Of Swings And Daisies

What is a garden? An ever-changing expanse of blue, lightness, the rush of air, freedom and energy. Swinging aloft, earthly concerns forgotten in the airborn joy of movement. In childhood days I thought little of seasonal changes, of buying plants or raising vegetables from seed, of compost, plant labels and copper tape as hosta protection from the ninja slug brigade whose mucilaginous forays even surmount the uppermost greenhouse shelving. There was no thought of gardens as outdoor rooms for entertaining, no knowledge of how to design herb wheels or construct fruit cages as I picked fresh peas, discarding any maggoty pods as I went. Behind the vegetable beds a shed, no pots or tools committed to memory, only scratched legs from wading through a sea of raspberry canes to emerge, variously reddened at the shed door with its rain-softened label marking the secret meeting place of myself, my brother and our friends.

The garden was a place of physical intensity and a portal to other realms – the immeasurable expanse of sky or the miniature world beneath my feet. Hours spent stretched on the grass amidst the daisies, reading, eating, revising and playing with the cat, grass blades tickling my feet, the whole world buzzing and vibrating with insect turmoil. Flower borders mattered little, but the mesembryanthemums fringing the beds, opening and closing their candy petals marked the passing of summer days in a wash of colour.

These peripheral details seem outside my adult experience of the garden as I hurry from shed to greenhouse, from washing line to flower border proceeding along task-oriented lines. Or as I view the garden from an upstairs window whilst watering seedlings, writing articles on how to extend the strawberry season and when to plant new potatoes. From my elevated vantage point I can appreciate the developing maturity of the fruit trees, the seasonal highlights of bulbs, blossom or annual flowers, but distance and haste detract from my physical relationship with the garden. 

I don’t have time to swing with the kids for as long as I’d like, watching the sky with the childlike fascination which contemplating the immeasurable so easily engenders, but I would do well to remember my childhood experience of a garden and pause for a while in wonder. Just to be, in a garden, at times should be enough.

Mesembryanthemum

Greenfingers Charity Re-leaf Day

thumbnailGreenfingers is a national charity dedicated to supporting the children who spend time in hospices round the UK, along with their families, by creating inspiring gardens for them to relax in and enjoy. So far Greenfingers has created 51 inspiring gardens in children’s hospice around the country and has a waiting list of other hospices which need help.

I first heard about Greenfingers when I found out they are currently building a garden at our local children’s hospice – Keech Hospice in Luton. I often visit the shop in Hitchin town centre and the charity is regularly the focus of local fundraising efforts, so it’s lovely to think that children at the hospice, and their families, will soon be able to access a new garden for therapeutic rest and relaxation.

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Work begins at Keech Hospice in early February 2017

Over the next few months the charity is organising several fundraising events and the first takes place in Cambridge on Re-Leaf Day, 17th March.  The Great Garden Re-leaf Walk involves a 10/20 mile walk from Scotsdale Garden Centre in Horningsea to Great Shelford, where hundreds of energetic supporters including Scotsdale Garden Centre staff, Peter Jackson, BBC Radio Cambridge gardening expert, local residents and gardening industry professionals from all across the country will be enjoying a Spring walk through Cambridge to raise fund for children’s hospice gardens.

Gardening experts from Mr Fothergill’s Seeds, Newmarket and pot and container experts from Cadix and Elho as well as gardening glove experts Briers, will be on the walk ready to talk gardening advice with all walkers. SBM Life Science, Cambridge who market well-known ranges of garden fertilisers and control products will be sponsoring the walk and providing 200 commemorative medals for all fund-raising walkers.

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Some of last year’s Re-Leaf Day walkers

Members of the public are welcome to join the walk free of charge – as long as they sign up to personally raise funds for Greenfingers Charity. At the end of the walk there will be tea and cake, a barbecue and a chance to watch Triathlete, Heidi Towse, complete a 20 mile row on a static rowing machine at the finish line. Thanks to Young’s Coach Company, Ely, the day will start with a luxury free ride from Scotsdale Garden Centre at Great Shelford to the start point at Horningsea.

In 2016, Greenfingers Charity benefitted by more than £140k from Re-Leaf Day, the most successful appeal so far and the hope is that this year will break that record and enable more gardens to be built for hospices currently on the waiting list. If you can’t make the walk, there are lots of other activities you could support. Alan Down, owner of Cleeve nurseries, Bristol, will be opening the gates to his private collection of Hellebores to a small group of gardeners to raise funds.

Before and after – Bluebell Wood, Sheffield, completed in October 2016

Garden centres and nurseries all around the country are participating in the 24hr plant-athon (to find your nearest, use the area search), including Aylett Nurseries, St Albans, who are having a Mad Hatter’s Day with a talk from Pippa Greenwood, Squires Garden Centre, Hersham with an Afternoon Tea Party and Millbrook’s, Gravesend, who have a whole weekend of activities planned (children’s activities, Our Amazing Animal World Experience, planting demonstrations, a coffee and cake morning and an evening with plant hunter Tom Hart-Dyke described as the ‘new David Bellamy’) with all proceeds going directly to Greenfingers.

