Tag Archives: children’s gardening

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

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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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.

planting-sweet-peas-027-copy1

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. 

planting-sweet-peas-029-copy

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/.

planting-sweet-peas-030-copy

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.

planting-sweet-peas-005

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.

planting-sweet-peas-009-copy

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.

planting-sweet-peas-017-copy

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

planting-sweet-peas-002-copy

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.

planting-sweet-peas-019-copy

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. 

lathyrus-odoratus

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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