mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children


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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.

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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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Teeny Tiny Gardening

Teeny Tiny Gardening Book

‘Teeny Tiny Gardening’ by Emma Hardy (published by Cico Books) is not a children’s gardening book but it contains lots of projects that would be perfect for attempting with children.

Even if you don’t try any of the projects, the book is a delight to browse with its beautifully styled photographs and clear step-by-step instructions.  There’s something very appealing about small, bite-sized gardening projects, giving you the feeling that you could achieve great things before you’ve even finished breakfast.

Some of the projects I’ll be adding to our must-try list are:

Cacti in glasses from Teeny Tiny Gardening

Simple but inspired; a fresh approach to displaying cacti and much more attractive than the usual arrangement of a few random cacti in non-matching pots on a dusty windowsill. My daughters already have a small collection of cacti each – they’re great plants for children (and adults) who aren’t too good at remembering to water –  and displaying them like this will be a simple step. These would also make lovely little gifts.

guttering garden by Teeny Tiny Gardening

I’ve seen vegetable seedlings growing in guttering before and I really like these painted pieces of guttering attached to the side of a shed. Great if you have limited space and I’m thinking they could also be used for growing lettuce in a school garden.

And my absolute favourite;

green roof birdhouse from Teeny Tiny Gardening

I’ve been toying with the idea of putting a green roof on our garden shed for some time but have been put off by the fact that I’d need to strengthen the shed with internal batons first.  And woodwork is not one of my strong points; I nearly cut my finger off in one of the first woodwork lessons at school and things haven’t improved much since then.  But the instructions say that only basic woodwork skills are needed and a slightly rough finish adds to the overall charm, so I’m very tempted to give it a go. Watch this space.

Not all of the projects in the book are to my taste (the planted suitcase and chair for example are a bit too contrived for me and won’t be finding a home in my garden) but with 35 projects there’s something for everyone. Overall a rather charming little book and a big thumbs up from us.


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Release Your Inner Squirrel

Acorn cups

Is it just me or is collecting acorns seriously addictive?

I can’t go out at the moment without returning with pockets stuffed full of acorns. I thought I’d offload some on the school gardening club but I was greeted with looks of horror all round when I announced we’d be planting tree seeds. A  group of forward-thinking 7 year olds demanded to know exactly what we were going to do with all those oak trees. A very good question (that’s what I always say when I’m stumped for an answer and playing for time) which needed a convincing answer.  So….

Firstly, it’s unlikely that all the acorns will germinate.

Secondly, if there’s a squirrel within a 50 mile radius, we’ve got a battle on our hands.

Thirdly, as we’re growing the trees in pots, the probability of keeping a small tree alive for a couple of years before it’s big enough to be planted out is around 20%*.

Fourthly, even if we decide to compost the young trees before they get too big, we’ve still learned a lot from collecting, planting and tending the seeds, not to mention thinking about plant life cycles.

Fifthly, we have a tree nursery at school for small trees that pupils don’t want to take home. Those that eventually get too big for the nursery will either be planted in the school grounds, or donated to the local gardening college or park.

That seemed to do the trick (phew), we planted our acorns and nearly all of them took the pots home.

If you’ve never tried planting tree seeds before, release that inner squirrel and give it a go. Acorns, conkers or sweet chestnuts are all good for beginners as they tend to have reasonable rates of success.

horse chestnut trees grown from conkers

There’s not much to it really – bury the seed in some soil and forget about it until next spring. To increase your chances of success you can follow a few simple tips:

  • Collect the plumpest seeds and discard any that show signs of damage (harsh, but it’s survival of the fittest).
  • Plant straight away. All these seeds can die if they’re allowed to dry out. If you want to show off, the technical term is “recalcitrant seed”.
  • Try the sink or swim test before planting, to select seeds which have the best chance of germinating.
  • Remove anything that isn’t seed i.e. acorn cups, conker and sweet chestnut casings.
  • Plant in a small pot (must have drainage holes) and ensure the seed is covered with its own depth of compost.  Or plant directly into the ground if you prefer.
  • Water and cover with some sort of netting, otherwise the squirrels WILL find them and steal them.
  • Leave outside to experience the full extremes of winter weather.

Shoots should appear some time in the spring.

And finally, I leave you with the results of the most glamorous acorn competition.

Acorns possibly from the Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris)

I think this is the Turkey Oak (Quercus cerris), or a hybrid of the Turkey Oak, and we’re loving those frivolous, frilly acorn cups.

* An entirely made up figure but you can’t beat a well-placed statistic.


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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 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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No children please, we’re British

As well as being a terribly British affair, the Chelsea Flower is no place for children.  Children under 5 are banned and it’s usually so crowded that you wouldn’t wish to risk having your over 5s squashed.  But there’s still plenty of inspiration at Chelsea for child-friendly family gardens.

insect house chelsea flower show 2013

This enormous insect house was constructed on the end of a shed – a great project for an ambitious school gardening club?

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