Little Havens Hospice Garden in Essex

With so many exciting gardening activities going on up and down the country on Re-Leaf Day, there should be something for everyone to join in with, or you can hold a Char-i-TEA Garden Tea Party in your garden, allotment or work in the summer – anything from a simple cake sale, to a cuppa with a slice of homemade cake or even an elaborate high tea worthy of Downton Abbey. With fundraising kits available to help hosts with everything from tickets to cake recipes, it couldn’t be easier to get together and raise funds for new hospice gardens. To find out how you can get involved, you can contact Greenfingers by email: Teaparty@greenfingerscharity.org.uk or call the fundraising team on 01494674749.

Nationwide Plant-athon activities in 2016

It’s also possible to donate to Greenfingers Charity via JustGiving by following the link at the top right-hand side of their homepage. Greenfingers aims to build four new gardens during 2017 and, subject to successful fundraising this year, to plan and complete a further three next year. The locations will stretch North from Luton to Loch Lomond and west from Grimsby to Oxford. Creating inspiring gardens for life-limited children and their families to enjoy is such a important and worthwhile cause – I’ll be donning my apron when warmer weather returns to bake some gluten-free cakes for my friends and family in a FUNdraising effort to support the work of this marvellous charity.

Images courtesy of Greenfingers Charity.

Book Review: RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge

A cosy window seat has to be the best place to curl up with a cup of tea and a good book. As a child, I preferred to read near the top of our tall Scots Pine, with a Famous Five and an apple from the garden. Now I favour the cushion strewn window seat in the lounge  which overlooks the front garden. When we redecorated, I wanted to recreate the feeling I had as a child reading endless stories on a little sheepskin covered window seat overlooking the fields and woods in a Scottish holiday cottage. I’ve recently discovered there’s a word to describe that feeling – ‘hygge’ – a Danish word roughly translated as an atmosphere of warmth, relaxation, security and love or even ‘cosiness of the soul’¹. Snuggled in the corner of my window seat, I am connected to the outside world but protected from cold winds and rain (increasingly important with winter looming), there’s room for a selection of books and magazines, and a cup of tea and piece of cake on the window ledge. I have my own secluded nook, a hyggekrog: a place to relax and find inspiration, before re-entering the frenetic, demanding, yet delightful world which revolves around my two young children and my work.

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My hyggekrog

Bookish Hygge

Looking along the window ledge, my book selection currently includes H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, The Well-Tempered Gardener by Christopher Lloyd, The Little Book of Hygge by Meik Wiking, The Twins at St Claire’s by Enid Blyton (I’ve been raiding the children’s shelves again), A Christmas Party by Georgette Heyer, The Ash Tree by Oliver Rackham and RHS Plants From Pips by Holly Farrell. The last title was a happy chance find in the library with the kids last week, lost for a while between Harry and the Robots and Emily Prickleback’s Clever Idea and finally resurfacing a few days ago. Its subtitle is ‘Pots of Plants for the Whole Family to Enjoy’ and I like the rustic style of the images, the range of ‘pips’ which can be nurtured into interesting house plants (from avocados to dragon fruit and pomegranates) and the clear instructions, equally suitable for the beginner or the more experienced grower.

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A little light reading

 

Childhood Hygge

My children (4 and 7) enjoyed looking at the pictures in RHS Plants From Pips showing how seeds grow and how they are dispersed. We chatted about which fruits they were familiar with and which new ones we might try (since then they’ve tasted their first pomegranate and both enjoyed it very much.) Several of the pips appealed to them – avocados, olives and lemons, but we decided to start with a peanut in a clear container so we can watch the new peanuts develop beneath the surface. Farrell rates each pip for ‘easiness’ (of growing) and the ‘patience’ required. The peanut scores 1 for each, which is good because the kids are neither patient nor particularly adept at growing plants yet. The method is relatively simple – soak the peanuts in water for 12 hours, sow in pots in pre-watered compost and place in a warm, sunny spot. Germination takes 2-3 weeks. As the kids watch the plants developing, they should be able to see the leaves folding up at night and the flowers growing downwards into the compost where they will produce new peanuts. They will be nurturing a new life and learning about the ingenuity of the plant kingdom.

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Shelling and soaking the peanuts

Botanical Hygge

As well as the chapter on ‘How Plants Grow’, RHS Plants From Pips also has sections on how to grow your pips successfully, how to repot, plant out and what pests, diseases and other problems you might encounter. There is also useful advice on how to restrict growth – particularly relevant as some of the plants would grow to a considerable size in natural conditions. A plant like the papaya (Carica papaya) is suggested as suitable as a ‘novelty plant for a single season’² due to its fast growth habit and full height of 3.5m, whereas mango (Mangifera indica) can be restricted by removing the top bud/leaves and tips of stems to keep it well below its natural height of 2m. By differentiating in this way, it is easy to choose a plant which will suit the position and space available. Most of the plants from pips are unlikely to fruit because their natural habitats differ greatly from household conditions, but they can make unusual houseplants which will give pleasure for many years and the act of experimentation is a valuable and interesting one, especially for children.

