Let them run wild!

This is a guest post I wrote for the lovely guys at Modern Mint, a garden design firm. I met the Director Darren Lerigo at a Garden Media Guild event, and he asked for my thoughts about what gardens offer children.

For a few scary minutes this summer I lost my three year old daughter. We’d been pottering outside one minute, and she was gone the next. I scoured the garden, then the house, then the garden again. She’s quite sensible, so I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have wandered off by herself. And the dogs would have made a racket if anyone had come into the garden. But as time ticked on I became worried.

I finally ran out to the road feeling a bit panic stricken. Then I spotted her on the overgrown bank at the edge of the garden.

She was quietly gathering leaves and putting them in a stacking-cup, murmuring to herself as she worked. I broke the spell, shouting that I’d been worried, why didn’t she come when I called and what was she doing out there anyway?

It turned out her imaginary friend was unwell. He needed the leaves to make him better. Of course he did.

Adventures in the gardenexploring

I don’t really consider the bank a safe place for a young child. It’s steep and rough, full of nettles, thistles and other spiky things. Not to mention the four foot drop to the lane. It’s sectioned off from the main garden by a stretch of chestnut paling with a seldom used, tricky-to-open gate. I asked how she’d got out there. She answered by pushing a loosened pale to one side and squeezing back through the fence.

A big part of me wanted to say she mustn’t go out there again. But I found myself just asking her to be careful. And not to eat any leaves.

Exploring, hiding, making dens and imaginary concoctions is heaps of fun for kids. Experts in child development reckon outdoor free play is really important. Especially if it involves taking reasonable risks.

Gardens offer a perfect springboard for this. Even a small plot has the potential to offer a wilderness ripe for adventures; providing adults are prepared to be a little bit indulgent.

In a medium to large garden, it’s easy to let a forgotten corner run wild. Leave the hedges untrimmed, the grass uncut. Better still, sow a meadow mix to create a haven for children and nectar-lovers alike. You could leave a few bits of wood, sticks, bricks and other random stuff lying about for impromptu den-making or props.

If the untidiness is difficulsweet pea castle (2)t to live with, you can always screen it off with a trellis and a few climbing plants.

Smaller gardens might be able to accommodate a wigwam or two – these are easily rigged up using hazel sticks or canes from a garden centre. Build them with a wide base, at least 1.5metre diameter, and leave enough room between two of the uprights for an entrance. Runner beans or sweet peas planted in May or June will soon provide enough cover for a little-person’s summer hideout.

Whatever happens, don’t tell the kids what you’re doing or why. Hidey holes and wildernesses are ten times more exciting if the grown-ups don’t know about them. They need to feel like unchartered territory or a forbidden land.

I learnt this the hard way when we made a sweet pea castle for my daughter. She was very enthusiastic about building the structure and growing the plants, but barely ventured in there all summer. On the other hand, every under-five who came to play made a bee-line for it. No doubt they assumed they were being terribly naughty pushing through the flowers to sneak inside.

You can see the original post here: http://modernmint.co.uk/let-run-wild/ 

the secret life of woodlice

It’s funny what you learn when you have a four year old.

Ours has been fascinated by garden creatures since she was tiny. So back in August we made an insect hotel. We hoped it might provide a winter resting place for bees and ladybirds. Perhaps a few toads would move in at the bottom.

insect hotel, cottage garden, gardening blog

Since we were replacing the veg garden fence at the time, we had plenty of wood kicking about the place. The insect hotel turned into quite a grand affair. Although I think you can see why we don’t get on very well with DIY in the house…

insect hotel, cottage garden, gardening blog

little bit wonky…

Next we filled it with sticks, logs, fir cones, pots stuffed with straw and random stuff, like a bird box we’ve never got round to putting up.

insect hotel pots

A few days later, M started school and we didn’t pay it any attention for a while.

Then the nights started drawing in. One evening we were wandering around out there with the dogs and discovered a  colony of woodlice have taken command of the place. During the day they are nowhere to be seen, but in the dark hundreds of them swarm around it busily doing whatever woodlice do.

M checking out insect hotel at night

Apart from feeling a bit guilty whenever I move a pot and see woodlice scurrying for cover, I’ve never really given them much thought. But it turns out they are quite interesting little things.

