Tag Archives: Family garden

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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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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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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How to create a sunken trampoline

 

Sunken trampoline in action

Sunken trampoline in action

I think a sunken trampoline has to be my favourite family garden feature. It’s a simple enough idea but solves so many headaches. It’s safer, less intrusive and popular with everyone. 

I have sunken a couple myself. Well, to be more accurate, I’ve sunken the same one twice (note to self – decide where to put the thing and don’t change your mind after 12 months).  So I now consider myself, if not an expert, certainly au fait with the ups and downs (no pun intended).

So what do you do…?

  • First, measure up – I would say buy a relatively large trampoline (ours is 14′) but make sure that it won’t dominate the garden.  Also, when measuring up, remember to leave at least another 50cm all round for the doughnut (don’t worry, I’ll come to that later)
  • Purchase your trampoline – these are easy enough to buy online and I personally don’t think there’s a massive difference between the brands.  What is worth looking at is shape and weight limits.  You might think the trampoline will be used by the kids, but you’d be wrong – adults are at least as likely to want a bounce (and in my experience, more likely to injure themselves, but that’s another story).  So, get one that will take at least 20 stone.
  • Choose the shape and colour – mine’s round, because it suits my garden shape, but I’ve also used rectangular ones to fit into clients’ gardens with a more formal layout. Finally – don’t forget to order green padding at the side (khaki if they offer it) as it’s less jarring than bright blue
  • Mark out the size of the trampoline – I have an old screwdriver I place through the end of my tape measure – stick this in the ground, hold a can of spraymark, and run round in a circle, spraying (just watch your shoes). If it’s a rectangle, try to use a builders square to make sure you are accurate, or simply place your trampoline upside down in the ground and mark round it.
  • Get digging – OK, you can cheat and get in a man with a digger, but this is likely to cost around £300 so if you’re on a budget or need the exercise, do it yourself.
  • Topsoil good, subsoil bad – Remember, the first foot or so is likely to be topsoil and should be kept to one side.  Below this is subsoil – and if you can, I would suggest this is taken off site, or buried somewhere below topsoil.  You can see the difference quite easily as you dig down. If you’re digging it yourself, allow a weekend and consider getting in some help as it’s pretty hard work, especially when you get further down and the soil’s more compacted.
  • Drainage If you’ve got a high water table or bad drainage, I would suggest you make a mini sump in the central area by digging down an extra foot and filling with rubble or pea shingle.
  • What depth? – I’ve seen advice which says; leave the trampoline sitting 2 inches above the ground to allow air to escape.  Personally, I don’t do this.  I’ve not found the air flow an issue unless it’s been raining which covers the micro-holes in the trampoline surface and stops effective bouncing, but this is rare.  Also, if you sink it flush to the ground, it stops things falling under the trampoline, negates a trip hazard and makes it easier to mow around.
  • Use top soil to form a doughnut – I put a foot high, double sloped and flat-topped edge round the area which disguises the trampoline from a distance.  The children also love running down this onto the trampoline
  • Turf the area – this helps make a neat finish and you can fold it over at the edges if you need to fill in any holes

And that’s it, except to say, sunken trampolines might be safer, but not so safe that you shouldn’t supervise very carefully.  However, they do make it easier for all ages to enjoy – my son was happily bottom-bouncing on the trampoline before he could walk and even Eric the cat enjoys a stroll over the surface to put a spring in his step.

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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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