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The peanut in its homemade transparent plant pot

Community Hygge

In The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking describes five ways to achieve summer hygge, number three being ‘Join or Build a Community Garden’. This acknowledges the hyggelig (hygge-inducing) aspect of taking the time to tend crops, get together as a neighbourhood and develop a sense of community spirit. Hygge is about relaxing with friends and loved ones after a day’s hard work outside, eating hearty food and having a drink together. These are all things I value about gardening, whether in the community garden or with my own family in the garden or allotment.

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Hygge, when it’s cold outside, is a cup of assam, a stack of novels and botanical books, and some time to devour them…

Family Hygge

Not everyone has access to a garden, allotment or community growing space, but anyone can have a go at growing a plant from a pip – a free resource which would otherwise be thrown away. Everyone can experience the excitement of seeing an embryonic shoot emerge and the seed leaves unfurl. Watching such miraculous beginnings can spark a lifelong passion for plants and establish the foundation for plant hygge in adulthood. When my children experience the natural world as adults, I hope they will have just such a store of memories to draw upon. The call of a buzzard, eating raspberries with red fingers, the smell of apples stewing and the first spring bulbs emerging have all created moments of hygge in my life. In the same way that I get the kids involved in cooking with crops from the garden and allotment so they can share the satisfaction of producing a tasty meal for the family, so I want them to share the pleasure that I get from watching plants grow. Plants From Pips is a great, accessible way to share this experience and create warm family memories for the future.

1. The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking, page 6

2. RHS Plants From Pips, Holly Farrell, page 68

RHS Plants From Pips and The Little Book of Hygge are both available in hardback and The Little Book of Hygge is also available in a Kindle edition (aff. links).


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How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden Part 2: Wildlife Wows

We want our kids to engage with nature, to learn to respect animals, plants and natural environments, but sometimes in our busy, modern lives this can seem a difficult task. Gardens are a great place for children to develop a meaningful relationship with the natural world and even the smallest garden or courtyard can play a fundamental role in creating the wildlife ‘wows’ which can kickstart a lifelong love of nature. Here are a few simple ways to bring nature into the garden and how they’ve helped us appreciate the wildlife around our local patch.

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My kids love the I Spy books – they are great for simple ID information

 

Our Feathered Friends

Birds offer accessible wildlife encounters. They are widespread, large enough to see clearly at a distance and most are fairly easily identified with a basic birdbook. Attracting birds to the garden is quite easy with a feeder and simple birdbath. A birdbath can be created with a large plate or plant saucer. (It’s helpful if the edges slope or if a ramp is constructed from something like a small piece of wood to allow small creatures to get out of the water if they fall in.) Fat balls can be bought and hung in feeders or from strings, or they can be made with kids by melting fat (suet or lard) and incorporating seeds, nuts or dried fruits before it cools – about one-third fat to two-thirds mixture. It can then be set into the required shape and hung in the garden or laid on the bird table. We have kept the plastic trays from recently bought fat blocks to use as moulds for our own bird treats. (NB: If fat balls are sold in mesh bags, always remove the bag before hanging them out for the birds as it can trap and injure them.)

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Sunflower hearts in our feeder…

The starlings which nest in next-door’s roof are particularly fond of the fat balls and visiting tits and finches like sunflower hearts. We did used to put out niger seeds for the goldfinches, but over the past few years they seem to have rejected these in favour of the sunflower hearts, so we have stopped providing them. Birds can easily be watched from the window or a concealed place in the garden, although this week a very scruffy robin has been down within a couple of metres of me and the kids to collect insects from the lawn.

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This is the favourite book when learning letters at the moment…

Red kites soaring overhead are another favourite in the garden, but nothing can beat the experience we had a couple of years ago when a pair of great tits were nesting in the bird box outside the shed. The children had been watching the pair feeding young for several days and we’d listened, entranced, as the young greeted each adult visit with very audible cheeping. Then one day we were at the end of the garden when the youngsters decided they were ready to leave the nest. They came out one by one over a period of about ten minutes and the kids saw each one leave, the last emerging and flying over to the fruit cage where it landed on my shoulder for a few seconds before fluttering off over the fence. It was a really magical experience – a wildlife ‘wow’ which will be remembered by all the family for many years to come.

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Our well used bird box

To see the YouTube video of our great tit flying from the bird box to the window feeder to collect sunflower hearts, click here…

I love the fact that my kids notice birds and deem them worthy of close attention. My father is a keen birdwatcher and I don’t remember a time when my experience of place wasn’t inherently coloured by its birdlife. Wherever I go, I’m aware of the birds I can see or hear (both those I can identify and those I can’t) and the habitats that indicate which species might be around. This awareness has been developed through years of observing very ordinary birds in very ordinary locations, but it is a large part of who I am when I’m outside and I hope my children come to feel this way too.

