Garden Schooling: Ladybird Maths

The sunshine has brought out the ladybirds on our snow-in-summer. Some hurry along the raised bed sleepers in between the silvery leaves, clearly preoccupied with ladybird business, while others doze and mate on the warm wood.

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10-Spot Ladybird (Adalia 10-punctata)

The kids have always enjoyed watching these charismatic beetles with their striking patterns and distinct spots, so we decided to focus on ladybirds for our garden school maths project (with a bit of art and natural history thrown in for good measure). Ladybirds emerge from hibernation during spring, so now is a great time to go on a ladybird hunt. There are over 40 species in the UK, although only 26 resemble what we would generally think of as ladybirds. The number of spots varies between the species from 2 to 24 – ideal as the basis for a range of garden equations. 


Learning about different species of ladybird

We started by learning about different species and drawing some of the different patterns so we’d be able to identify any ladybirds we found. Favourites included the 14-spot ladybird which we later found on the whitecurrant and the multi-coloured 10-spot ladybird.  Once we’d learnt a bit about the different species we might find in the garden, it was time to get calculating…


Funky Ladybird


  • Choose a sunny afternoon when ladybirds are likely to be out and about. Begin by measuring the length and breadth of a border, garden or any green space that you have access to – in metres.

Measuring area

  • Calculate the area of your space by multiplying the two numbers together, to find the area in m2.
  • Now measure out a m2 quadrat in one section of your space (1m x 1m) or a smaller quadrat – maybe 0.25m2 (0.5m x 0.5m) – if your space is restricted. Mark it out with bamboo canes or twine.


  • Count all the ladybirds you can find in the quadrat and record by species on a tally chart. We also recorded ladybird larva, but not by species.
  • Make a bar chart or pie chart to display the numbers and species.

Ladybird pie chart

  • Work out how many quadrats there are in the whole space by dividing the total area by the area of your quadrat. Round up to the nearest m2.
  • Calculate the estimated number of ladybirds in your space by multiplying the number in the quadrat by the number of quadrats in the total space.

This pie chart turned into a ladybird


  • Of course, it’s possible that there are not many ladybirds in the quadrat or that those you find are all of one species. If this is the case, imagine some different scenarios such as:
    •  You find 10 two-spot ladybirds, 6 thirteen-spot ladybirds and 3 twenty-two spot ladybirds (feeding on the mildews on your herbaceous plants!) How does this change your calculations?
    •  What would happen if you find 12 ten-spot ladybirds, 9 five-spot ladybirds (you’ve clearly got a Welsh river running through the garden) and 4 beautiful yellow fourteen-spot ladybirds?

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      Ladybirds emerge from the pupae without spots – these develop over the next few hours as the wing casing hardens


  • Consider the equations in terms of spots rather than individual ladybirds. How many ladybird spots are there in your total space?
  • Complete the same exercise for the results above in blue and make up some of your own ladybird sums.
  • Throw in a few non-native harlequin ladybirds just to mix things up a bit. They can have up to nineteen spots!


    Our completed ID chart



Log piles create great habitats for all kinds of insects, including ladybirds

  • Attract more ladybirds to your garden in future by building a bug hotel to give insects somewhere to shelter. 
  • Avoid using pesticides in the garden – instead encourage natural predators like ladybirds, ladybird larva and blue tits that will eat problem insects such as aphids.
  • Don’t be too tidy – overgrown areas, long grass and hollow stems left over winter are all beneficial habitats for ladybirds.
  • The only disadvantage to creating an amazing habitat for ladybirds is that next year’s maths equations will be far more tricky!!!

For more garden schooling ideas – you can follow the blog below…

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I’ll be posting another project soon and if you’d like to read about our last projects you can explore the Seed Sowing Challenge and Nature Spells lessons here:

Garden Schooling: From Small Seeds…

Garden Schooling: Nature Spells


Garden Schooling: Nature Spells

This week dawned sunny and cold – new and strange too. But life with kids doesn’t give you much time to pause and think (a blessing at times), so we’re moving onward with a new garden school project involving poetry, nature and art – to get us all out in that bright, life-affirming sunshine.

We decided to write wild acrostic poems based on the spells in The Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. For those who haven’t yet experienced the mesmerising images and spell-binding acrostics in this magical book, they aim to re-animate our relationship with the natural world –  returning to children (and adults) some of the words that were removed from the Junior Oxford English Dictionary in 2007.

