mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children


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A Sunny Weekend in Pictures

delphinium seedling

Autumn sown delphinium seedlings enjoying the sun.

succulent leaf cuttings

Succulent leaf cuttings, allowed outside for the first time.

foxgloves

Foxgloves putting on good growth. Hoping for a good flower display this year.

crocus flowers

Striped crocus flowers.

chionodoxa

Chionodoxa, otherwise known as glory-of-the-snow. No snow here as temperatures topped 18C.

patterned leaves

Beautifully patterned leaves.

willow mushroom sculptures

Giant mushrooms. Hope your weekend was warm and sunny.

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A Little Bit of Biological Control

ladybird as biological control

Temperatures must be rising because the ladybirds are waking up. We spotted a couple at the allotment yesterday and we have a few marching up the walls in the kitchen. They must have been overwintering indoors but I’m not sure exactly where.

We had good intentions to round them up and place them outside so they could find some food.

But then we noticed that our avocado plant was suffering from an aphid attack. So we popped four ladybirds onto the leaves and have been fascinated watching them ever since. 24 hours later and the plant is looking almost aphid-free.

One of the ladybirds has quite faded spots which we’ve never seen before. A quick spot of googling suggested that ladybird spots can fade with age so maybe it’s a pensioner. But a bit more googling stated this is a common myth, so who knows? Whatever the reason for the faded spots, it doesn’t seem to have affected the appetite for aphids.

And I’m not a ladybird expert but I think this one is a harlequin:

harlequin ladybird on an avocado plant

The identification was made mainly on the grounds that it’s significantly larger than the other ladybirds since harlequins can have huge variations in colour and spot patterns.

There’s a short but informative video from Bill Oddie on the dangers that harlequin ladybirds pose to our native UK ladybirds. You’ll be relieved to hear I’m putting my daughters on 24 hour watch to make sure the suspected harlequin doesn’t eat the other ladybirds when the aphids run out.


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Gearing up for spring

Spring must be just around the corner because there are signs everywhere. Flowers of Euphorbia characias subs. wulfenii are poised, ready to unfurl:

Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfeniiThe perennial wallflower (Erysimum ‘Bowles’ Mauve’) has started to flower:

Erysimum 'Bowles' Mauve'In fact, it only stopped flowering in November so this is a star performer that is in flower for 10 months of the year. I planted three of these last year following my daughters’ complaints that we didn’t have enough flowers in the garden, and they’ve filled out nicely despite a fair amount of neglect. The only downside as far as I can tell is that it’s a short-lived perennial so I must investigate the best time to take cuttings.

Potatoes are chitting:

chitting first early potatoes

I only bother chitting first earlies to give them a head start; second earlies and maincrop get thrown in the soil with no preparation and it seems to work fine.

And the first sweet peas are starting to appear:

sweet pea seedlings

These were planted in mid January and were sat in a plastic greenhouse outside until the high winds forced them outside on the patio, where they’ve been ever since. We soaked the seeds in water overnight prior to planting and germination rates have been good.

We’re growing:

‘Matucana’ – one of my favourite sweet peas that has been in cultivation for hundreds of years. It has slightly smaller flowers than some of the more modern types but they have the most amazing fragrance.

‘Blue Velvet’ – chosen for its large, ruffled deep blue flowers.

‘Air Warden’ – this one has scarlet flowers and it supposed to be very prolific (although I haven’t yet grown a sweet pea that isn’t prolific).

We’ll sow some more sweet peas later this week because in March we’ll be busy sowing lots of flowers and vegetables for the allotment, school garden and pots on the patio.


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Gardening in the wettest January since records began

Dear Weather,

Ok, I’ve had enough now.  It was very kind of you to work so hard in January. I’m really not worried about a hosepipe ban this year. But I am worried that if you don’t stop soon, I’ll be able to canoe to the allotment.

Yours, ever so slightly damp, from London.

PS Also, I have to run a school gardening club through the depths of winter and you’re making life very difficult.

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Actually, despite being the wettest January on record for some parts of the UK, many of the school gardening club sessions last month coincided with dry days.  So although I had my list of indoor gardening-related activities at the ready, we were able to garden outside.  Since the soil has been saturated and unworkable, this is what has been keeping us busy over the last few weeks:  

growing pea shoots on a windowsill

Easy-peasy, quick results and cheap to do  – this one is ticking a lot of boxes.

Last week I sent ten 7 and 8 year olds home with a tray of planted peas each, plus instructions to place them on a windowsill inside and water every couple of days. A week later and my mini gardeners are reporting that all the trays are showing signs of germination. 100% success, I like that.

