The Perils of Designing on Your Doorstep

I’m guest blogging today on Landscape Juice, so click through if you want to find out how I’ve landed myself with the trickiest of design jobs – a garden with no space and even less budget for my son’s pre-school…

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Planting Sweet Peas

Having disappeared for a very long walk this morning – leaving Monkey Man (MM) in charge of all three kids – I felt I needed to put in some child-based time this afternoon.  I would have taken them outside, but it was drizzling and chilly, so far safer to do some indoor gardening.

I decided on a bit of sweet pea planting.  This offers a lot to keep children interested and it guaranteed MM an hour’s peace and quiet with Radio Five Live.

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First of all we made some eco-friendly plant pots.  For each one, you need a sheet of tabloid size newspaper which you fold in half then wrap around a suitable sized object (we used an old juice bottle) before sticking it together with sellotape. 

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You will have some excess newspaper below the base of your bottle which you simply fold upwards, shape around the bottle and sellotape it down to form the base of the pot.  Finally, simply slip your ‘pot’ off the bottle.

You can even create a pot without tape – if you’re adept at origami – just have a look at http://www.geocities.com/newspaperpots/.

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Now things get messy.  You will need to get a large bowl of compost from which the children can fill the pots.  I have a length of oil cloth which I use to cover the kitchen table for this sort of indoor gardening activity – you can buy this by the metre at any fabric shop.

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Once the pots are all full, you may need to exert some quality control, especially to check the compost has been pushed down gently to ensure there are no large air pockets.

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The children can make a 3cm deep planting hole in each pot using their own fingers and then they simply drop in a seed into each.  Be warned, the seeds are poisonous, but if you explain this and watch closely, there shouldn’t be a problem (most children baulk at eating soft green peas, so I can’t really see the appeal of small, hard brown ones). Also, make sure they wash their hands thoroughly afterwards.

I did soak my seeds for a few hours before planting.  This should help their germination, but it’s not absolutely necessary so feel free to skip this step.

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Once planted, cover the seed with the compost and water in (again, a very popular, if potentially messy activity).

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To make some of the pots look a little more interesting, we cut some thick paper to size and decorated it to form a plant pot cover.  You can do this by wrapping the paper around a slightly larger bottle and securing with sellotape.  This should then just slip over the sweet pea plant pot.

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Now simply place them on a windowsill and wait for the shoots to appear.  If you have a coldframe, you can move them out to this when they have 3-4 leaves.  If not, then just plant then straight outside when the soil warms up in May. 

You can put them directly in the ground, still in their newspaper pots.  This stops the roots being disturbed (which sweet peas resent) and the newspaper will simply rot away.  Remember to put some canes in the ground for them to climb or else place them near some trellis. 

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You should be enjoying flowers from June until August and best of all, picking the flowers prolongs the flowering, so the children can feel free to bring posies in to decorate the house.

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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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Making garden journals with children

OK, so it’s now slush, not snow, but with temperatures barely above freezing, neither I nor the kids fancied braving outdoor pursuits yesterday.  Instead, I invested £2 for at least 45 minutes of non-Cbeebies-based garden fun. Plus, I had two garden journals to show for it – I think even my visiting mother-in-law was impressed… 

Here’s the recipe:

Children's garden journals

Children's garden journals

Take one scrapbook per child (about £1 each from almost any stationery shop) and cover it with some wrapping paper – it personalises the journal and if it’s flowery, green or in any way garden-related, all the better.

Let them design a front cover picture, or for the very youngest, why not write out their name and garden journal title in big letters they can colour.

Begin the journal…  Let your own children lead the way, and for your own sanity, don’t worry about how it looks (this is not for a parents’ evening display).  However, it’s worth giving them a few ideas and options to see what piques their interest.  So how about:-

  • Plants they would like to grow – I gave my two a big pile of old gardening magazines and let them loose with the scissors.  Ava plumped for a Magnolia flower (and was slightly shocked to find it comes attached to a tree), Oscar went for more food based options with apples, tomatoes and, rather ambitiously, peaches
  • Pictures – let them draw their ideal garden or favourite garden feature
  • Seed packets – when you plant seeds, let them paste in the empty packets and perhaps make notes of what was planted when and also dates of harvesting
  • Photographs – with digital cameras, it’s very easy to let children take their own garden shots as you can weed out all those random, unidentifiable pictures without having to pay huge printing costs
  • Bark rubbings – a great one for the bleak winter
Cutting images out of old magazines