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‘Fern’ – the first poem my daughter learned to read aloud

These words – acorn, bluebell, fern, kingfisher, newt, otter and more – were discarded in favour of more frequently used words in modern children’s vocabulary such as chatroom, blog and bullet point. The apparent redundancy of words connected to the natural world highlights the way childhood experiences have shifted as our kids become more focused on indoor, technological pursuits and ever more distanced from the world outside their back doors.

We are intending to use a couple of the nature spells as a starting point for an English and art project. We’ll be learning to read them aloud, working out how they make us feel and why, and then writing our own illustrated acrostics based on our experiences in the garden. If you don’t have a copy of the spell book, it’s a beautiful resource – especially for the next few weeks – which we’ve used time and time again. Or you can use other nature poems as inspiration, or just do the acrostic writing activities.

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Thinking about how the poem ‘Bluebell’ makes us feel


  1. Choose a nature acrostic or other nature poem that you like to read. If you don’t have a copy of The Lost Words you could buy it from an independent bookshop or online from the Natural History Book Service (I don’t get any commission!!) The spell ‘Otter’ is also available to read on Jackie Morris’ website. Or you could read some of these other beautiful nature poems:

‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’ by T. S. Eliot

‘A Dragonfly’ by Eleanor Farjeon

Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth

‘Whirligig Beetles’ by Paul Fleischman

‘The Eagle’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

‘Little Trotty Wagtail’ by John Clare

‘Firefly’ by Jacqueline Woodson

‘The Darkling Thrush’ by Thomas Hardy (for older students)

2. Practice reading the poem aloud, thinking about the sounds (rhyme, alliteration, repeated sounds or phrases, short or long words, rhythm) and how the poet uses these to create meaning.

3.  Find somewhere outside (if you can) to record your nature poetry reading to send to a friend or relative. You could include a few comments at the end of the video on why you particularly like this poem – or if you are reading the poem over Zoom, Skype or another live platform, have a chat with your ‘audience’ about how the poem makes you both feel and why.


  1. Choose a plant or animal in your garden or in a local green space. Write a list of adjectives to describe your plant or animal – thinking about its colour, size, shape, smell and sound.
  2. Think about any associations your subject has in nature – maybe your plant is often found growing alongside streams (like Celandine) or with other plants (like daisies and dandelions in lawns). Or your animal might prey on other animals (like sparrowhawks on bluetits) or feed on plants (like snails on my lettuce!)
  3. Find a simile or metaphor to describe an aspect of your animal or plant. Maybe the colour of the hyacinths is ‘as white as freshly-fallen snow’ or the sound of the goldfinches flying over reminds you of the pealing of distant bells.
  4. Research a little about your chosen subject – does it have associations with myths or other stories, with certain seasons and weather, is it facing particular challenges at the moment – perhaps its habitat is being destroyed or there is conservation work being undertaken to protect populations around the UK?
  5. Use these ideas to write an acrostic which conjures your plant or animal into being on the page.

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    My daughter’s final poem – based on ‘Bluebell’


  • The John Muir Trust has a series of excellent resources on The Lost Words – including ideas on analysing the poems and also covering a wide range of other subjects, eg. science, art, history, craft – which can be found on their website.
  • Look at Jackie Morris’ images that accompany the nature spells – can you find the words spelled out by the golden letters? Can you find the absence of each plant or animal and then its picture on the following pages?
  • Do some sketches of your chosen word – then use these as inspiration for illustrating your own acrostic.
  • Write and illustrate some more acrostics to make your own Lost Words book.


  • Find a natural object, plant or animal in your garden or a local green space that interests you. Take photographs and do sketches – from different angles, in different lights – use these as the basis of a mood board to capture its essence – its ‘quiddity’. 
  • Create a piece of art – in any medium – based on the mood board, which depicts the absence of your subject. You might want to consider the different ways Jackie Morris conveys absence in her art – look at her use of white spaces, outlines, feathers, bubbles, stems and negative images.
  • Watch the YouTube video ‘Charm on, Goldfinch’. Using Jackie’s art and Beth Porter’s lyrics and music as inspiration, paint your own watercolour or compose your own song based on a favourite plant or animal, considering any challenges it faces in the modern world.

For updates on the nature spells project and more garden schooling ideas – you can follow the blog below…

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I’ll be posting another project soon and if you’d like to read about our last project you can explore our Seed Sowing Challenge here:

Garden Schooling: From Small Seeds…

Garden Schooling: From Small Seeds…

Once upon a time, when dinosaurs were undoubtedly roaming wild in the garden, I had a previous life as a teacher. I loved working with children – and now I’m looking forward to rediscovering my creative side with my own kids (8 and 11) as we enter this rather surreal period of living, working and studying from home.