The peas we planted were dried (marrowfat) peas from the supermarket that I had soaked overnight in water.

soak dried peas in water before planting

Then we took some recycled plastic food containers with holes in the base and half filled them with compost. We placed a layer of peas on top, keeping them in a single layer but packing them quite closely together.

planting pea shoots

We covered with compost, watered, labelled and then put in a light place.  Shoots generally started to appear within 3 to 5 days. Within 2 to 3 weeks the first pea shoots should be ready to harvest and, if we’re lucky, we may have 2 to 3 harvests from each tray.

On a completely different subject, today we took root cuttings of mint. To keep things interesting, we used Moroccan mint, pineapple mint and chocolate mint.

The Moroccan mint plant was living in a terracotta pot last year and you can see how the roots have started to spiral round the inside of the pot. This is such a vigorous mint that I usually repot it every spring anyway.

taking root cuttings of mint

Repotting is as easy as cutting sections of root, placing them on the compost surface and covering with a thin layer of compost.

taking root cuttings of mint

Which left plenty of roots for the whole gardening club to have a small pot each plus some spares.

Like the peas, these are fairly robust plants. We’ll leave them outside to fend for themselves and when shoots start appearing, they’ll be taken home to keep.


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Would You Eat Blue Celery?

I’ve been busy adding some projects to the website recently and in my quest for some good photographs, we’ve been recreating several of the projects at home.  Which means that our kitchen currently resembles a Blue Peter studio.

One of the projects that’s proving a bit tricky is the old celery-stems-in-food-colouring-experiment. We’ve tried this before, with varying levels of success.

This time we started with 3 stems of celery in 3 different jars of food colouring:

celery stems in food colouring experiment

And a few days later, there’s not much going on.  Some small patches of blue can be detected on the leaves if you look very closely:

celery stems in blue food colouring

And even worse; one casualty.  I think we can conclude from this that celery does not like out of date black food colouring:

celery in food colouring

Undeterred, we increased the concentration of food colouring in the remaining jars. A few more days of waiting and we were rewarded with some blue colour on the leaves (the red was noticable but not quite as dramatic):

celery with blue food colouring experiment

And some great staining of the xylem when we cut thin sections of the celery stem (oooh, it took me right back to the biology lab at school for a few seconds..):

sections of celery stem with stained xylem

Next up is the multicoloured-rose-petals project, as seen on Pinterest. Apparently very easly done (hmmm) by stripping the rose stem into several strands and placing each one in a different jar of food colouring. We like a challenge 🙂 Oh, and in case you’re wondering, there were no takers for the blue celery at lunchtime.


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Growing Tomatoes in January, Without Soil

home grown tomato 'Striped Stuffer'

It’s many months since the home grown tomato season ended and it’s not even time for sowing tomato seeds yet. But tomatoes are still being grown in England in the depths of winter.

If you’re interested in a glimpse into the world that is commercial tomato growing, then take a peek at this new website for Thanet Earth, designed to be a resource for children and students, but equally interesting for adults.

If you haven’t heard of it, Thanet Earth is the largest glasshouse complex in the UK, growing peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes. The scale of the operation is staggering, each glasshouse having the footprint of about ten football pitches. The way in which the crops are grown is a feat of science and engineering – and about as far removed from growing a few pots of tomatoes on your patio as is possible.

The tomatoes are grown year round and there’s no soil in sight. They’re grown hydroponically i.e. in water to which nutrients are added. Computers control the flow and content of the nutrient solution, together with heating and lighting. Rainwater collected in on-site reservoirs supplies some of the water needed and on-site generators pump their by-product of carbon dioxide into the glasshouses.

The clinical approach pays off in terms of reduced numbers of pests and diseases and hence fewer pesticides. The first line of defence for any problem is biological control or using ‘good bugs’ to fight the ‘bad bugs’ as they describe it.

All very interesting food for thought which I’ll bear in mind next time I toss a punnet of cherry tomatoes into my shopping trolley in the depths of winter.


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A Garden to Banish the January Blues

I’ll be the first to admit that our garden doesn’t look its best in winter.

There’s a bit of structural form (a few trees and some raised beds) and a tiny bit of colour from the plants that still have leaves. But it’s predominantly a mass of soggy lawn and bare stems.

So yesterday we took ourselves off to a garden that has been designed to shine at this time of year; the Winter Garden in Battersea Park.

And we were rewarded with an abundance of flowers on a cold, bright January day:

Hamamelis (witch hazel) flowers in winter

Chaenomeles (japanese quince) flowers in winter

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