I’d always naively assumed they were insects. In fact they are 14-legged crustaceans. There are 3,500 species in the world – about 35 of these can be found in the UK. They live up to four years and play an important role eating and breaking down dead and rotting vegetation in the garden. If you’re really unlucky they might eat young seedlings – but not so much that they could be considered a pest.

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As you can see, I’ve been doing a bit of research. But one thing I cannot get to the bottom of is something Steve caught them doing a couple of nights ago. Several of them appeared to be tending to a couple of red blobs on the end of a log.

what is the red blob?

what is the red blob?

We wondered if it might be a nest of eggs. Then we thought it might be some sort of fungus they were feeding on. We left them to it, but the next day all that was left was some dried up remains. If you have any idea what they might have been up to, we’d love to know.

...this is all that was left the next morning

…this is all that was left the next morning

all aflutter

A couple of days ago we took part in Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count.

small tortoiseshell on verbena rigida, cottage garden, gardening blog

small tortoiseshell on verbena rigida

You spend 15 minutes in a sunny spot, count how many butterflies you see, and submit your sightings online.

I knew the buddleia outside the kitchen would be teeming with nectar-lovers desperate for a late afternoon fix. But I couldn’t face spending quarter of an hour breathing its sickly scent. Instead, I set my almost-four-year-old up with her identification sheet between two borders stuffed with rudbeckia, dahlias, gaura lindheimeri and verbena.

green-veined white on verbena rigida, cottage garden, gardening blog

green-veined white on verbena rigida

Last year’s verbena bonariensis survived the winter and has come back as tall and willowy as ever. We’ve also grown verbena rigida for the first time. What it lacks in height (ours is about a foot tall) it makes up for with an intense, almost glowing purple haze of flowers. Both varieties are popular with butterflies. After watching closely for 15 minutes, you notice how they are repeatedly drawn to the same plants.

M thinks she counted 23, but there was a bit of doubling up as she’d count them twice if they fluttered off and back again. The true total (I think) was 10: 1 green-veined white, 1 peacock, 1 painted lady, 2 commas and 5 small tortoiseshells.

peacock butterfly on dahlia, cottage garden, gardening blog

peacock butterfly on dahlia

Her enthusiasm, and the fact that she completed the full 15 minutes without flitting off herself, made me think M might be ready to have a go at raising a butterfly from a caterpillar. We’re probably too late this year, but perhaps we’ll try next summer.

Plugging the hungry-gap

It was good to take some time out to look at the garden. The dahlias and verbena have been in full swing for a couple of weeks now, and seem to have plenty of life in them yet. There are lots of other nectar-rich flowers around the place too: cleome, cosmos, eryngium and sedum are all blooming – or about to. We’ve managed to close the hungry-gap between early and late summer.

If you live in the UK and want to take part in the Big Butterfly Count, it’s running until Sunday (10th August). Find out more here: http://www.bigbutterflycount.org/ .

making a sweet pea castle

hazel poles for sweet peas, cottage garden, gardening blog

hard at work coppicing hazels

We’ve finally dug up the remains of the massive pampas grass that dominated the centre of the garden when we moved here. Well, Steve has anyway. And it looked back-breaking from where I was standing.

This is the only section of garden that gets sun all day. So now the pampas has gone our plan is to create an island border and fill it with the sun-loving perennials that we struggle to find space for elsewhere.

 

It’s going to take a bit of work though. Especially since the list of plants we want to include gets longer by the day. For the time being, we’ve turned the pampas patch into a sweet pea castle for our three-year-old.

sweet pea castle, cottage garden, gardening blog

trying the castle for size

Our hedge is full of hazels that grow like mad and provide us with an endless supply of plant supports. Last weekend Steve coppiced a few and I strung them into a frame for the sweet peas to scramble up. It’s like a traditional sweet pea wigwam, except we left a hole at the front for a door and didn’t gather the poles at the top.

It’s fairly robust, but if I did it again I would think a bit more carefully about my stringing technique. I should have alternated, doing a row at the bottom then one at the top, instead of just working my way up. By the time I got to the top, I decided the poles should taper in a bit, but as I tightened the string some of the lower layers slackened off. That’s the problem with making it up as you go along.

Steve did praise the fact that I worked clockwise then anticlockwise. Apparently this makes it stronger. I just nodded knowingly when he told me, and didn’t say I’d only done it that way because I was too lazy to cut the string after each level.

sweet peas

nibbled by a rabbit…

I’d been planning to use the Easton Walled Garden heirloom sweet peas that we sowed in November to grow up the castle. I thought the blue, pink and white of the Lord Nelson, Miss Willmott and Dorothy Eckford varieties would work well as a centrepiece for the garden through the summer. As well as providing a pretty, scented den for our girl and her playmates of course.