Magnified Mini-Beasts

A couple of years ago I bought the kids an explorer outfit and it came with a magnifying pot which has been a big success. Bug hunts around the garden have uncovered all sorts of creatures which live nearby, but which we have never seen in such detail. It has also taught us about the value of watching and waiting, for the first worm to emerge from the vegetable bed or for the spiders to crawl out from under the greenhouse staging. Observing and discussing is easier when the insect can be studied for a little while before it is released back where it came from.

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What have I here?

There are excellent, free or cheap resources to help kids and parents identify mini-beasts such as the Woodland Trust’s ‘Creepy Crawly Spotter Sheet’ which can be downloaded for free or their Minibeast Swatch Book, which we gave to the kids for Christmas, and which has handy little flaps which show pictures of a number of common species with helpful information on the back. The Guide to the Butterflies of Britain laminated fold-out chart produced by the FSC and available from sites like the RSPB shop is also handy to carry around and really informative. My kids also like looking at all the colourful pictures. (These suggestions are purely based on personal experience. I derive no financial benefit from any of my recommendations.)

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Minibeast Swatch Book

 

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The Guide to the Butterflies of Britain

One of our favourite mini-beast encounters in the garden was with a snail so large it didn’t really deserve the title ‘mini’-beast. We found Roman the snail, who was a Roman, Burgundy or Apple snail (Helix pomartia), in our garden about 5 years ago. I discovered him on the side of our raised beds with a small army of less enormous snails in attendance. Once we’d identified him we decided Roman was an appropriate name due to his species and seeming leadership qualities. We watched him over the following 3 years as he munched his way through our lettuces (occasionally being removed to the other side of the garden for bad behaviour, from whence he would return to the vegetable bed very slowly over a matter of days.)

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Little hand, big snail

He used to hibernate on the outside of the raised bed by the fruit cage and then appear in the spring, ready to be spotted every few days around the garden in a good-natured game of hunt the snail. Then a couple of springs ago he seemed slow and wasn’t even interested in the lettuce we left out near him. A few weeks later I found his empty shell and we sadly said goodbye to our loveable garden companion. We kept the shell and the kids like to compare it to our normal garden snails – an example of the fascinating variations in nature.

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Our molluscular friend

 

Plants for Pollinators

At this year’s school summer fete (at my children’s primary school) I choose ‘Plants for Pollinators’ as the theme for the plant stall to encourage the kids to learn a bit more about these essential creatures. We had a visit before the fete to a local community garden for a tour of the pollinator area and to plant out some sunflowers for pollinators. I grew 45 dwarf sunflowers (an almost impossible task due to the local ninja slugs) for the fete along with many other plants for pollinators, and most were bought by both parents and children to be planted in gardens and containers. We also had a pollinator quiz and sold cakes which highlighted which insects were our key pollinators and what their role was in our food production.

Busy week in the kitchen baking for the fete

I was aiming to get kids thinking about our reliance on these important creatures and I believe we can all do this by growing and planting sunflowers or other flowers to attract pollinating insets to the garden. A dwarf sunflower (I grew ‘Waooh!’ and ‘Little Leo’) has the advantage of large seeds which are easy for children to handle and plant, it doesn’t need staking and the flowers are produced close to eye-level on a plant which will be equally happy in the ground or in a pot. The seeds should be sown between March and June, either in a greenhouse or on a windowsill. They flower from July to September. I find it is best to get them well established with sturdy stems before planting them out as then they are less susceptible to slug damage. If planted in a container I have found using copper tape (easily purchased from nurseries, garden centres or online) around the perimeter of the pot to be extremely successful in warding off unwanted hungry visitors.

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And a busy few months in the garden raising my army of dwarf sunflowers

Although the sunflowers aren’t blooming yet, earlier in the week a hummingbird hawk moth visited the flowerbed, alighting briefly on the borage and calendula flowers before speeding off to grace another garden with its presence. It’s the first time I’ve seen this species in the garden and luckily my daughter also caught its quick floral tour. I even attempted to film some of it, but due to my inept videoing skills, only filmed the bark path along with my excited commentary!

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Our edible flowers are also loved by the pollinators

 

Create Habitats

One final way to encourage wildlife encounters in the garden is to create habitats for our native species. This can be done in even the smallest of space by inserting a few drinking straws, bamboo canes or some straw into a cardboard tube and hanging it up to provide nesting sites for beneficial insects like lacewings and ladybirds. A small pile of sticks on the ground or a larger log provides a home for beetles, woodlice and other ground dwelling creatures. On a slightly bigger scale, hedges provide nest sites and shelter for wildlife and long grass creates habitat for insects like caterpillars (a good excuse if you never get time to mow the lawn!)

