mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children


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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.


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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.


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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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The Twelve Days of Christmas

mistletoe

I love Christmas but there’s no denying it’s a busy time of year. And sometimes the endless list of “things to do” can detract from the enjoyment.

So earlier this year, I resolved to be organised this Christmas. The big plan was to get most of the Christmas preparations completed early, leaving more time to sit back and enjoy the festive season.  No  racing around like a headless chicken (or turkey) this year.

And it’s taken a lot of self-discipline to prepare for Christmas at some very unChristmassy times of the year (see below) but the hard work has paid off. I started December with all presents bought and wrapped, tree up and decorated, Christmas menus planned and internet food shops booked. I’ve had time to spend with the children doing all sorts of lovely gardening-related craft activities and have drafted and scheduled a series of blog posts around the theme “the Twelve Days of Christmas”, the first of which will be published tomorrow.

The Christmas countdown started about a year ago:

Jan – Bought Christmas cards and wrapping paper in the sales, put away in a safe place.

Aug – Christmas gift list drafted, Christmas card list updated.

Sep – All gifts bought and wrapped.  Christmas cards written, with stamps and addresses on envelopes ready for posting.

Oct – Christmas menus drafted, shopping lists drawn up, internet food shopping booked.

late Nov – Posted cards, put up Christmas decorations. All done!

AND THEN I WOKE UP from my dream to the reality that is 14th December 2013.  Turkey not yet ordered, no Christmas cards posted, Christmas shopping started but nowhere near finished, Christmas tree lights STILL not working and a general feeling of being ever so slightly frazzled. Maybe next year…..


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Don’t Try This at Home

chilli 'Etna"

I helped out at my daughter’s cub group last week. It all sounded easy enough, supervising a table of cubs making model aeroplanes.  Until, that is, they dropped the bombshell that the cubs would be cutting bits of balsa wood with a scalpel. Yes, a scalpel.

And although I felt like I’d aged several years by the end of the evening (not helped by the fact that I was supervising a table of raucous boys with no regard for personal safety), everyone managed to make it to the end injury-free.

Before that evening, I’d been hesitating about whether to mention the fact that we’ve been stringing chilli peppers at home, ready for drying.  Hesitating because stringing hot chillies with a sharp needle doesn’t sound the most child-friendly project.  But after spending an evening playing with sharp knives, it seems positively tame in comparison. So here goes…

chilli peppers ready for drying

We harvested most of our chilli peppers a week or so ago and my daughters have been busy stringing them ready for drying and, eventually, making our own chilli powder.

We’ve grown a few different chillies this year and our biggest harvest by a long way was ‘Demon Red’.  We had six plants, all well-behaved and compact, and although the individual chillies are fairly small, the yields per plant are high.  It’s a hot little chilli, as the name suggests, so stringing them together for drying is definitely a job for older children (I can report that 9 and 12 year olds coped with it well).

A couple of tips to ensure your chillies don’t slip off the thread:

harvest chillies with a small piece of stem

and

stringing chillies for drying

And obviously, don’t forget to wash your hands as soon as you’ve finished handling the chillies 🙂


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The Little Red Hen Rebels

little red hen

“Who will help me plant these seeds?” asked the little red hen.

“Not I” came the reply. So the little red hen planted the seeds by herself.

“Who will help me water and weed the seedlings?” asked the little red hen.

“Not I” came the reply. So the little red hen weeded and watered by herself.

But today the little red hen despaired of doing everything herself. Not least because she was soon to take possession of an extra half allotment (more of which at a later date) and the current allotment wasn’t in the best shape.

So it was a three-line whip, all hands on deck, family effort for the Great Autumn Allotment Tidy Up.

And it’s AMAZING what progress you can make when you have four pairs of hands instead of one. We were busy weeding, trimming grass paths, clearing old crops and topping up bark paths, not to mention a healthy dose of moaning, arguing with siblings, taking time out for sulking, and complaining of being too hot, too cold, and hungry.

Despite all that, in no time at all the allotment was transformed from this:

allotment before autumn tidy up

Into this:

allotment after autumn tidy up

The next stage is to cover all the bare soil because bare soil over winter is a Bad Thing. All the gardening books warn of soil erosion and nutrient leaching but, just as important in my view, the local cats and foxes will view it as a custom-built toilet and it’ll be covered in weeds before you can say “spring is nearly here”.

So I’ll use a combination of mulching with homemade leafmould and compost, covering with weed control membrane and sowing green manure. I already have some Phacelia tanacetifolia growing which may overwinter if the weather isn’t too harsh.

Phacelia tanacetifolia (green manure)

I’ll dig this in at some point to improve the soil but as the flowers are attractive to bees and hoverflies, I’ve saved some seed and will be sowing a little patch next spring too.

And I’ll also be sowing some grazing rye in the next week as this is one the few green manures that can be sown up to the end of November, plus it copes well with the heavy clay soil on my allotment. This will be dug into the soil next spring. It’s a bit of an effort to dig it in, as is commonly reported, but it fits into my timescales well as I’m never ready to sow green manure any earlier than September/October.

I was so pleased with my allotment helpers that, as a reward for all their hard work, I’ll be including them in the next allotment task; the Horse Manure Project. I could tell they were thrilled, they were literally speechless.


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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.

Time for a haircut

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topiary rabbittopiary rabbit

You know how it is……. things get busy , you don’t have your hair cut for a while. Then you can’t do a thing with it and every day becomes a Bad Hair Day.

After a quick trim this afternoon our topiary rabbit can now hold his head up high and Bad Hair Days are a thing of the past.

We also gave him a long overdue feed. He’s about 3 years old and the plant inside the frame – box (Buxus sempervirens) – is filling out nicely.

A lot less trouble than a real rabbit 🙂

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