However, semi disaster struck a couple of weeks ago when a passing wild rabbit decided he was rather partial to sweet pea shoots. The plants seem to be recovering, so I’ve still used them. But I interspersed them with a couple more old-fashioned varieties that we sowed later (Nelly Viner and Lady Grisel Hamilton).

Last year our sweet peas grew up and over their poles. I don’t know if the rabbit-nibbled ones will grow anywhere near as tall. I suppose we can always fill any gaps with a few runner beans.

scarecrow

making a scarecrow gardening blog“Let’s make a scarecrow,” said my three year old over breakfast this morning.

“OK. But why?”

“To look after our seeds.”

I decided not to mention that the only seeds we’ve sown recently are a second batch of sweet peas. They’re germinating in the porch and don’t really require the protection of a scarecrow.

Instead, I raided a bag of her outgrown clothes and grabbed a couple of hazel sticks we used as plant supports last summer.

I’ve never made a scarecrow before, but it was fun.

making a scarecrow gardening blog

We put him in the veg patch, with the ropy purple sprouting, skinny leeks (put them in too late) and some garlic and onions we planted in the autumn.

making a scarecrow gardening blog

I don’t know if he’ll last long enough to keep the pigeons off our peas and beans in a few months.

But he certainly gives me a turn every time he catches my eye from the kitchen window.

gardening blog, making a scarecrow

scary…

 

sweet peas – a winter sowing

sweet pea tubes gardening blogI wasn’t going to bother with a winter sowing of sweet peas. Last year most of my first batch were gobbled by mice and I’m not convinced the ones that made it did better than those sowed in the spring.

But as the days get colder and darker, it lifts the spirits to plan for next summer. On Sunday, M and I tore open three of the six packets of seed I ordered from Easton Walled Gardens and made a start.

Sweet peas love to grow nice long roots, so we’ve been saving loo rolls and kitchen rolls for them. The added bonus is that the cardboard should just disintegrate when we plant them out, meaning we won’t need to disturb them too much.

When it came to filling the tubes with compost, M struggled with their open-ends. So I took the frugal option for my seeds and let her have some biodegradable fibre pots.sweet peas gardening blog

Each packet had at least one seed more than the 15 we were expecting, perhaps they add extra for the inevitable rodent robbers. It was just as well since M dropped hers and a few rolled under the shed floor. I suspect there is a mouse or three living down there, so I hope it won’t trigger them to go sweet pea hunting.

sweet pea tray gardening blog

M is having a pink phase, so she claimed Miss Wilmott for the biodegradable pots. I sowed Dorothy Eckford and Lord Nelson in loo rolls, which in hindsight seems a little disrespectful.

When we were done, we gave them a drink and left them in the cold greenhouse to germinate. I suppose I could have set a mouse trap next to them, but I didn’t have the heart to. We can always grow more in the spring.

This Q&A from Easton Walled Gardens has some good sweet pea growing advice. I didn’t come across it until after we sowed ours, but if they haven’t been devoured by mice yet, I’ll move them to the porch which is just as cold but hopefully a little more mouse-proof than the greenhouse.

next year’s foxgloves

Six weeks or so ago, we plucked a couple of foxglove seedpods. Each was a little capsule filled with thousands of seeds barely the size of a pinhead. foxglove seed head gardening blog

We sprinkled them over a tray of compost to see what would happen. Within days the tray had sprouted a dense green mass of tiny seedlings.

foxglove seedlings gardening blog

Last year we lost several batches after they germinated, so I didn’t hold out much hope for our homegrown seeds. But they kept going, and when I checked on them this week they were clearly ready for pricking out.

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Since we had more than we could possibly hope to use in the garden, I decided it wouldn’t be the end of the world if a few got snapped. So I let M loose on a tray of her own.

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She was very careful, talking softly to them as she tucked them into their pots. But I noticed more than one looked a bit deficient in the root department after she separated it from the others.

It doesn’t matter. When we were in the garden this afternoon, I noticed swathes of tiny self-sown foxglove seedlings. They’re a few weeks behind the ones we pricked out, but if only a fraction survive the winter we’re going to be engulfed in them come spring.

Here’s a post about this year’s foxgloves.