Nic Wilson - Star Gazing

Science in the skies

Rather than home schooling, I’m hoping to garden school the kids wherever possible, making the most of the spring weather to avoid cabin fever. I’m planning lots of outdoor active projects and hoping to share our experiences as a family studying in and around the garden.

Nic Wilson - Ash Buds

Art and Poetry on ash buds

We’ll be covering a wide range of subjects in the garden – maths, PE, history, science, art, craft, geography, creative writing, reading and much more. Hopefully most of the activities will be suitable for a range of ages and possible to do in courtyards, parks, woods and even on the grass verge outside the house. So even if you don’t have a garden, there should be projects you can do if you have access to a local green space.


Natural History – bug hunting

We’ll be kicking off garden schooling with a seed sowing challenge. The kids will each have a tray of tomato seeds to germinate on their windowsills. They’ll measure the germination and growth rate of their dwarf tomato plants (one variety each) to see which is speediest and which grows tallest. Later in the season we’ll have blind taste tests to judge each variety on a scale from ‘mouth-wateringly delicious’ to ‘absolutely revolting’.


Labelling tomato pots

Science: Tomato Germination and Growth

  1. Each child needs a tray or pot for their seeds. We have used our old plastic seed trays which are on about their ninth year, but we also use the cardboard trays from our veggie box fruit. You could also reuse a clean tin or yoghurt pot with holes poked in the bottom, or even a small pot made from newspaper.
  2. Fill the container two-thirds full with peat-free compost and tap down gently. Sow two to three seeds for a small pot and six for a tray. Cover with fine compost (can sieve through a garden sieve or one of the nylon orange bags that contain satsumas).
  3. Water with a fine rose or soak plastic trays from beneath. Label with variety name and date of sowing.
  4. Place containers in a light spot (such as a windowsill) and cover with either a propagator lid for trays or a clear plastic bag kept off the compost with a twig or small wooden stake and secured with a rubber band.
  5. Keep compost moist by misting or watering regularly.
  6. Chart the progress of the seeds – recording the number of days that each takes to germinate. The results can be displayed as a list, diagram, bar chart or graph.
  7. Once each seed has germinated, measure and record its height each day, until it produces the first true leaves (the second set to grow – the first small pair of leaves are the seed leaves.)

Extension Activities

  • Add drawings of the two types of leaves – seed leaves and true leaves – to the growth charts.
  • Try germinating a second set of seeds in a shady spot – which emerges first – the sunny or shady pots?
  • Create a seed packet for your own tomato variety. Come up with an imaginative name and its flavour – is it sweet, tangy, meaty or slightly sharp? Draw a picture on the front of the packet (you could use an envelope) based on these wonderful quirky heirloom seed packet designs from Pennard Plants and write the instructions for sowing and growing on the back. (Use these instructions and other seed packets to help with this.)
  • Make up and cook a recipe using tomatoes to prepare for your bumper harvest later in the year. You could use tinned tomatoes or fresh ones. Perhaps you all love pizza and could learn to make the tomato topping, or experiment with different herbs, spices and oils for a fresh tomato salad or spicy salsa. 
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    Funky Seed Packets from Pennard Plants

Older Students

  • Germinate and grow two or three different tomatoes including varieties with different coloured fruits and cordon/bush varieties. Compare growth rate, fruit taste and harvest size.
  • Research the history of heirloom tomatoes. What are they and how do they differ from hybridised F1 varieties? Write a 300 word policy document for DEFRA putting forward the case for the importance of conserving these heirloom, open-pollinated varieties. More information on how to write a policy brief can be found on the web pages of POST (Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology).

It would be great to share thoughts in the comments – how are you using green spaces and gardens with children at the moment? What activities have been successful and why? What are the biggest challenges and in what curriculum areas would it be helpful to have more ideas?

For updates on the seed sowing challenge and more garden schooling ideas – you can follow the blog below…

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I’ll be back with some more family activities soon, but in the meantime, take care of yourselves and seek as much solace in nature as you can xxx

Seedy Saturday: Rainbows, Crocodiles and Pearls

With chilli sowing season already upon us, it’s time to unearth my special seedy shoeboxes to plan for the growing year ahead. One particular box contains an exciting collection of seeds – those I’m trialling for Suttons in my role as a guest blogger for 2018. I’m really looking forward to trying out some of the new seed ranges – in particular their children’s ‘Fun To Grow’ seeds and the rainbow-coloured ‘Developed by James Wong’ collection. I’ll also be experimenting with crops and varieties I’ve not sown before, like edamame beans and chilli pepper ‘Pearls’.

