordered for the pond, another of my highlights was spending a Saturday at school making quince jelly with other students in the cafeteria kitchen.” (Peter, International School of Lausanne garden team member from 2020 – 2021.)

“I have fond memories of making jam in the school kitchen…I brought my almost-year-old daughter along, and she sat on the kitchen counters watching the students make kilos of jam, and tasting pieces of quince!” (Ms Childs)

Weekend quince-making – harvesting the produce from ISL’s garden to sell among our local community.

As the community garden continued to flourish, Mr Aldersey was contacted by an officer from the local commune, with whom he had been in touch back in 2019, when he had first reached out to them to seek planning permission for the pond. The commune, keen to see its development, were extremely impressed, and asked whether the International School of Lausanne would be interested in building another.

“There is a drainage basin adjacent to the car park, and the commune wanted to make it more environmentally-friendly, and put another wildlife-attracting pond in, and so asked if we could collaborate. So in 2022, we started digging down there, with the idea that we could connect the two ponds by a hedge, so that amphibians and other animals could migrate from one to the other under the cover. The vision is to have another pond, this time with no pond liner, and to divert the drainage stream into it.” (Mr Aldersey)

And so, in Spring of 2022, Mr Aldersey organised a hedge-a-thon – in one afternoon, over thirty students, staff and parents united in the race against time to get over three-hundred bushes planted in the expanse between the existing pond and the developing one.

Spring 2022: Working in collaboration with the local commune, the ISL garden team begin creating the second pond.
Spring 2022: Members throughout the ISL community unite in a race against time to get the three-hundred new bushes safely planted and watered in just one afternoon.

And so, as the International School of Lausanne’s community garden reaches its fifth year, it continues to fulfil Mr Aldersey and the team’s original vision of a sustainable nature reserve in the heart of our school campus.

The neat yet sterile sweep of green lawn of 2018 has become a verdant home for many members of our local wildlife community. Where before there was nothing but short, shiny grass, in Spring of 2023, the waters and plants of the pond flicker with the rapid-fire movement of the plethora of creatures that now dwell there; amongst the long grasses and wildflowers on the land scuttle lizards and mice, moles, voles and shrews; slow worms and snakes enjoy sunbathing; and bees, butterflies and other pollinators contentedly flutter and buzz among the blossom.

It is left to former International School of Lausanne student, Constanza (garden project team member from its conception in 2017, till her graduation in 2020), who recently returned to visit the garden, to capture both the importance of the project to ISL’s natural community, and its value to the students who have been a part of its creation and development over the years:

“After coming back to visit, I was fully able to appreciate the environmental impact that a garden can have. It has essentially created its own ecosystem, which is wonderful to see; and it was great to talk to Mr Aldersey and know how it has helped the bees.

“Projects like these are also great because it brings a lot of different people together, from people who are interested in the design aspect, to the people who like the managing aspect of a project, and you will also learn from each other. It was a great and highly valuable way of going from an idea to a tangible space. I also think they help bring the whole community together by making students feel like they are involved in changing the school for the better. I know that, at least for me, I still feel proud to see that I helped to change our community for the better.”

May 2023: Mr Aldersey, Ms Farden (Teacher of Mathematics, and ISL garden team member since 2019), and just some of the ISL students who have been a part of the garden project over the years…

Some final words from the International School of Lausanne garden project team:

On their most memorable moments:

“Planting new plants and watching them grow.” (Lisa, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2022 – present)

“When we finally finished the first pond, putting in the plants, and seeing the results of our hard work over these two years – I marvelled at the beauty…” (Paula, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2018 to present)

“Playing Minecraft in real life! (Building the pond)” (Matheus, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2022 – present)

“One time it was pouring rain, and I mean POURING, but I still went and helped in the pouring rain.” (Amanda, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2020 – present)

“Beautiful Spring days digging and chatting away with music – also, the years below are surprisingly enjoyable to talk to!” (Ping, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2018 – 2020 graduation)

On why the ISL community garden project is important:

“It’s important to build an area that is not just grey and concrete. A green space for students to enjoy is important for positive morale.” (Mathilde, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2019 – 2020)

“It gives a more natural and homely feel to an area that was quite bland before. It got us to work with different types of students, and overall was fun and therapeutic.” (Ping, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2018 – 2020)

“The garden project is important because it promotes buying local produce, and it helps to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” (Lautaro, International School of Lausanne garden project team member since 2022.)

“I think that it not only gives students an experience to learn a large variety of new skills, from growing crops to constructing a pond, but it also gives a social space to get to know more people better and interact with people you may not normally talk to. The garden as a whole gives the school more life, and I have seen many teachers use the garden for lessons, such as ESS and biology. And finally, the honey is very nice!” (Peter, International School of Lausanne garden project team member 2020 – 2021)

And some final words of thanks and advice…

“A shout out to Mr Aldersey for making this project work, and for teaching us all of the skills that we need.” (Emanuele, International School of Lausanne garden project team member from 2021 – present)

“It would be impossible to talk about the garden project and not mention Mr Aldersey, who runs and organises the whole experience, from the students involved to deciding what needs to be done, to managing the budget, there would be no garden without Mr Aldersey. There are also lots of teachers who have all helped across my time working in the garden, sometimes directly helping work or giving advice, but also sometimes providing some motivation to keep working. Mr Allan, Ms Williams, Mr Nieuwhuis, and Ms Farden all come to mind, but there are plenty more I haven’t mentioned. I would also thank Ms Carey even though she is not in the school anymore, for making me a cup of hot tea while I was planting plants in the freezing cold pond! Without a doubt, I would say that if you are considering joining the Community Garden Project, then do it. It’s a great experience to learn some new stuff, and you can help in a physical way to build the garden, and it gives you a sense of ownership and responsibility for part of the school. Even if you are not sure, persuade a few friends to do it with you, which will make it always fun to chat with people and dig holes in the ground!” (Peter, International School of Lausanne garden project team member 2020 – 2021)