Lit it Grow
As the school holidays begin, Hannah Stephenson looks at some green-fingered fun for kids and chooses some accessories to help them along the way
School's out for summer - but while some parents have every day meticulously planned with activities and time away, others are having 'staycations' and trying to coax their children into the garden.
Your outside space can be a great playground though, where kids can be encouraged to take an interest in the natural world around them and in growing some produce of their own.
Here are some ideas from Chiltern Seeds (chilternseeds.co.uk) on how you might help your kids get the gardening bug this summer:
Seed collage: Gather seeds from the garden. Find a piece of card or sturdy paper, smother it with craft glue and stick away. Your children can make creative collages using not only seeds but leaves, flowers and other garden clippings.
Create a fairytale world: Find a seed tray, some soil, gravel, stones, pebbles or shells, twigs, small plants and perhaps a couple of fairies (or dinosaurs) and let their imagination run wild. You could use Sagina subulata (a super plant for ground cover which has dainty, fairy-like white flowers), Portulaca grandiflora and Briza maxima, along with a pretty collection of shells and pebbles.
Sow seeds: Some seeds grow really fast, so it's not too late to do a bit of seed sowing with the children. Try growing salad leaves such as Chard 'Pink Flamingo' which will be ready to eat quickly and might even encourage your children to enjoy salad. Quick-growing flowers include borage, nasturtiums (Tropaeolum) and Matthiola bicornis.
Make cress heads: To create a good cress head/monster, choose a suitable receptacle (plastic cup, yoghurt pot, egg shell, unwanted shoe, old laddered tights), fill with moistened cotton wool, compost or kitchen roll, sprinkle the seeds on top, water and wait for nature to do its thing. You will have cress within a matter of days.
Create vegetable animals: If you have an abundance of fruit and veg in the allotment, get your children to create and make a vegetable animal or monster, using produce including potatoes, courgettes and carrots - the more imaginative the better.
Make a mud pie: Give them a large pot, or a spare corner of the garden, a trowel and fork and some soil and leave them to it, although make sure you supervise close by. Add an old plastic tea set and they can create a mud afternoon tea. This may just involve a small amount of mess but children love getting dirty, so it's good to let them every now and again.
Snail racing: Fed up with finding snails nibbling your favourite plants? Instead of throwing them over the neighbour's fence, try picking a couple off some leaves, stick colourful stickers on their shells to identify them, create a start and finish line and let them have a race.
Bird spotting: Hang bird feeders in your garden. Visit your local library for a book on birds and let your children make a note of any feathery visitors that come to the garden. They could try counting them and drawing. Encourage them to notice any habits or particular times that the birds like to visit.
Daisy chains: Don't worry about weeds in the lawn. Find a patch with daisies and set the children to work in making the longest daisy chain possible.
Decorate a flower pot: Dig out some old flower pots and let the children decorate them with stickers, paints and glitter - and then grow something in them such as herbs or quick-to-mature micro-greens.
Best of the Bunch
They smell amazing at this time of year, their trumpet-like blooms making a statement both visually and scent-wise, whether planted in borders or in pots. Plant them in spring in well-drained compost with added sand or grit, keep them well watered once growth starts and feed them with tomato fertiliser every two weeks. There are many types in colours ranging from pure white to burgundy and taller varieties such as Turk's-cap types will need support. Some people find the heady scent of really fragrant varieties such as the deep pink oriental Lilium 'Star Gazer' too much, but I love them. And if you plant them in the garden, many will come back year after year, forming clumps over time. My personal favourite is Lilium 'regale', the regal lily, cream, subtle and beautifully scented.
Good Enough to Eat
These delicious fruits come into their own in late summer and are easy to grow, so there's no reason to be buying expensive supermarket punnets. They prefer moisture retentive but free-draining soil with the addition of compost prior to planting. They do best in a sunny sheltered site and are self-fertile, so you'll only need to buy one variety. Their sprawling habit makes them suitable to grow as hedges or to grow up arches or walls. Many types are vigorous and will need at least 3.75m between plants when trained against a wall. The vigorous types will need sturdy supports, so use fence posts with horizontal wires. Tie in the shoots of newly-planted canes then, once they reach their first winter, cut back all sideshoots produced on the main canes to five cm. Good varieties include 'Fantasia' and the thornless 'Loch Ness'.
Children's Garden Kit
If you haven't any tools for little hands, don't worry - there are plenty out there which won't cost an arm and a leg:
- Treat them to a funky print pair of Little Thoughtful Gardener Children's Gardening Gloves (£8, John Lewis, johnlewis.com).
- Everything your child needs tool-wise is there in the brightly-coloured Briers Kids Gardening Tool Set Bag, including a watering can (£14.99, Wyevale Garden Centres).
- Don't forget the seeds. There's a good choice with the Children's Edible Mini Garden Growing Kit from Plantalicious, featuring a selection of seeds, including mixed lettuces and basil, mini tubs, plant markers and gnome stickers (£12, gardendivas.co.uk)