mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children

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Reasons to be Slovenly

Calendula officinalis seed head

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a domestic goddess. The last time I saw the bottom of the ironing basket was early 1992. And the garden has an abundance of withered seed heads like the one above.

So imagine my delight to discover that being untidy in the garden is a good thing.

Oh yes. If you’re racing round the garden like a whirling dervish busily deadheading, raking and tidying (you know who you are), you’re not doing the local wildlife any favours.  Instead of a perfectly manicured garden, you should be aiming for undisturbed piles of twigs and leaves, decaying seed heads and the more nooks and crannies the better.

Another advantage of being slovenly in the garden is that you can collect your own seed, not only saving yourself a fortune but keeping lots of children entertained in the process.

Our rule of thumb is that seed heads are ready for collecting when they look their absolute worst (serial deadheaders and neat freaks will have caved in and chopped well before this point). One of our Calendula plants illustrates this well:

Calendula officinalis when to collect seed

Sunflowers are also good candidates for seed collecting with children, if you can get to the seeds before the birds. Useful if you have a large group of children, like a school gardening club, as each sunflower head has hundreds of seeds. A pair of tweezers can be handy for extracting the seeds.

sunflower seed head

The Aquilegia and Delphinium seed heads in our garden passed the looks-awful-ready-for-collecting-seed rule of thumb too. These were tricky as the slightest touch to the seed head sent sprays of seeds flying everywhere.  In the end we had to resort to putting a paper bag over the seed head before cutting from the plant in an attempt to contain the chaos.

Aquilegia seed head

Some of our seeds may not produce flowers that are identical to the parent plant. I can’t remember whether the delphiniums were F1 hybrids. If so, they definately won’t produce identical plants but for us this isn’t important.

Before storing, we separated the seeds from the chaff (the delightful technical term for all the rubbish that isn’t seed) and then left the seeds indoors to dry for a couple of days.

This was a perfect opportunity to make some more seed packets to store our seed until the spring. Full step by step instructions can be found here.

homemade seed packets

Damp and warm are the joint enemies when storing seed as this will encourage them to germinate or rot. So when the seeds are safely tucked into their packets we’ll find a cool, dry place to store them i.e. not a warm, steamy kitchen.

And the final task (sometimes the trickiest, I find) is to remember where you stored the seed packets so you can find them again next spring when it’s time to sow.

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Ode to Summer

fig tree (Ficus carica 'Brown Turkey')

Well, what a fabulous summer that was. The garden has had a distinctly mediterranean feel with plants that like hot, sunny climates doing especially well.

We have lots of figs (above). This is Ficus carica ‘Brown Turkey’, a birthday present this year and still in its pot to restrict the roots and improve yields. Not ripe yet but I live in hope.

grow your own grapes

These grapes are growing along a west facing fence. The vine was already here when we moved in so the cultivar is unknown. The grapes have to be fully ripe to be eaten otherwise they’re a bit tart. And there are always complaints from my daughters about the large seeds, unlike the seedless grapes they’re used to from the supermarket.

olive tree (Olea europaea)

We also have olives. I was very excited about these until I realised they’re not ripe and we’ll need to cure them if we harvest them like this. Which sounds like a lot of effort for a small number of olives, so maybe we’ll just continue to admire them on the plant.

chilli etna

And, unlike the olives, the chillies are ripening nicely.  This is ‘Etna’ so I have high expectations for its heat levels. I’ve also grown some milder chillies more suitable for childrens’ palates – ‘Peppino’ (available from Seeds of Italy) is particularly mild.


Balloons or spiders?

spider's web on window

Oprah Winfrey has an irrational fear of balloons.  I know this because I pick up all sorts of useful information listening to the car radio on the school run.

I’m very comfortable around balloons but I’m not keen on spiders and I seem to have passed this irrational fear on to my daughters.

Late summer is not a good time for us arachnophobes. Everywhere you turn in the garden there’s a spider’s web. Plus the entire spider population of west London is now using our house as a meeting place. Or so it feels. Thank goodness I’m not a single parent otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get through the front door for upturned glasses.

And to add insult to injury, we came down to breakfast this morning and a huge spider had created an elaborate web just outside our kitchen window (photo above). I think they’re mocking us. I feel certain they’re running all over our faces while we sleep.


Rainbow Beans

rainbow beansThis year we’ve been growing dwarf beans instead of the usual climbing beans.

The main reason for the switch is that dwarf beans are lower maintenance; there’s no need to build a wigwam to support the plants or to keep tying them in as they grow. And although the plants only grow to around 40cm tall, the yield from each plant is surprisingly high and small children can help with the harvesting. They must be one of the easiest, pest and disease free vegetables to grow (apart from the blackfly earlier in the year but we sent them packing with a dilute spray of washing up liquid).

I picked up the seeds at the Chelsea Flower Show, from Pennard Plants, who specialise in heritage and heirloom seeds.  The packet was described as ‘Dazzling Dwarf Mix’ and as well as producing plants with purple, green or yellow beans, there are some dwarf borlotti beans and runner beans too.

And if that isn’t enough to convince you to give them a try, the purple beans have the added bonus of their very own magic trick – they turn green when cooked.