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 Kaffir 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).

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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.

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‘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.

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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 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