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Chilli sowing signals the real beginning of the new year for me

I began buying seeds from Suttons years ago whilst searching for more unusual tomato and chilli varieties. Over the past few years I’ve grown a range of interesting Suttons crops such as cucamelons, achocha, inca berries, tomatillos, trombonchinos, Chilean guavas, and Makrut limes. Some have been more successful than others, but the exploration of more unusual crops has been fascinating and has introduced some new staples into our family garden and kitchen. Suttons continue to expand their range and now offer everything from electric daisies (on the list for next year) to liquorice (a hardy member of the pea family which I’d also love to grow).


Dogwooddays as a guest blog in Suttons 2018 catalogue

The kids are particularly excited by the ‘Fun To Grow’ range as it combines edible crops such as Crocodile Cucumber (‘Bush Champion’) and Bowling Carrots (‘Rondo’), with the more unusual Strawberry Sticks (Chenopodium – a leaf vegetable in the summer with strawberry-like fruits in the autumn) and interesting ornamentals like the Dancing Plant (Mimosa pudica) and the Caterpillar Plant (Scorpius muricatus).

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Suttons ‘Fun To Grow’ range

I like the way these varieties offer children different shapes (round carrots), easy-to-grow dwarf varieties which will work as well in pots as in the ground (Tabletop Tomato – ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Cherry Red’) and interactive plants like the touch sensitive Mimosa. Anything which engages children by making them think differently about plants (and where their food comes from) is a step towards a more widespread acknowledgement, not only of the complexity and beauty of the plant world, but also of the way we rely on plants for our food, medicines, many materials and the life-support systems of the planet. I think we’ll learn interesting things together and have a lot of fun with this range and I’ll be updating the blog with the progress of my little ones and their plants throughout the growing season.


‘Developed by James Wong’ rainbow range

The second range includes fruit and vegetables in a variety of different colours – focusing particularly on varieties which are rich in lycopene, the bright red phytonutrient found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Medical studies suggest that lycopene may be a factor in improving heart health and reducing cancer risk, and work is ongoing to find out more about its health benefits. This is a topic the ethnobotanist, James Wong, covers in detail in his book ‘How To Eat Better’ which I reviewed when it came out last year. I’ve always loved growing different coloured crops – it’s fun for children and makes them look at food in a different light when they’ve grown a yellow raspberry or purple carrot. It also fills me with pleasure when I harvest a colourful basket, especially in the darker months (oca is particularly good for this), so it’s great to know that lycopene, along with a range of other colourful antioxidants in our fruit and vegetables, is also great for our health. So here goes with purple carrot ‘Night Bird’, striped tomato ‘Red Zebra’, orange squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ and beetroot ‘Red River’.

You can’t get much better than a rainbow of vegetables – for the eyes or the stomach

Last year, the cutting patch in the allotment was one of the most pleasurable and successful elements of our growing, so I’m planning to continue growing flowers for cutting in 2018. I’ve chosen a couple of zinnias – ‘Queen Red Lime’ and ‘Molotov Mix’ as our zinnias were stunning last year and Rudbeckia ‘Irish Eyes’ as the rudbeckias lasted for ages in vases last year and really brightened up my study windowsill for much of the summer. I’ve also chosen Tithonia ‘Red Torch’ which is a vibrant orange – a colour I unexpectedly fell in love with last year.

Zinnias and rudbeckias in 2017

Finally to the new experiments for the year – I’m growing edamame beans for the first time alongside a dwarf french bean called ‘Yin Yang‘ which might look too beautiful to eat at harvest time. There’s also a new chilli variety called ‘Pearls‘, to add to my chilli collection, which has bright red ‘beaked’ fruits and a mild, fruity taste – ideal for a family meal.


Too beautiful to eat?

If you would like to follow the blog – do sow and grow along with me and compare notes throughout the year. Let me know in the comments what you’re growing this year and what crops you’re most looking forward to trying at harvest time…

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A growing season of fun for all the family

Suttons kindly supplied me with the seeds for these trials.

This post is not sponsored and I only ever trial seeds and other materials from companies which I believe in and already use. In the case of Suttons, I have been a customer for many years. I hope you find the post useful 🙂

How Did Your Love Of Gardening Begin?

