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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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Guerrilla Gardening for the Under 5s

So there I was this morning, trudging along on a four mile training walk (I’m attempting the Moonwalk this May – a walking marathon through London, at night, in a bra – no, really, I’m serious) and I saw a wonderful sight – a few small clumps of snowdrops.

Now I know this is nothing out of the ordinary, but it wasn’t so much the ‘what’ as the ‘why’ and ‘who’.  You see these were planted by myself and my daughter two years ago on a desolate verge, guerrilla gardening-style. 

Snowdrops take part in guerrilla gardening warfare

Snowdrops take part in guerrilla gardening warfare

For the uninitiated, guerrilla gardening is a movement, begun in New York in the early 70s, which seeks to take over and cultivate derelict or neglected spaces. Now, I can’t claim to be doing anything quite as daring as many, but Ava and I did decide to make our mark on some common land in our own way.

It was the tulips that did it.  You see, there is a grassy verge at the entrance to our village which I see almost every day.  In my opinion, it’s at its riotous best sometime in late May when the wild flowers grow unhampered and just before the summer grass cutting begins. 

However, it really caught my eye in the spring, and for all the wrong reasons. After a pleasant enough display of daffodils, I was suddenly confronted by some bright red tulips.  Now these are all very well in a cultivated back garden, but they were hardly fitting for the base of a hedgerow.

I realised someone must have thought they were doing us all a favour – brightening up a dull green landscape – but in my opinion it jarred to the point of being downright painful. So I thought, we should enter the battle of the bulbs in an attempt to bring back some native credibility to this little slice of countryside.

Early one sunny morning in late February ’07, myself and a then 3-year-old Ava took some trowels and a clump of snowdrops in a bucket and crept out towards the verge.  Snowdrops are best planted ‘in the green’ – which means they are still in leaf although they have finished flowering – as they establish far better like this than from dried bulbs.

We divided up the clump and planted them singly about 15cm apart.  We probably managed about 50 before Ava and I both decided we were chilly and feeling a little conspicuous.

Last year there was little to show for our efforts.  Such tiny, delicate flowers are hard to spot (especially compared to a garish tulip) but I like to think of them as Davids rather than Goliaths.  As a native bulb, they embrace our cold damp soil whilst Tulips, homesick for their native Turkey and its sandy loam, often rot off and have to be replaced.

If this is guerrilla gardening warfare, the small clumps I saw today gives me hope that if we lost the initial battle, we will still win the war.

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Let a killer into your garden

As a garden designer, I’m always being asked by clients to ‘make sure there are no poisonous plants’ in their plans.  Unfortunately, the client is king, and I feel I’ve little option but to tug my forelock and comply.  But what I really want to do is scream, “Why?  Do you think your children are stupid?”


I know it’s harsh, but I have spent hours revising planting plans because some overcautious parent is paranoid that their child has nothing better to do in the garden than munch on the flowers.


Guess what – windows can be dangerous.  Children could decide to jump out of them.  So, do we build only bungalows, or make upstairs bedrooms, windowless boxes?  No.  We explain the risks to our children and tell them not to do it.  We even, very radically, decide our children might have a modicum of common sense and not hurl themselves towards the street.


I have always included toxic plants in my own garden.  Not because I harbour filicide tendencies, but because some of my favourite plants and most useful species happen to be would not be good on toast in the mornings.


I don’t want to dig up my autumn crocus or daffodil bulbs, nothing provides such a wonderful, dark backdrop as a yew hedge and why on earth should I be without my dicentra, lupins and foxgloves. Yet all these plants have toxic and potentially fatal elements.


However, I believe it’s easy enough for us to teach even the youngest children not to put anything in their mouth from the garden.  What’s more, it’s useful for children to know that there are risks and dangers in life and learn to manage them appropriately.


I’m glad to see there are signs of attitudes changing.  In April last year, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) called for the introduction of specially made “wild” areas where children could wander around and take risks.


Then, last month, a guide from Play England went so far as to say “some mildly poisonous plants or berries offer both good and bad risks and that “it is almost unheard of for children to die or be permanently disabled from eating poisonous plants”.  However, they also acknowledged that “this has not stopped some local authorities and others from removing traditional plants from parks and public spaces.”  So the battle between common sense and the over-anxious element looks set to continue.


Right, I’m off to plant some deadly sweet pea seeds.  I may be some time…

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How do you get children interested in gardening?

Planting a strawberry tower

Planting a strawberry tower

Let’s be honest, kids are naturally attracted to gardening.  It’s the mud that does it.. and the water. 

I find the really difficult bit is getting them to move from this stage of general mayhem into something more focused and productive.  There are a few pointers which can help.

  • Give them the interesting jobs– if you spend some time planning what you are going to do, and preparing, you can make sure you give them the fun jobs to do – they’ll be bored in a millisecond if they have to wait around
  • Keep it short and sweet – the younger the child, the shorter your gardening activity should be.  I find 15-20 minutes of concentration is about all I can expect from my children in one go
  • Give them the best spot – if you have the space, try to give your children their own patch to garden – and remember it’s quality not quantity.  1.5m2 is large enough to get them started but make sure it’s a good spot with decent soil and enough sun.  If things don’t grow, they’ll feel disillusioned with gardening before they’ve really started
  • Grow something to eat– children are so proud and excited to think their efforts have actually produced food. I also find they’re more likely to try vegetables if they’ve grown them.
  • Provide some instant gratification – children are impatient and, while it’s important that they learn to grow from seeds, it’s also a good idea to invest in one or two pot-grown plants, so they can see an immediate impact when they’re planted. It’s also good to take them to a garden centre and let them choose something themselves (with a little guidance) – this gives them responsibility and means they’re more likely to remember to water it
  • Keep up their enthusiasm – there will be days, weeks and even months when it just won’t be possible to get into the garden.  Don’t let the children lose all interest.  Create a gardening calendar or scrapbook with them, make some plant labels or seed packets, create a scarecrow – anything that keeps them thinking gardening is fun
  • The right tools and clothes – assign your children some gardening clothes – they could even customise their own t-shirts, trousers or hats with some fabric pens.  Also invest in some decent child-sized tools (the cheap and colourful ones sold in most places are so badly made and weak they’re as good as useless). 
  • Let them get on with it – your child’s patch might not look beautiful to you, but if they’re using it and enjoying it, try not to interfere.

Sadly, I don’t always practice what I preach – particularly when my children’s ‘bold’ plant choices threaten my poncey designer planting schemes.  But I’m getting better… slowly.

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