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The kids made a bug hotel

Getting kids involved in creating habitats leads to interesting conversations. It helps them understand what wildlife requires in order to thrive (places to shelter, breed, forage and feed) and how we can help to provide these habitats in our gardens. It’s exciting when animals discover the habitats and begin to use them – when great tits decided to nest in the bird box for another year or when the solitary bees found the holes in our binstore and sealed up the entrance with mud to protect their developing eggs, the children felt that they had made a real connection with nature.

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The kids watched the bees for ages flying in and out of the holes

Small children are the most amazing sponges and they get excited about anything which excites those around them. When they experience amazing wildlife encounters in the garden, they realise that nature is all around us. They build up a relationship with this natural location over a period of time – seeing it develop through the seasons and watching the development of the plants and animals. They make simple discoveries which reveal the wonder of the natural world and they create memories which will influence who they become in later years.

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Ladybird in the limelight

If you have found these ideas interesting and useful, do check out the first in the series ‘Building a Willow Den’ and subscribe below for notification when I publish the last two posts in the series: ”Sowing and Growing’ and ‘Magical Lands’. I’d also love to hear about the Wildlife Wows you have shared in your garden. Thank you.

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Allotment 96B: New Beginnings

Ten years ago I went on the allotment waiting list. Local sites are heavily oversubscribed and I was expecting a substantial wait. Five years later, with one small child and another on the way I decided to come off the list as allotmenteering seemed unfeasible in the blur of family life. Instead we worked on our new garden, trying to include as much space for growing as possible.

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The mini-potager in our back garden

Put off but not forgotten

But I still had a secret hankering for more space – for growing brassicas, potatoes and other crops which aren’t really worth the space in our small raised beds, for experimenting with new plants, for a cutting garden, for oca trials, for experiencing gluts … the list went on and on! Then, this year, with school for my youngest on the horizon, I decided it was time to rejoin the list. Perhaps in a mere six years we would have our own allotment waiting for us… Three months later I received a phone call and within a week we took over Plot 98B with a certain amount of trepidation.

Initial plans for the allotment – the 3 central beds have now been made into 4

The plot in early April… then dug over ready for potatoes

Plot 98B

We chose 98B out of 3 possibilities. Plus points included 4 established rhubarb plants, 2 long rows of autumn raspberries, 3 blackcurrants (or some may be reds), 2 compost bins, a shed, a strawberry raised bed and resident celeriac and broad beans. Also one of the other plots had swede and leeks – ours didn’t (another plus point).

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Our handy little shed

Our weeds

The shed needs some sorting (tidying, water butt fitting, minor repairs), but overall is in pretty good nick. The plot does have quite a lot of perennial weeds, mostly couch grass and poppies with some bindweed thrown in for good measure, but the poppies look stunning and were covered in bees this morning, so at least we’re doing our bit for pollinators!

Poppies smothered in bees

Our crops

The celeriac was swiftly despatched into several batches of soup and I’ve been harvesting the broad beans with the kids to be eaten young, barely parboiled in salads. The broad beans and poppies seem to be harmoniously sharing the same space – we’ll have a go at digging out the poppies and their long tap roots when the beans are over. The rhubarb has already manfully supplied several crumbles, pots of stewed fruit and 4 or 5 rhubarb sponges (my favourite). It’s now destined for cordial and jam.

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The poppies and broad beans happily coexisting

The plot is split up into 6 beds and the fruit takes up 1 1/2, leaving 4 1/2 beds to play with. Today I’ve dug over the 1/2 bed between the rhubarb and Jerusalem artichokes and planted 2 courgette ‘Tricolor’ and one Fuchsia berry which we’re trying this year for its fruits. We have four more to plant but this one is the guinea pig (I didn’t tell it) to see if anything eats the plant (slugs, snails, birds, deer…) If so, I’ll need to protect the others when I plant them out.

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Courgettes and fuchsia berry planted out

One bed has already been planted with potatoes ‘Lady Christl’, shallots ‘Picasso’ and onions ‘Red Baron’. That leaves 2 more beds to dig over and plant – with my trial oca plants (all 14 of them!), a runner bean, cucamelon and trombocino wigwam, brassicas (Brussel sprouts ‘Rubine’ and Kohlrabi ‘Olivia F1’) and root crops (Celeriac ‘Monarch’ and a mix of rainbow carrots and beetroot). I feel very behind where I’d like to be, but having only taken on the plot in April and with a small family in tow most of the time I guess I should be pleased with any progress we make!

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Potatoes and rhubarb

Jerusalem artichoke ambivalence

One happy chance find (or possibly not – I’ll let you know) is the large clump of Jerusalem artichokes in the corner of the plot. I’m ambivalent about their taste and have not really found any super successful recipes, but judging by the amount we will be unearthing in November I’d better get working on a range of delicious ways to cook them! We dug out a large area which had encroached on the path last week and passed a couple of bags of tubers on to other people courtesy of a local facebook gardening swap site (not without the warning that it might be better to plant them in a big pot rather than in the ground).

