mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children


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When it rains, it pours

grow your own stripy courgettes

I tried to convince my daughters we were having snake for dinner last night but they rolled their eyes and groaned “not courgettes AGAIN”.

Yes, it’s that time of year when the courgettes are coming in thick and fast. I’ve now exhausted my repertoire of courgette recipes, been through the  chop-them-up-very-small-and-sneak-them-in-everything phase, given away as many as possible (I think people are starting to avoid me) and yet there are still courgettes left over.

All this despite growing only a modest two plants this year.

In spring it’s always tempting to sow more seed because the summer courgette glut is a distant memory and they are so ridiculously easy to grow – provided you have a reasonable amount of space in a sunny spot and you can get the young plants to survive any slug and snail attacks. I swear by crushed eggshells, applied regularly in a circular barrier around the small plants.

There’s only one thing for it, time to search for a recipe for chocolate courgette cake. Let’s hope it calls for more than one courgette.


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Off with its head! (The short life of a rhubarb flower)

rhubarb flower

Our rhubarb has flowered for the first time. We spotted the huge flower bud a week or so ago and had the sharpened secateurs at the ready. Conventional wisdom dictates that it must be decapitated immediately otherwise the plant will be weakened by the energy required for seed production and hence be less productive.

But we were curious. And the huge flower bud has been pushed skywards on one of the thickest flower stalks we’ve ever seen and a flower resembling mini red cauliflowers looks set to emerge. (The photo above was taken on a phone so it’s not as clear as it might be.)

Flowering can be a response to rhubarb undergoing some sort of stress; too cold, too hot, not enough water, starved of nutrients. Anything that potentially shortens its lifespan so it sends up a flower to reproduce. I suspect that in our case the flowering is likely to be due to the plant maturing. We inherited the rhubarb when we took on the allotment so I have no idea how old it is or even what cultivar it is.

So perhaps it’s time to think about dividing the rhubarb crowns next winter to rejuvenate them. In the meantime, the flower stalk is on the compost heap.


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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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Grow Your Own Herbal Tea

grow your own herbal tea

A week to go until Mother’s Day. If you’ve been highly organised and already have a gift purchased/ordered then you can stop reading now. If not, here’s a little idea for a simple but effective handmade Mother’s Day gift that children can help with: a grow your own herbal tea planter.

We used a recycled wine box and 3 small plants but any pot or window box planter would work, just adjust the number of plants accordingly.

If your planter doesn’t have drainage holes in the base, these need to be added – I drilled some holes in the base of the wine box. I also lined the box with some old compost bags as I know from experience that wooden planters can start to rot in no time at all. If you do this, don’t forget to snip some drainage holes in the compost bag.

Then onto the plants. There are lots of choices for herbal tea but we narrowed our wish-list down to five.

apple mint (mentha suaveolens)

1. Apple mint  Mentha suaveolens

Many types of mint are good for herbal tea – Moroccan mint has a particularly good flavour – but we selected apple mint for its attractive variegated leaves (see photo above).

2.  Lemon balm  Melissa officinalis

Makes a good herbal tea on its own and is often used as a base for adding other flavours.

3. German chamomile  Matricaria recutita

This is on the list because we’ve never grown chamomile and we were curious…

4. Anise hyssop  Agastache foeniculum

As the name suggests, this has a licorice flavour, and as an added bonus the blue flowers are attractive to bees.

5. Bronze fennel  Foeniculum vulgare ‘Purpureum’ or ‘Giant Bronze’

Another licorice flavoured herb with attractive feathery leaves. With fennel the seeds, rather than the leaves, are collected for making tea.

On a quick trip to the garden centre we managed to find small plants for three of our wish-list; lemon balm, apple mint and bronze fennel. I later found some seeds for anise hyssop in my seed collection so a small pot of those are in the propagator as we speak.  And the chamomile will have to wait for the moment.

All of these herbs will be happy in a sunny spot and will need to be watered frequently as the container is relatively small and the compost likely to dry out. I suspect that we’ll replant them directly into the ground in the garden or allotment at some future point but for now they’re looking pretty on a patio table in the sun. The mint, of course, will have to stay in a pot otherwise it’ll take over the whole garden.

When I’m ready for a cup of tea I’ll harvest about 2 tablespoons of leaves, bruise them gently to release the aromatic oils and then steep in hot water for up to 5 minutes. Trial and error may mean this “recipe” gets adjusted over time.


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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.


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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.