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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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.


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The Marge Simpson of the Garden

muscari latifolium

muscari latifolium

I first spotted this grape hyacinth at Kew Gardens last year and had to have a go at growing it.

Like most grape hyacinths, the flower resembles an upside down bunch of grapes. But the crowning glory for this one is the tufty light blue top. No surprise then that it’s been described as ‘the Marge Simpson of the garden‘.

We planted the bulbs last autumn in a small terracotta pot and left them outside over the winter. And we’ve been rewarded with a fabulous display of tufty spring flowers for the past couple of weeks.

They’re easy to grow provided they have a free-draining soil (hence the reason for planting in pots rather than directly into our heavy clay borders) and they have that quirky touch that children love.


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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.


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Blue Christmas

blue hyacinth

Every year I gaze longingly at Christmas trees that have been decorated stylishly, usually those gracing the covers of house magaines.  And every year I set out with the intention of having an uber-stylish tree with a single colour scheme for ornaments and no tinsel (on the grounds that it must be a bit naff as it doesn’t seem to feature much in the magazine photos).

And then my daughters take over and the tree becomes a riot of colour and tinsel, and home to oddly matched decorations, most of which are placed at child height with the rest of the tree remaining bare.

So not that our house needs any more colour this Christmas, oh no, but we couldn’t resist buying some hyacinths at the local shops.  Of course we could have gone for the more festive white flowered hyacinths if we’d had a snowy theme going on.  But for a house that has a Christmas tree decorated with more colours than a rainbow, blue seemed quite fitting.

blue hyacinth

Hyacinths don’t usually flower until spring but you can buy specially prepared bulbs (known as “forced” bulbs) to flower inside over Christmas.

If, like us, you weren’t organised enough to buy and plant hyacinth bulbs a couple of months ago, you can now buy bulbs that are already growing.

If you buy these before they flower (see photos below), repotting into nice containers is a great holiday job for children.  And they should flower within a week or so of repotting – speedy gardening results for little people with short attention spans.

Plus they make great gifts.  Handy to have a few at home for those awkward moments when you realise you need an emergency gift at short notice.  Or is that just us?

Read on for instructions……

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Lost and Found – Sunflower Seeds

sunflower seedhead

Our garden is full of squirrels at the moment, all busy digging and burying food for the winter ahead.  And in the depths of winter when they return they’ll probably forget where they buried their treasure and dig up even more of the garden in their frantic search.

A bit like the squirrels, we brought this sunflower seedhead back from the allotment several weeks ago, put it in a safe place (the shed) and promptly forgot about it.  It was only when we were searching for a plant pot earlier today that we stumbled across it.

But unlike the squirrels, this one isn’t destined for food.  We left most of the sunflower seeds at the allotment for the birds, so this one is for us and we’ll save the seed to plant next year.

Which means it’s a great excuse to get making some fabulous seed packets – watch this space, details coming soon.