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Are the RHS leading children up the garden path?

I’m guest-blogging today on Landscape Juice and tackling the perennial issue of whether we should teach gardening at school.

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My Top Ten Plants for Children

I’m currently creating a tiny garden for my son’s pre-school.  In preparation for planting, I’ve just been unloading a cubic metre of compost to improve the soil.  Necessary, but hardly exciting work, so I’ve decided to take a break and dwell for a while on the far more interesting subject of the plants themselves.

With so little space on offer, it’s vitally important I make the right decisions about what to include.  As such, I thought I’d go all Top of the Pops and do a rundown of my favourite plants for children.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – it smells wonderful but is tough enough to survive children squeezing it for an aromatic ‘hit’. It will also root very easily so you can even let junior gardeners try a bit of propagation.

Nasturtiums

Nasturtiums

Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus) – annuals are great for impatient children and these are easy to grow – just sow seeds in pots in spring and you will have an abundance of hot-coloured flowers which can even be eaten in salads.

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – if you plant a few of these within paving, they’ll break up monotonous slabs and release a great aroma whenever little gardeners tread on them

Stachy byzantina

Stachy byzantina

Lamb’s Ears (Stachys byzantina) – these leaves just have to be touched – so soft, so furry, so popular with little ones

Ornamental onion (Allium giganteum) – huge purple flowerheads tower over children, yet are simple enough for them to grow from a bulb

Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis) – very useful groundcover but it’s the leaves I love – they hold dew drops on their downy surface – apparently put their by fairies

Sweet Pea (Lathyris odorata) – these are fun to grow every season and best of all, children can pick their flowers everyday

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena bonariensis

Verbena (Verbena bonariensis) – I’ve never been convinced by the appeal of Buddlejas- they’re weeds in my book – so instead I use this wonderful plant to attract butterflies.  Beautiful purple flowers seen to float high above other plantings without blocking them out and they provide a great landing pad for butterflies galore

Chinese fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) – children love the tactile nature of grasses and this one has the added benefit of beautiful soft bristles in late summer

Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) – an obvious choice for many reasons; children can grow them with ease, they’ll tower above everyone in a matter of weeks and the heads form great birdfeeders when the flowers go over.

I’m sure I’ve missed out some worthy candidates so please feel free to let me know my inexcusable ommissions.  Right now though I’d best get back to reality and shift some more spent mushroom compost.

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Turning Children into Plant Detectives

At 10 months old, Archie is suffering from his first bout of man flu.  To relieve his symptoms and get myself out of the house, we trailed around the garden this morning.  Never one to miss a multi-tasking opportunity, I decided to take a few photos while I was out.

I’ll admit I’m not a great plant photographer, but these weren’t meant to grace any walls.  Instead I used them to put together a quick spotters sheet for Ava and Oscar this afternoon.

Plant spotting sheets

Plant spotting sheets

This is a very simple idea – but it involves ticking things so I knew it would be a hit with Ava.

I found 12 plants which looked quite distinctive – from the emerging flowers of the stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) to clumps of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and various evergreens.  These were then printed out on a single sheet of A4 and given to both children on their own clipboard.

The joy of ticks...

The joy of ticks...

It helped that I was able to walk round with them – not only to give them clues of where to look, but also to name the plants as we went along.  I did hold back on the Latin – I’d like them to be plant knowledgeable, not downright pretentious.

Hopefully, we’ll do this again, especially as so many more plants are about to make their entrance in the garden.  Also, they were both keen to paste the sheets into their garden journals, so they will have a record of what to look out for each month.

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Filed under The active children's garden

Building a Children’s Sandpit

Two weeks ago the children were making snowmen.  Yesterday they were playing in the sandpit. Ah, the delightful vagaries of a British winter!

Ava in the sandpit

Ava in the sandpit

Our sandpit was something of an afterthought in the garden.  I had always wanted to create a large sandy space – a reminder of our annual English seaside holiday – but I wasn’t sure we’d have the space (or the budget).  However, I was nine-months pregnant and in full blown nesting mode, so when our legendary landscaper, Darren, said he thought he could put it together in a day, I decided to go for it.

