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.


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.


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


Last year’s homemade bug hotel


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.


This one’s taken, mate…


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.


This bee spent ages trying to decide which hole it preferred

Around the World in 6 Garden Cities

Volunteering is fun. I enjoy meeting people from different walks of life in an outdoor environment, having a laugh, consuming tea and biscuits (why does tea always taste so much nicer outside?) and leaving an area tidier, more attractive or more productive than it was before we started. A couple of weeks ago we began a particularly exciting project which involves planting a new garden designed to celebrate Garden Cities around the world. The project, based at Standalone Farm in Letchworth Garden City, is a collaboration between the RHS and the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation, supported by Arch Community Group. It is the second such garden to be built at the farm.


The beginnings of a new garden

Community Garden Spirit

Last summer volunteers and staff worked hard to transplant many elements of the Hampton Court Flower Show ‘In Bloom’ garden, celebrating 50 years of the RHS community gardening campaign, to the farm grounds. At the end of last year work began on an adjoining piece of land in preparation for the new International Garden Cities Garden. The hard landscaping team persevered throughout the wettest December on record, to complete a stunning framework ready for planting to begin in the spring.


Refuelling in progress…


Our littlest volunteer resting in the sunshine


International Garden Cities

David Ames, Head of Heritage and Strategic Planning for the Heritage Foundation, explains that the project explores the influence of Letchworth Garden City (the first garden city) on gardens and gardening in towns across the world. The garden includes representations of garden cities in Australia, Brazil, South Africa, China, Germany and the UK. Designed by Charlotte Liu, each of the six areas showcases plants from the different countries. The Australia garden uses native plants such as Eucalyptus gunnii, Ozothamnus rosmarinifolius ‘Silver Jubilee’ (formally Helichrysum rosmarinifolius) and Brachyscome iberidifolia (an annual herb found in Western Australia), whilst the Brazilian garden includes South American favourites such as Alstroemeria ‘Apollo’, Stipa tenuissima and Tropaeolum majus (Nasturtium). (More on the design of the different areas in later posts focusing on the individual countries.)


Performance area in the Australian garden

The garden will also include other elements such as a dry pebble area and small wooden bridge in ‘China’ which creates the illusion of being beside a lake. This aspect of the garden follows traditional Chinese design principles by mimicking the natural environment.


Planting begins in the ‘China’ dry lake area

In ‘Germany’, raised beds explore the concept of the Schrebergarten – German allotment gardens which enable urban citizens access to land on which they can grow their own crops.


Schrebergarten raised beds filled with plants for the garden


An Interactive Garden

Each country also has an interactive section, many of which are designed for children. These include a giant sandpit, a teaching and performance raised deck surrounded by large rocks for seating, and areas where visitors can learn to grow their own herbs and other crops. Interpretation boards in each section will give more information about the countries and their links to the garden cities movement (initiated by Ebenezer Howard in 1898 with his publication of To-morrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform and realised with the building of the first garden city in Letchworth, begun in 1903). The boards will also have information about the different ways in which visitors can volunteer and participate in the garden.


Sandpit waiting to be filled

Garden in Progress

All 25 volunteers worked in the garden throughout the day planting up many of the areas and the weather treated us well, only starting to drizzle at 5pm when we were packing up. I met new people and caught up with friends I’ve not seen much over the winter months. There was a shared sense of purpose as we added to the character of the garden plant by plant, until by the end of the day there was a definite outline emerging. There are still plants waiting to go in, a wooden bridge to be added, raised beds to be filled and tender specimens to nurture under protection until it is their time to shine, but the garden is no longer just a concept – it is almost a reality.


Planting begins in the Letchworth Garden City area

Many of the volunteers will return throughout the year, supporting the garden maintenance programme, helping with events and chatting about the garden with visitors. The farm is a favourite location for many local families (mine included) and the new gardens will give visitors the opportunity to learn about nature as well as the ways in which Letchworth has influenced town planning across the world. As the designer, Charlotte Liu, says ‘People have always desired a closeness with nature and this is fundamental to the idea of the garden city. Letchworth has shown the world that you can live in nature.’


The new International Garden Cities Garden is due to open in June

For more information about international garden cities visit the International Garden Cities Institute website at and for information about the world’s first garden city visit the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation website at

Farm activity and opening information can be found at



More plants arriving



With thanks to Christian Trampenau and the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation for permission to use some of the images in this article.

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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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


I love growing and roasting oca



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