Cutting images out of old magazines

  • Pressed flowers – use some sheets of paper between heavy books if you haven’t a custom made flower press
  • Animal spots – find (or take) pictures of visitors to your garden, or draw the shape of animal tracks you have seen
  • Leaf identification – pick as many different leaves as possible and stick into the journal (best to do this after pressing and drying between sheets of newspaper for a few days) – and for older children you can try to identify them from a book or website
  • Natural colour – find as many different colours occurring in the garden – you can gather these outside with double sided sticky tape on a collecting card and then paste this into the journal.  Repeating the activity in different seasons will show you how the colours in your garden change.

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Leave your children out in the cold

So after a week of white, we’re promised yet more snowfall tonight. This brings another possibility that my three and five-year-old will again be stuck at home with school and pre-school cancelled. 

Whilst this is testing my sanity, patience and will to live, it does have one bonus.  Children all over the country are actively volunteering to go outside.

Snow guarantees children outside

Snow guarantees children outside

What I’m wondering is, how do we get them to continue outdoor pursuits when the snow eventually melts? Below is my starter for 10 (or 15)

  1. Hold a treasure hunt – why leave it until Easter
  2. Send them out looking for animal tracks – you can even memorialise one or two in plaster castes
  3. Devise an obstacle course – nothing like the competitive spirit to get my ‘must win at all costs’ daughter outside
  4. Make a spotters sheet – you can use a digital camera and print out things they have to find in their own back garden
  5. Send them out with crayons and paper to collect as many different rubbings as you can – they can then paste them into their gardening scrapbooks
  6. Make a list for a scavenger hunt
  7. Climb a tree
  8. Blow some bubbles
  9. Sink a trampoline and watch them bounce in all weathers
  10. Invest in a playhouse and let them decorate it
  11. Weave your own birds nests from twigs
  12. Make ‘magic mixtures’ – sand, dirt, stones, really anything – add water and stir – it’s disgusting but strangely compelling for the under 10s
  13. Make a bird watching tee-pee from some long poles or canes and some camouflage netting
  14. Go on a mini beast hunt
  15. Hang some homemade bird feeders in trees

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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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Create a pine cone bird feeder

We were bored. School was shut, pre-school was closed, the novelty of the snow was wearing off, and Monkey man (my other half) had disappeared off on a business trip for the entire week.

What we needed was a good old-fashioned wintry day activity. Cue, pine cones.

This is a great, quick project to keep children interested – messy enough for the 5 and unders, easy enough to supervise with a baby on your hip.

You will need:

  • 3 medium sized pine cones (as open as possible)
  • String or twine
  • a cup of lard (or you could use suet)
  • 2 cups of oatmeal
  • 1 cup of flour
  • 1 cup of birdseed (we used sunflower seeds)
  • 1/2 cup of chopped raisins or sultanas (or other dried fruit)

Pressing the mixture into the pine cone

Pressing the mixture into the pine cone

 

Take 5 minutes to prepare – chop the raisins, melt the fat in a saucepan over a low heat, put out the ingredients and tie a 50cm length of string to the pine cone

Put the fat in a large bowl and let the children start adding the ingredients and stirring it together

Spoon the mixture onto the pine cones and press it into the spaces (the children can even just use their hands – messy but effective) – I suggest you put their pine cones in separate bowls to contain the destruction a little

Clear up – don’t let the children move!  Anything they touch will be covered in grease.  I bought a bowl of warm water to the table, squeezed washing up liquid on their hands and made sure they were fat-free before they got down from the table

Let the mixture cool and harden before hanging them on a tree or bush, or even from an existing bird feeder

Ours now grace the small ornamental cherry outside the playroom and we eagerly wait to see if the birds visit.  We’ll need to wait 24 hours at least as they’re always wary of new additions so I’ll let you know later if we have a feast or a flop.  Still, it entertained the kids for half an hour so in my book it’s already a success.

 

Pine cone feeders hanging in the tree

Pine cone feeders hanging in the tree

 

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