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The Jerusalem artichokes are big, bold and a little intimidating

Our small allotmenteers

The kids are enjoying their allotment experience. They’ve made new small friends on neighbouring plots, ‘helped’ digging holes, watering and we’ve been working on their own dinosaur garden. They chose the plants (the most yellow form of heuchera they could find – ‘Electra’ as yellow is their favourite colour) and planted them in a tyre which we got from the local garage.

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‘Planting’ trees in the dinosaur garden

They’ve collected stones to put around the edge and we’ve started painting the tyre with acrylic paints (yellow) to live it up a bit. Then the big pot of dinosaurs comes out every visit and they create a Jurassic scene. We’ve also had the bug box out examining the mini-beasts on the plot (snails, snails, snails… and slugs) and they’ve both got grubby and tired – result!

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The dinosaurs have found a new home

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The heuchera in the dinosaur garden

All in all the first few weeks of having an allotment has been fun, we’re already eating the proceeds and I’m looking forward watching it grow, weeds and all.

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I found this little beauty, Tragopogon porrifolius (Purple Salsify), growing wild in the meadow verge adjacent to the allotment path

What hints and tips would you give to newbie allotmenteers like us? Please leave a comment for us – we’d love to hear your thoughts. To see our allotment as it develops, follow the blog here:

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Currants, raspberries, rhubarb and strawberries

Onion/shallot bed and the rest of our, as yet unplanted, growing space

How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden Part 1: Building a Willow Den

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My Scots Pine tree

Many families have small gardens these days and they’re getting smaller. Kids engage with wild places and love anywhere where they can be alone with nature, but this isn’t easy in modern outdoor spaces. Running around the countryside without adult supervision isn’t an option for most young children these days and so the garden, if they have access to one, becomes the only space where they are free to roam.

When I was a kid I was fortunate enough to live in a house and garden on a 1/3 acre plot. In our back garden we had fruit trees, a vegetable patch and a greenhouse. At the back of the garden there was a wild area and tall Scots pine tree which was my favourite haunt with an apple and a book. I spent hours in this arboreal retreat, experiencing nature on my own terms. Having my own private space in the garden gave me a sense of exploration, ownership and independence not as easily achieved for today’s children.

 

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Me (looking unimpressed) in our garden around 1989

Maximise your space

Now I have a relatively small suburban garden with no mature trees or any likelihood of having any whilst the kids are young. Three years ago I started thinking about how to involve the kids (now aged 4 and 7) in the garden. I decided to include somewhere where they would be able to hide and be alone with nature. I wanted an area which was multi-functional to maximise the use of space and I’d been inspired by willow structures like this one in Capel Manor gardens, so I decided to build a willow den into the flower border.

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An impressively sized den at Capel Manor gardens

Our willow den sits at the side of the border, adding structure in the winter and looking to all intents and purposes like a shrub in the summer – but with a hollow, secret interior accessed from the back.

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The bare patch in front of the shed was a great spot for the willow den

Where to begin

It’s really easy to make a structure out of willow. The first thing you need to get hold is the willow itself, easily bought online from a range of suppliers as willow whips (long unrooted willow cuttings which can be inserted into the ground and will then self-root.) You can buy a kit with instructions on how to plant the willow and weave/tie it to create the den, wigwam, dome or tunnel, or just buy the whips and create the design yourself.

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The willow den just after completion

 

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The border and willow den begin to take shape

I bought a den kit from Willows Nursery and have been very pleased with the quality of the willow, the instructions and the aftercare the nursery has offered when I’ve had questions. Their willow kits range from £23 for a fedge kit (combination of fence and hedge – a living fence) to £83 for the largest children’s playhouse den kit. Our small playhouse den kit was £39, plus £19 P+P, but if you can source the willow locally or even from a friend or neighbour’s garden, then the cost would be reduced. (I’m only recommending this supplier because I was pleased with our experience – I’m not receiving anything for mentioning them in this post.) Individual willow whips can also be purchased to customise a design. It’s worth remembering that this is a living structure and therefore it should continue to get better year on year. It can also provide you with more willow each year if you want to build other structures.

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Some of the willow joints are tied with twine – in this picture the den is just beginning to produce leaves

When and where to build your den

This time of year is ideal to start planning where to site a willow structure and to decide what size/shape to build. The 2015/16 willow season is now finished as the whips are delivered in a dormant state between November and February, so the next few months is a great time to order the willow (to be delivered from November 2016) and start preparing the area. Willow does best in loamy soil, but will tolerate most soils (ours is clay and provided the den is kept well watered during hot periods, it seems to thrive).

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Newly planted willow den – year 1

We dug over the area in advance, added organic matter to the soil to improve moisture retention and laid membrane to help control weeds. Then we planted the whips through the membrane, following the instructions that came with the kit on how to lay out and weave in the willow. It’s worth noting that willow should be planted at least one and a half times the height of the structure away from pipes and buildings. It also needs relatively moist soil, so should not be planted too close to established trees with which it might have to compete for water.

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Starting to shoot

How much maintenance will my den need?

