mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children


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The Handkerchief Tree

The Handkerchief Tree (Davidia involucrata)

This is one of my favourite trees and it’s in full bloom at the moment.

Davidia involucrata is commonly known as the Handkerchief Tree (or sometimes the Dove Tree, or even the Ghost Tree) due to the white bracts that surround the flower clusters. When viewed from a distance, it looks as though the tree is draped in handkerchiefs:

Davidia involucrata (the Handkerchief Tree)

Originally from China, it grows well in the UK although it’s still a relatively rare sight. I first saw one at the Chelsea Physic Garden in London, and the specimens in the photographs here are at Kew Gardens. If you’re lucky, you might find one in your local park, stately home grounds or botanical garden.

Davidia involucrata (the Handkerchief Tree)

Sadly, our garden is not quite big enough for one of these magnificent trees. But if you ever find yourself in need of a medium-sized deciduous tree that has the “wow” factor in May, this could be the one.


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Easter Holidays

easter holidays

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks, involving the consumption of huge amounts of chocolate. Here’s a quick round-up of the horticultural highlights.

Flower arranging. Not one of my strengths.

flower arranging tulips

But I think the tulips are colourful enough to make up for the lack of artistic arrangement.

A seed sowing extravaganza.

sowing seeds

We’re working on the spelling.

sowing spinach seeds

New plant purchases. This one is a sedum with gorgeous blue-green leaves.

sedum

Currently in a pot on the patio table so I can see it every time I walk past the window.

Preparation for our potato/tomato grafting experiment. The potato rootstock is coming along nicely:

potato plant in a pot for grafting

Although I’ve just realised I should have removed all but one shoot from the potato – a job for tomorrow.

And last but certainly not least: a gift from my daughters.

sempervivums

A collection of sempervivums from the highly recommended http://www.sempsbypost.co.uk.


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Patience is a virtue

turkey oak seedling

A quick update on the tree seeds that we planted last Autumn, left outside and then forgot about.

So far, all but one pot is showing signs of germination so the sink or swim test seemed to work.

Above is a seedling of the Turkey oak (Quercus cerris).

And the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) has also made an appearance:

sweet chestnut tree seedling

And there is some activity in the pot labelled silver birch (Betula pendula):

tree seedlings

Although I have a strong suspicion these may be the result of weed seeds that have been carried by the wind….


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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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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.


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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.