I was asked recently to write a piece on where my personal gardening passion came from. The origins of inspiration is a subject which interests me in both my work with children and my writing. This is what emerged when I put pen to paper…

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All it takes is someone to sow the seeds                                     Thank you Granny xxx

As a child scrambling though the scrubby heather on Conwy mountain, a world of sensations stretched out in every direction. Buzzards and herring gulls calling, the honey scent of gorse: a back note behind the salty warm air, bilberry foliage leading to the ripe, tight capsules, each a burst, a sharp tang, hidden treasure on the wild slopes.

Nature was a constant thread in my life, from my two year old self in red wellies gardening with my dad, to a teenager walking the Welsh lanes with Granny, who loved nothing better than knocking hazelnuts down with a long stick, teaching me about wild flowers and scrumping in nature reserves, much to the horror of my father.

When I look back to where this connection with nature began, how it evolved, the end of the thread eludes me. It is woven into my past by inspiring individuals, my father and grandmother who spoke the language of the natural world, biology teachers who revealed the minutiae of plants and my English professor pointing out the spots where Wordsworth saw the Borrowdale Yews and the ‘host of golden daffodils’. My first garden gave me space to experiment with blackberries, daffodils, pelargoniums and mallow; each an exciting foray into new botanical worlds. Twenty years since this first garden and my love of working with plants and making garden spaces has grown far beyond the reach of secateurs or loppers.

The family allotment often sees three generations enjoying planting, sowing, harvesting or simply watching as the red kites and green woodpeckers fly overheard, or the wild poppies and purple salsify attracting bees in the verges. We share our astonishment at the immense size of our sweet tromboncinos and I wonder if the teachers will be concerned when my children tell them that raspberries are yellow or carrots purple.

Our garden is a place of fascination, experimentation and happiness. A modest space where edible and ornamental plants lovingly cohabit. Flowers for cutting are welcome residents in the vegetable beds and our front garden, ostensibly suburban in style, conceals a hidden allotment in its Chilean guava hedge, thyme path and green-roofed binstore. The side strip of garden, a blue drift of drought-tolerant planting with globe thistles, lavender, Russian sage and morning glory, is all the more satisfying for its communal nature as we garden it with next door who own half of the border.

There’s so much joy in reaching out to others through gardening. My adventitious roots are now firmly buried in my local community garden, I design outdoor spaces for local families, often surrounding areas for play and relaxation with edible, wildlife-friendly and scented planting. Engaging others through language, design and the sheer exhilaration of feeling your hands in the soil completes the growing cycle, this tapestry of intertwining natural threads that teaches, nourishes and inspires.

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We always had a bag or pot in hand!

This piece was one of three written for a Gardeners’ World magazine competition which I was fortunate enough to win. The feedback from the Gardeners’ World panel really made my summer:

‘stand-out winner of the writing competition: it’s Nic Wilson. Lovely writer, lyrical and reflective but also showed the strongest appreciation of style – general journalistic tone and magazine voice.’

It’s so interesting to consider how people first become engaged with the natural world. As a teacher, it has been fascinating to see the different responses from my students – some are inspired by their reading, their peers or their teachers, others by childhood experiences or learning new skills as young adults.

I’m keen to know how other gardeners first became engaged with the natural world. Please leave me a comment – I’d love to collate responses for a follow-up blog post (if respondees don’t mind). The answers will also be helpful to inform my work with children and my writing – I’m currently working on the chapter of a book considering how our relationship with nature begins. Many thanks and happy gardening!

Quick update: the response to my question about where our gardening inspiration comes from has been overwhelming. There have been stories about RAF gardens and air raid shelters, Victorian coal cellars, memorial gardens, knowledgeable friends and family members, and wonderful pictures of gardens and the people who inspired them. I’ve spent the past few days reading and responding to over 200 gardeners who have shared their stories about the origin of their love of gardening and nature.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to over 25,000 words about a love of plants and where it began. I’ll be reviewing the material in more detail over the next few weeks for a follow-up post and working it into a book on our relationship with the natural world. But in the meantime, the most common ways gardeners have been inspired are: through friends and family, individual plants or gardens, smells, tastes and textures, for gardening’s healing properties, through childhood experiences at school, through a desire to interact with nature and attract/protect it and through an early reading of the fabulous I-Spy books!

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Happy times!

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Bulbs To Light Up Spring

We’ve had a spectacular spring for bulbs, both inside and out, largely thanks to J. Parker’s who have kindly supplied us with a fabulous selection to trial this year. Bulb anticipation began in January when we planted the Hippeastrum with awed respect for the size of the bulbs. By late February, paperwhite daffodils were filling every corner of the house with their captivating scent, adding a sparkle to our late winter days.

