mini gardeners

inspiring gardening projects for children


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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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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 🙂