In early spring the shoots will begin to grow and by early summer should be long enough to weave into the structure. This is an easy task which can be completed in one go or just done piecemeal as you pass the den during the day. This is also a job which my kids love doing and they are good at standing inside the den (a bit of a tricky proposition for an adult) and passing the stems back to me as I weave them in.

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Getting into its stride – year 2

In the first two years we wove all the stems back into the structure, but now we only need to weave in areas which are rather bare and all the other willow is cut off. In the winter any remaining stems can be woven in whilst the whole structure can be clearly seen. Alternatively, I’ve sometimes let long stems grow at the top and then cut them to use for other projects.

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Willow explosion this spring – year 3

Kids in the den

The willow den has always been popular with the kids. We have extremely cute video footage of my daughter aged about 1 playing peepo by tottering out of the den and saying ‘Ooo’ (Boo). They both head straight for it when we play hide and seek in a garden with otherwise sparse hidey holes, and they enjoy exploring in it – looking for mini-beasts to examine in their magnifying pot. There is something engaging about a den that is alive, that changes with the seasons and swallows them up in the summer, hiding them from the rest of the world.

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Peepo…

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Small waving hands

Last year I started growing a couple of clematis through the den. This has been very successful and in the summer the green willow is decorated with purple flowers to add to the effect.

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Clematis ‘Westerplatte’ climbing through the den

 

What to do with willow prunings

I’ve tried a number of different experiments with the offcuts from the den. They make good pea sticks and garden supports – providing you don’t mind them rooting in the soil! They can even root upside down, so be warned! I’ve tried using the cuttings to create a tunnel into the den, but they didn’t take, probably because they got too dry as I planted them in the spring and they didn’t have long enough to grow roots before the warmer weather arrived. It might be better to grow long stems in the autumn and try rooting them in November if you want to extend your structure or add new stems around the base of the den.

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First attempt at a living sculpture

I’ve also tried creating a smaller living willow structure in a container which has been much more successful. Last autumn I cut several long whips and twisted them together, tying them at the top to create a living sculpture. This spring they are looking healthy and I’ve just rubbed off the buds up to the top section to leave clear stems. Over time the structure will develop a leafy ball on top and have clear bare stems below. This is just a bit of ornamental fun, but can be done on a grander scale as shown at RHS Hyde Hall with their living willow sculptures which shine out in the borders on a cold winter’s day.

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Stunning living willow sculptures at RHS Hyde Hall (Salix alba subsp. vitellina)

 

More family-friendly ideas…

Further posts in the ‘How to Engage Kids in a Small Family Garden’ series will include ‘Magical Lands’, ‘Wildlife Wows’ and ‘Sowing and Growing’.

If you’d like to see more of these ideas for inspiring kids in the garden, subscribe here or use the sidebar follow buttons… 

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Leave me a comment and let me know if you grow willow in the garden or if you’re planning on growing a den. How is it going? What structures do you grow and how are they getting on?

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Before…

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And after… weaving and a haircut

 

 

 

 

 

The Bee’s Knees

Earlier this year I decided to focus on pollinators at the school summer fete plant stall and since then I’ve been a little obsessed with growing and learning about plants which give our pollinators a helping hand. I’ve been raising a small army of dwarf sunflowers from seed (Helianthus annus ‘Little Leo’ and ‘Waooh!’), dividing garden plants like Echinacea purpurea and Monarda didyma, and still have Nasturtium and Marigolds (both Calendula officinalis and Tagetes patula) to sow.

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Some of the sunflower army ready for pricking out and potting on

I’m planning on creating a pollinator quiz at the fete to encourage the children to think about the role of insects in our lives. Entries with correct answers will be entered into a draw to win a ‘make your own bug hotel’, which will hopefully give one of the children the chance to get up close with pollinating insects in their own garden. We’re also taking a class of students to a local community pollinator garden so they can learn a little more about these important insects and then help the volunteers plant sunflowers in the meadow. The plan is to use these nutrient and moisture hungry plants to reduce the fertility of the soil ready to sow a wildflower meadow for pollinators later in the year.

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Pollinator fun for the kids

My daughter and I had fun a couple of days ago creating a butterfly bath next to the bird bath so our welcome visitors could drink without danger of submersion. The back garden currently houses two bee and insect hotels, one made by the kids and one given to us, to try and encourage as many pollinators as possible. I have also tried providing sugar solution on a sponge, but without much take up, so perhaps that’s an aspect of our hostelry skills which needs honing this summer.

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The pollinator and bird baths – apologies to the birds as theirs needs a bit of a clean!

 

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Last year’s homemade bug hotel

 

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And the deluxe version

Then today, the bee’s knees – quite literally, as we noticed that solitary bees were building nests in our new green roof binstore. I’d put holes of different sizes in the side of the wooden supports when we built it in the hope that the bees would find it accommodating. We’d previously found one hole blocked up with mud which told us that bees were using the holes to lay eggs. When we were in the front garden today laying the gravel, there were several bees investigating and filling the holes. In fact, in between leaving this afternoon for the allotment and returning, another hole had been filled.

