mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children

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Playing with Nettles

grow your own nettle fertiliser

It’s a high risk strategy, I know. My arms are still tingling as I write, so bare arms aren’t recommended. But if you have a patch of young nettles nearby, you can make a brilliant liquid plant food for free.

Rich in nitrogen (needed for leafy growth), it’s a good spring boost for plants in general, and particularly good for:

  • leafy plants and vegetables, such as brassicas
  • container plants, which need regular feeding
  • vegetable plots where intensive cropping and hungry crops have depleted the soil of nutrients
  • anything that is looking a bit sad and yellow but should really be green and happy.

Also, given the huge amounts of rain we’ve had over the last few months and its associated nutrient leaching, plants and garden soils may be in need of a bit of TLC.

Apart from trying hard to avoid being stung, nettle fertiliser couldn’t be easier to make.

Step 1 Collect the leaves and stems of young nettles, place in a bucket or trug:

making nettle fertiliser for plants

Step 2 Cover with water. Some people suggest weighing down the nettles with a brick but this is a refinement I don’t bother with.

making nettle fertiliser for plants

Step 3 Leave outside for 2 to 3 weeks. Probably best not to leave it right by your back door as it gets VERY smelly.  It’s fine if rain tops the water level up from time to time. (If you have small children you may want to consider covering the container on safety grounds.)

Step 4 Allow a child to stir vigorously with a large stick whilst the fertiliser is maturing. This bruises the leaves and helps the process along. Most “recipes’ for nettle fertiliser suggest bruising the fresh leaves before immersing in water. But I know from bitter experience that’s a stinging disaster waiting to happen.

Step 5 Pour off the liquid into another bucket and put the discarded nettles on the compost heap. The fertiliser will be strong (as evidenced by the smell!) so it’ll need to be diluted – the rough guide is 1 part fertiliser to 10 parts water. Use the diluted fertiliser to water plants in need of a boost.

A bit later in the season we’ll switch to comfrey fertiliser. Made in exactly the same way, this has higher levels of potassium which is good for flower and fruit development.

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Have you ever …… dissected a daffodil?

issecting a daffodil flower

Pulling flowers apart is the sort of behaviour that’s usually frowned upon. But this time it’s for a good cause; learning a little bit about flower anatomy. You don’t need to sacrifice a daffodil in its prime either, one slightly past its best works just fine. And there are no tools required apart from your own hands – we managed to tear this flower apart without scissors or knives.

Start by locating the spathe – it’s a bit like a brown paper bag just under the flower:

daffodil dissection - the spathe

The spathe protects the flower bud. It splits as the petals grow and emerge, as illustrated below:

daffodil petals emerging from the spathe

Remove the spathe, then take a good look at the petals:

daffodil petals

Our daffodil had 6 petals. When you’ve removed the petals you should be left with the cup or corona:

daffodil corona

Rip the corona lengthways then peel it away from the flower stem.  A little bit of pollen may be released as you do this.

dissecting a daffodil

Then you can remove six stamens (the male part of the flower’s reproductive system). Each stamen consists of an anther which contains the pollen grains, supported by a stalk called a filament.

daffodil dissection, showing stamens

This should leave you with the female reproductive parts; collectively known as the pistil (or carpel).

daffodil pistil, showing stigma, style & ovary

The stigma receives the pollen and a pollen tube grows down the style so that the ovules (egg cells) inside the ovary can be fertilised.

It’s fairly easy to use a thumbnail to prise the ovary apart, as in the picture above.

If all that has whetted your appetite, this link has a comprehensive summary of the structure and function of flowers.

And one final note, always supervise children when dissecting daffodil flowers. Although the daffodil is a common flower, all parts of the plant can cause illness if eaten.


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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New Year’s Resolutions and the TomTato

new year's resolutions

Since giving up alcohol for January is now officially a waste of time (rejoice!), my New Year’s resolutions for 2014 are to drink some good wine and read some good books. No agonising over broken resolutions in our house, no lingering regret at not exercising more/being more organised/practising times tables every day etc etc.

In the same vein, I’m encouraging my daughters to resolve to do more enjoyable, achievable things in 2014. Browsing through the seed catalogues last night, we came up with our family gardening resolution for this year; to attempt to grow our own TomTato.

If you haven’t come across this, it’s a single plant that produces both tomatoes and potatoes. Not a botanical curiosity but a man-made union of a potato plant (producing the roots and lower part of stem of the grafted plant) with a tomato plant (the upper part of the grafted plant). It’s created by the process of grafting so there’s no genetic modification involved. And before you dismiss it as a frivolous novelty for the home gardening enthusiast, it has been considered as a possible solution to sustainable gardening in developing countries.

You can buy one of these plants from Thomson & Morgan for £14.99 which I’m sure is a fair price given the 15 years of research that preceded its release. But as I missed the practical session on grafting when I was studying for the RHS exams a few years ago, and I’ve been itching to try some grafting ever since, I thought we’d give it a go. 

It prompted lots of questions from my daughters – will the tomatoes taste of potato and vice versa? (I really hope not); can we save the tomato seed to grow future grafted plants? (no, because the tomato seed will produce tomato plants only); will the grafting work? (I don’t know but we’ll give it our best shot).

The best set of instructions I’ve seen for the whole process is from James Wong on the Garden Organic site. We won’t be able to start for a few months yet, leaving plenty of time to read some good books and drink some good wine in the meantime.

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A Grand Finale

miniature garden

It’s the last school gardening club session this week because the rest of term is taken up with sports days, summer fairs and general end-of-term activities.

We try to finish on a high with something fun that can be taken home – making grass heads is a favourite ending. But, inspired by a recent visit to a model village, this term’s grand finale was designing and making miniature gardens.

Top tips if you fancy trying this yourself:

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Chocolate Brownies and Exploding Flowers

gorse flowers

We managed a 4 mile walk avec les enfants today, with minimal moaning.

How did we achieve this amazing feat?

With the distractive powers of chocolate brownies (works every time) and exploding flowers.

The Devon countryside is awash with brilliant yellow gorse flowers at the moment. And we discovered that if you press gently on the lower petals with your finger, mimicking a bumble bee landing, the flower springs open permanently, exposing the reproductive parts.  If you’re lucky, you might get a spray of pollen into the bargain.  Strangely addictive, distracting and educational all at the same time.

Common gorse (Ulex europaeus) is a member of the pea family and has flowers that are not dissimilar to sweet peas.  The photograph below shows a gorse flower that is ready for ‘exploding’.

gorse flower

And this is the result:

gorse flower

The whispy bits revealed in the centre of the flower are the anthers (containing pollen), each held aloft a long stalk called the filament, which are collectively the ‘male’ parts of the flower (the stamen). Some of the flowers will throw out  a spray of pollen when opened, whoo hoo!  We did have the great idea of trying to capture the pollen spray on camera but had to adbandon this due to the risk of frostbite on our hands with the bitterly cold spring wind (sorry).

If you’re keen to explore the world of flower anatomy further, try this link.  Not the prettiest internet page ever but it has a simple, clear illustration with a good, concise description.