‘Premier’ starting to unfurl and paperwhite daffodils

Then the Hippeastrum flowerbuds burst apart and since that moment the house has been a riot of colour. ‘Premier’, ‘Hercules’ and ‘Charisma’ all lived up to their auspicious names and graced the kitchen table with their majestic flowers throughout March and April. ‘Premier’ reached 80cm tall and all three Hippeastrum had two rounds of flowering. The children were fascinated by the way such mammoth flowers could be contained within the modest buds, escaping and inflating to such monumental proportions. Our favourite was ‘Premier’ for the depth of colour, but all three had power and charm – it was rather like having a pet on the kitchen table for a few weeks.


‘Charisma’, ‘Premier’, ‘Hercules’ and a small person who loved her gigantic floral friend


The first bunch of ‘Gigantic Star’

As the Hippeastrum were fading, the allotment cutting patch stepped up to the mark. I wrote last year about beginning a cutting patch by planting rows of spring bulbs and the hours of soggy digging were worth the effort. First out was Narcissus ‘Gigantic Star’ with its yolk-yellow trumpets and another delicious scent. It took over from the paperwhites and carried the show alone until the tulips began. Its flowers are long-lasting in a vase and once their golden glow is cast over a room, you know spring is here to stay.


‘Slawa’ is perhaps my favourite of the tulips with its deep purple and red markings standing out against the double flowered Narcissus ‘The Bride’ and delicate Narcissus  ‘Thalia’.


‘The Bride’, ‘Thalia’ and ‘Slawa’ at their best

Then came Narcissus ‘Piper’s End’ – another new one for me – its dark centres ringed with green, a softly fringed corona and offset white perianth segments. 

Mesmerising centres of ‘Piper’s End’ and ‘Shirley’

Tulipa ‘Carnival de Rio’ and ‘Hollandia’ create a vibrant display together as does Tulipa ‘Attila’ with one of my old favourites ‘Shirley’. Tulipa ‘Jimmy’ is a soft orange with red-tinged centres to the petals and it softens the deep crimson glow of ‘Ronaldo’ in an arrangement.


‘Slawa’, ‘Carnival de Rio’ and Narcissus ‘The Bride’

Planting complementary colours in the allotment has allowed me to arrange the flowers singly or in mixed bunches and the ploy of moving the cutting patch to the allotment has been a success. Now that my flower crop is no longer visible from the kitchen window, I have only the merest reluctance about wielding the scissors.

The cutting patch ready for picking

Anyone helping with my allotment this spring has returned home with bunches of flowers in makeshift vases – old milk bottles which double up as cane toppers – and the kitchen and study haven’t been with cut flowers since February. 


Narcissus ‘Piper’s End’ and Tulipa ‘Attila’, ‘Shirley’, Hollandia’ and ‘Carnival de Rio’

Right at the end of the show, the vidiflora tulips ‘Spring Green’, ‘Artist’ and ‘Groenland’ and the beautiful triumph tulip ‘Mistress Grey’ have joined the party, adding a smoky, subtle touch to my spring arrangements.


‘Mistress Grey’

I’d definitely recommend daffodils and tulips as good cutting material and I’m hoping many of the tulips (all planted on a gravel base) will be perennial and crop for several years. I’ve been buying bulbs from J. Parker’s for years as they have a good range with new varieties each year to try out. All the bulbs we received were healthy and all flowered well for us. Now I’m off to the allotment to plant out my gladioli and collect the next tulip assortment. And come autumn I’ll be scouring the catalogues for a few exciting new varieties to add sparkle to my arrangements in 2018.


Nothing better than a cup of assam and fresh flowers to create a relaxing atmosphere (‘Shirley’, ‘Attila’, ‘Groenland’ and ‘Spring Green’)

What flowers perform well for cutting in other allotments and gardens? I’d love to hear about bulbs which I could add to my list for cutting and combinations which look attractive in a vase. Happy gardening 🙂

If you’d like to follow the cutting patch throughout the year, you can subscribe below:

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More information about the cutting patch and our favourite tulips can be found in the following posts:

Banish the September blues with my top 10 tulips

Planning a Cutting Patch: Bulb Time

Planning a Cutting Patch: Annual Choices

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.


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: 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.


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.

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.


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.


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.

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


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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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.)


Minibeast Swatch Book


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. 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. 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.

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!


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!)


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.


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.


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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