  • The sandpit is pretty large – 275cm x 190cm.  This gives enough room for 4-5 children to play in it together – and plenty of space for ball-runs, monster sandcastles and the obligatory burying of parents.
  • We used oak sleepers for the outside edge – you can buy these from any landscape supplier.  As a hardwood, it takes no maintenance and will last for years.  It also turns a wonderful shade of silver after a season.  The one downside is price – they cost around £25+ each and my design used 12 of them.
  • The sleepers can be laid on bare earth, but putting then on a foundation of graded rubble means that water drains away and the wood deteriorates far slower.  The first layer was laid below ground level to give an attractive look to the interior of the sandpit.
  • Darren joined the sleepers together with long brass bolts although they are so heavy, it would be possible to simply rely on their weight and bulk to hold them in place.
  • I stepped the sleepers up towards the corner to give some child-sized seating although the entire outside edge is wide enough to perch on.  I also asked Darren to sink some sleepers in vertically to give a backrest and add some interest to the sandpit design.  These were bedded into 45cm deep concrete and then bolted into the horizontal sleepers.
  • I was determined to make the sandpit as deep as possible and we eventually dug down about 75cm.  We then used tacks to fasten geotextile membrane to the bottom of the interior line of sleepers where it could hang down to cover all the sides.  We placed more membrane on the floor of the sandpit to prevent worms mixing the earth and sand.
  • Finally, we were able to fill the area.  You can buy playsand in bulk from landscape suppliers.  I ordered two large cubic metre bags which was just about perfect to fill our sandpit.
Oscar making sandcastles

Oscar making sandcastles

I was concerned that I might have created an enormous cat litter tray. Surprisingly though this hasn’t been much of an issue.  I will probably have a sailcloth cover made up so I can protect the space when it’s not in use, but I’m not in a hurry.  Also, it means the children can access the sandpit whenever they feel like it – even in mid-winter.

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Battle of the Playhouse

A visit to my parents is guaranteed to inspire feelings of envy. Surprisingly, it’s not their lovely house or well-stocked garden that brings out the little green monster. No, it’s their playhouse.

Oscar outside Walnut Cottage

Oscar outside Walnut Cottage

My father, never knowingly under-built, has surpassed himself with this one. Based in a corner tower, half hidden behind a beautiful Walnut tree, it is a medieval creation extraordinaire.

From its oak doorway with its ancient key to its feature windows with leaded lights, this is unlike any playhouse you’ve ever seen.

Everything has been custom built to two-thirds size by a somewhat eccentric Grandpa. This includes a pair of medieval truckle beds on the mezzanine floor as well as a trestle table, stools, benches, matching chests and dresser.

Ava climbing the play house ladder

Ava climbing the play house ladder

And, of course, there is a fitted carpet and mains electric – not exactly authentic to the period but a sight more comfortable.

Today, we head back home, and return to our far humbler version – Willow Cottage.

This is more of a second little pigs creation – wood rather than straw, but still unlikely to survive a wolf-assault. Having said that, it has given countless hours of entertainment to numerous children.

Willow Cottage was simply an off-the-shelf wooden playhouse from B&Q. It took a whole weekend to prepare the base and put the thing together, but it was definitely worth it.

However, the real fun was in customising it – Pimp My Playhouse is surely coming to our screens soon.

We painted ours using a couple of Cuprinol Heritage shades – they look great, protect the wood and, unlike paint, won’t flake off. I also made curtains, put in a carpet off-cut and filled it with child sized chairs, table and cupboard. More recently, I bought an old play kitchen via eBay which has been a real hit.

Willow Cottage - a far humbler affair

Willow Cottage - a far humbler affair

Outside, the playhouse enjoys its own brick basketweave patio and over time, with the children’s help, we are planting up the surrounding beds.

My next indulgence will be to buy some wooden shingles to add to the roof in a bid to hide the felt covering.

None of these embellishments will, of course, come close to the perfections of the vastly superior Walnut Cottage. Still, I guess it’s a bit like Chelsea versus Ebbsfleet United – no need to compete when you’re in a completely different league.

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Bark Rubbing, Moats and Other Half Term Mayhem

It’s half term, so I’ve run away.  Don’t get me wrong – I have taken the children with me (social services might have had words otherwise). However, I am a wimp and I’ve done my usual trick of bolting to my parents when faced with a week of uninterrupted childcare.

There is also the added attraction of a huge garden for Ava and Oscar to run wild in.  This does though include a moat, which is what I call a water feature with serious safety issues, especially given Oscar’s dubious sense of balance.  The result is, whenever the kids decide to go out, I have to don wellies and coat and join them.

After countless games of hide-and-seek – where I have to hide, yet still be able to watch Oscar and large bodies of water – I thought we should try something a little different.  So today, before lunch, we went bark rubbing.

Ava and Oscar bark rubbing

Ava and Oscar bark rubbing

It’s such a simple thing to do – you only need crayons and paper – yet my 5 and 3-year-old were surprisingly taken with the whole exercise.

We also made sure we identified the trees as we went.  As well as noticing the difference in bark – from a relatively smooth beech to the fissures of an oak and the white of a silver birch – I pointed out the variety of bud shapes and the children looked for more clues on the floor such as the walnut shells, acorns and the very distinctive oak leaves.

We are going to paste the rubbings into the children’s garden journals this afternoon, but not before we test their grandpa on his bark identification.

You could also cut the pieces of paper into leaf shapes and make a tree collage from the various bark rubbings or even use them to start your own tree guide.

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Filed under Outdoor gardening projects