mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children


Diary of a Guerrilla Gardener

guerrilla gardening in street tree pits

Inspired by all the reports of community gardening around London, we have the urge to “green up” some neglected land. After a quick street survey, we decide to start with the tree pit outside our house.

A bit of research on guerrilla gardening reveals that a key element to planting tree pits is to choose low value, tough plants as there is a reasonable probability they will get trampled, damaged or stolen. And even without all that, tree pits are not the most hospitable environments for little plants with poor, compacted soil and the competition of a mature tree for water and nutrients. We just happen to have a surplus of geraniums that have been sat around in trays for weeks so they seem like the ideal candidates.

The biggest surprise in our guerrilla gardening experiment is just how bad the soil in the tree pit is. It might have been easier to break through concrete but we persevere despite some strange looks from passers-by. It’s fortunate that we chose plants with small rootballs because I don’t think we would have been able to chisel out holes any bigger.

We add a bit of compost in a vain attempt to try and improve the soil, plant the geraniums and water copiously. We top with a bit of bark as a mulch and a sprinkle of wildflower seed balls.

It all looks quite smart and we feel pleased with ourselves.

guerrilla gardening in street tree pits

We pop out every few days to water our new plants and several neighbours comment on how lovely it looks. It’s all going really well and we decide we might expand our guerrilla gardening horizons to something altogether more ambitious.

A week later we notice a large, sloppy circle of dog poo in the middle of the geraniums (sorry to be so graphic, hope you’re not eating). Cue lots of muttering about irresponsible dog owners. My husband suggests that it might provide a source of manure for the plants, “looking on the bright side”.

guerrilla gardening in street tree pits

Then a day later, on the other side of the tree pit, the bark has been removed. Completely removed, there isn’t a trace of bark left.  And half of the plants are gone too.  Seriously, what kind of person would do something like that? Someone worse than an irresponsible dog owner, that’s for sure.  Now considering installing CCTV outside our house to catch the culprits should they decide to strike again.

guerrilla gardening in street tree pits

The seed balls have all disappeared with the bark too, so if you spot anyone around London with a small amount of bark that suddenly starts sprouting wildflowers, do let us know.

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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.


Trench Composting

trench composting on an allotment

My younger daughter has a fixation with digging holes at the moment. So before she turns the allotment into a lunar landscape with deep craters everywhere, I thought we’d channel her enthusiasm into something productive.

I’ve been meaning to try trench composting for a while, partly because it sounds a lot simpler than other composting methods. Essentially you dig a hole, bury some kitchen scraps, cover them with soil and wait.  And that’s it. No turning the compost heap, no watering if it dries out, and no need to move the finished compost from the heap to the growing area.

We collected vegetable peelings and uncooked food waste for a week and popped them in a hole that was supposed to be about 30cm deep, but I suspect was nearer 20cm.  We went for a circle instead of a rectangular trench as we plan to plant a wigwam of climbing beans on the site a little later this season.  I’ve read that you can add cooked food waste to a trench composting system but I can’t help thinking that would be an open invitation to all the foxes in the neighbourhood.

I have no idea how long the composting process will take although some people report a noticeable breakdown of the trench contents in just a couple of weeks.  The process is anaerobic (i.e. not using oxygen) compared to aerobic decomposition in the more usual compost heap – hence the reason regular compost heaps need to be turned when composting slows down; to add more oxygen.

If it works, this could be a great composting approach for the allotment which has lots of bare soil for several months of the year and hungry crops to support.  We’ll dig down again in a few weeks to assess what’s happening and report back.


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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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 Perfumed Bank Holiday

making perfume from flower petals

It was a Bank Holiday weekend with blue skies and a fair bit of sunshine, perfect for a spot of perfume making using flower petals from the garden.

Your perfume manufacturing technique may be more sophisticated than ours; we throw some random petals in a bucket of water, bash with a large stick, leave for a week and throw away when it turns mouldy.

Next time we might try a more sophisticated approach. There are lots of instructions on the internet for making perfume using rubbing alcohol, whatever that is (I’m only familiar with the alcohol that comes in a bottle for drinking). But this Guardian article suggests a simpler improvement to our very basic technique – steeping the petals in cooling boiled water, then sieving and bottling.

Oh, and our top tip is: don’t add leaves of Helichrysum italicum (otherwise known as the curry plant) unless you particularly want to smell like an Indian restaurant.


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.

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Finally cracked it!

growign an avocado plant from a stoneWe’ve never had any success in getting an avocado stone to germinate with that complicated cocktail-stick- suspended-over-a-glass-of-water method.

Several people have assured me it’s nothing to do with my gardening skills (I was beginning to wonder) but that it’s far easier just to sit the stone on top of a pot of compost.  So that’s exactly what we did.  And because it was a bit chilly we popped the pot into the heated propagator which happened to be on because we were germinating some seeds.

A week or so later a neat crack appeared all the way round the stone so we suspected something was happening.  And a few weeks later we lifted the stone off the compost to have a peek, and hey presto, the start of a healthy root system.  It’s now back in the pot of compost and we’re waiting with bated breath for a stem to appear 🙂

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Eco Soil

…. and the “root or shoot first?” experiment.

eco soil

My daughters visited a craft fair recently and returned with an intriguing present for me – a bag of eco soil.

You’re probably picturing in your mind a big, heavy compost-sized bag but it was tiny and contained what looked like lots of miniature yellow beads.  After soaking in water for a few hours we ended up with a mass of soft, water-filled capsules as in the photograph on the left.

The leaflet describes the eco soil as a water and soil substitute for flowers and indoor plants and we love it!  Once we’d managed to stop running our fingers through it (it’s very tactile) we decided to use it for a little experiment with a runner bean seed.  We wondered if the shoot or the root would emerge from the seed first or whether they’d both appear at the same time.

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Acorn “Sink or Swim” Test

acorn sink or swim test

Here’s a handy trick for determining whether acorns are likely to germinate and grow into mighty oak trees:

Throw a handful of acorns into a jar of water, discard the floaters and plant the ones that sink.

In our little experiment just 2 acorns out of 12 sank to the bottom.  In the interests of conducting a proper, controlled scientific experiment we’ll be planting 2 of the floaters as well just to check 🙂

And now for the science:  Acorns are prone to drying out which reduces their ability to grow into seedlings.  Dried acorns have more air inside them and hence are more likely to float.  It’s not a completely foolproof test but worth trying if you were a bit too enthusiastic with the acorn collecting.