Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Weekend

Child's Play

by Hannah Stephenson

As the Easter holidays beckon, get the kids involved in gardening tasks and the great outdoors, says Hannah Stephenson

The Easter holidays are upon us and there's no better time than spring to engage the kids with gardening projects, or take them to outdoor places which will both inspire and delight them.

It's surely time to redress the balance of children's lack of connection with nature. Some 12% of children in the UK have not visited a park, forest, garden or any other natural environment for at least 12 months, according to a new Government study.

So, have a look at Easter events with the National Trust which has teamed up with Cadbury's here for Easter Egg hunts (nationaltrust.org.uk/features/join-the- cadbury-easter-egg-hunt).

And the inspiraton doesn't get much more beautiful than the delightful carpets of blue which cover our woodlands between mid-April and mid-May. Follow the winding paths through Castle Ward, Mount Stewart, Minnowburn, Crom and Downhill Demesne to discover the riotous blue haze.

But you can also sort out simple projects in your own garden, says Matthew Appleby, deputy editor at Horticulture Week, author, garden blogger and father-of-two, who is concerned that children are losing touch with nature.

"I see a 'disconnect' between children and nature - largely due to the rise of the internet," he says.

"A poll by Persil found that more than half of parents encourage their children to avoid messy activities such as gardening and baking. One in three children say that they did not like getting dirty, their preferred activities being television-watching and playing on video games."

Some companies have made inroads into tempting youngsters into the garden with their child-friendly products. Seed Pantry, for instance, has launched a new Children's Me Seeds Starter Kit, containing seeds to grow cress, sunflowers, pumpkins and sweetcorn, as well as all the compost discs, pots and labels you need to get started (£12.50, seedpantry.co.uk).

Attractive children's tools and clothing have also made their mark, with companies such as Briers (briersltd.co.uk) providing everything children might need for their garden adventures.

There's also plenty of ideas for children's projects in Appleby's latest book, The Children's Garden. These include:

  • The all-you-can eat hanging basket: The beauty of this idea is you get so many mini-projects in one basket. Fill a lined basket with potting compost, plant a strawberry plant in the centre and add basil and dill plants round the edge. Marigolds provide edible petals and colour. Tumbling tomatoes can cascade down the sides. Hang at children's eye level so they can feed and water.
  • Plant up an old handbag or high-heeled shoe. Adults need to make a hole in the bottom, add some compost and let the child put in a plant, such as a pelargonium or chilli plant.
  • Seed bombs: Seed bomb some waste ground by mixing seed, compost and dry clay powder to stick your bomb together.
  • Create a miniature garden: These projects take gardening down to children's eye level and make plants seem less intimidating. Use an old washing-up bowl or clean litter tray with some drainage holes in the base. Including children's own toys - dolls, dinosaurs or fairies - gives them a sense of ownership. For a dinosaur garden, use prehistoric-looking plants such as small ferns and moss, plus creeping mint and thyme for the dinosaur models to creep along. An indoor mini garden follows the same principle. Use cacti and pebbles to create a desert cowboy scene.
  • If it rains, take growing inside. The old favourite of a cress head grown in an old pair of tights is great, but update it by using popcorn seeds - children prefer popcorn to cress. Use seeds sown on cotton wool stuffed in a pair of old tights and tied at the top. Place on a pot and water for a quick introduction to the magic of growing your own.
  • Plants for free. If you're on a budget, cut-off tops of carrots, turnips, parsnips or beetroot will grow again on a saucer of water or in a pot. Or try pineapple tops using the same method, or avocado stones, balanced half over a glass of water.
  • The Children's Garden: Loads Of Things to Make & Grow by Matthew Appleby, is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £14.99. Available now

Best of the Bunch

Hyacinth

These highly fragrant bulbs producing showy spikes of blooms in shades predominantly of purple, pink and white, are particularly effective in containers by the patio door, so when you venture outside on spring days you'll immediately catch a waft of their heady scent. I think they look best in single colours in containers and are less likely to flop outside than they are indoors. You can't beat Hyacinthus orientalis for fragrance - good varieties include 'Blue Jacket' and 'Carnegie White', but you can get many other colours including primrose yellow and apricot orange. Either plant them on their own, 2-3cm apart, or space them out for room for other plants between. If you want a mass effect, plant smaller-grade bulbs densely, just 1cm apart. Hyacinths can be grown in pots of any depth, provided the bulbs are covered with 3-4cm of compost and there's at least 6cm of compost underneath them.

Good Enough to Eat

Weeds

Before you go throwing those dandelions, nettles and ground elder into the compost bin, think again - because weeds can miraculously be turned into gourmet veg. If you boil nettles, their sting instantly disappears and they can be added to soups and quiches. Cover dandelions with a bucket a couple of weeks before harvesting them for mild-tasting pale leaves that are great in salads, or lightly steam some leaves of ground elder - one of the hardest perennial weeds to eradicate - and serve them with a knob of butter. Other weeds, including Shepherd's Purse, has deliciously spicy leaves similar to those of watercress, while pineapple weed gives a taste of the tropical, which goes well in yoghurt dips or sprinkled on salads. You may not have them all in your garden, but it shouldn't take much foraging to find a few to take to the dinner table.

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