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This one’s taken, mate…

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The completed bee nest

During the day we laid gravel on the side garden which now only needs a few extra plants adding when the weather gets a bit cooler, and started the dinosaur garden in the allotment (more on both of these projects in another post.) Sunshine, three generations of helpers and lots of laughter ensured a good time all round, and the bees were a lovely addition to a fun and satisfying day.

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This bee spent ages trying to decide which hole it preferred

We can sow a rainbow…

A couple of months ago I followed a twitter link to The Wellcome Trust’s new initiative called ‘The Crunch’ which aims to get people thinking and talking about our food, our health and our planet. The idea was interesting and within an hour I found I had volunteered to be an ambassador for ‘The Crunch’ during 2016. (I’m currently undergoing therapy for compulsive volunteering!)

The role of an ambassador is to get discussions going, so alongside working with local children to look at how we grow, cook and eat our food, I thought I’d blog about ways we can entice our kids into gardens. Growing their own crops has proved fascinating to my children, especially when they get to cook and experiment with their produce.

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Happy memories

In my childhood I had a complex relationship with fruit and vegetables. I loved being out in the garden with my dad and treasure the photographs of my two-year old self in red wellies in the vegetable patch. I loved harvesting raspberries and strawberries, peas and potatoes – tangible evidence of magic in the soil. However, I have less nostalgic memories of kale infested with ‘extra protein’ and stringy runner beans. Last year I grew ‘White Lady’ runner beans for the first time, finally coming to terms with the trauma of my childhood, 30 years on!

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Hey, over here!

My godson’s favourite foods were apples and peas, so when my son was born I thought introducing food from the garden would be child’s play. I was unprepared for a child who screamed every time he had peas on his plate – even if he didn’t have to eat them. Consuming fruit in anything other than miniscule pieces was unacceptable (he still struggles to eat a piece of fruit whole) and I found the whole process of preparing and sharing food with the family disheartening. It has taken several years of perseverance, but at 7 he is now a moderately enthusiastic fruit and vegetable eater, and much of this change has been achieved through engaging him in the process of growing his own food.

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Digging the raised beds

The first time we really explored the food in the garden, when he was about 2, it led to a discussion about the colour of raspberries. At that age kids are wonderfully free of preconceived ideas, so the fact that our raspberries were red at one end of the row and yellow at the other was merely an interesting observation (a range of red summer and autumn fruiting varieties, and our favourite – ‘All Gold’ at the end). Although I did wonder what his nursery teachers would think in his next lesson on food when he insisted that raspberries are yellow or carrots purple!

Both children love exploring colour in the garden – it’s exciting to grow rainbow carrots – ‘Yellowstone’ and ‘Purple Haze’ are particular favourites. (I love yellow carrots for the extra sweet taste and purple carrots – well, just for being purple and for the way they have concentric rings of orange within the purple exterior.) We enjoy growing dwarf beans, like ‘Purple Teepee’ and then watching the colour magically leach into the water as we cook them – leaving purple water and green beans.

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Colourful beetroot and kohl rabi (growing purple kohl rabi – I grow ‘Azur Star’ – is fun too)

 

In fact, I think I enjoy growing different coloured varieties as much as the children. I’ve been particularly interested in trying different coloured tomatoes over the past few years. I love ‘Black Russian’ for its deep, meaty taste, even though it doesn’t crop as heavily as other varieties. I wasn’t going to sow it this year, but then my daughter requested black tomatoes again and it didn’t take much persuasion to get the seeds out and sow them together.  I’ve decided to try the one truss method with it this year (more on this later).

I also grew ‘Indigo Rose’ last year. The kids loved the way the tomatoes were almost entirely black, but then when we lifted the calyx, underneath, the skin of the tomato was bright red. ‘Golden Sunrise’ are a must sow each year for their sweet burst of flavour and this year I’m trying ‘Green Zebra’ – my first go at a green tomato (supposedly a sweet one too). I’m also trying a yellow variety called ‘Millefleur’, a centiflor type, which are indeterminate bushes with up to a hundred small fruit on each truss.

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Colourful varieties for sowing this year…

The kids love picking fruit and blueberries are a particular favourite – sweet easy mouthfuls and at just the right height for little hands. Last year I bought a Pinkberry ‘Pink Lemonade’ – a variety of Blueberry which they were keen to try. Gardening teaches patience (not a trait many 3 and 7 year olds have in spades), so we’re all excited that this year’s buds indicate our first crop this summer.

I could go on – purple chillies, cornflower, calendula and nasturtium petals which the kids picked last year from their plot to decorate salads, red and yellow oca (the most marvellous sight in November when the garden offers few other coloured treasures). There is something particularly uplifting about bright colours in nature, from the first zingy orange ‘Ballerina’ tulip which emerged earlier this week in my garden, to the basketful of oca which I’ll hopefully be uncovering in the raised beds at the end of the year.  Colour makes us happy and happy childhood memories in the garden have enriched my life in so many ways.

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I love growing and roasting oca

 

 

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