Gardening with the kids
When it comes to gardening, kids just don’t seem to dig it. Now the RHS is sowing the seeds of revival. Samantha Laurie turns the soil
I’m going to write about gardening, I tell my kids, as we gaze out over the tray of winter pansies (still unplanted) to a sea of weedy forest and unpruned, house-invading wisteria.
Much guffawing ensues. I love gardens, but have no idea how they work. Last year our strawberry plants yielded one strawberry and we tried to eat an unidentified root that I mistakenly billed as parsnip.
Fortunately, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) is doing an infinitely better job than Yours Truly of inspiring future Capability Browns. So far 82% of schools (mostly primary) have joined its Campaign for School Gardening, with gardening clubs, outdoor science lessons and kitchen gardens.
It’s a campaign born of necessity, it seems. For Britain, nation of gardeners, is acutely short of professional know-how. Much of our horticulture industry (70%) cannot recruit enough homegrown talent – turf specialists, botanists, tree surgeons, virologists, food scientists and landscape designers.
Partly it’s an issue of perception (of gardening as unskilled labour) and pay – when the Queen’s gardener is on £13,000 a year, it hardly fosters an image of high-rolling remuneration. But it’s also about familiarity: if you learn to germinate lima beans at school, you’re likely to stay the course as an adult. Yet fewer than 1% of those educated in the 80s and 90s learnt about gardening, as against 55% of today’s grandparents.
Jobs aside, this is about happier, healthier life choices: knowing what you’re eating; getting outdoors; hands-on science. But how do we products of a lost horticultural generation nourish the good work of the RHS at home? Gen up on a course for beginners, obviously – like Help I’ve Got a New Garden! at RHS Wisley on April 2 – but also by asking someone who knows.
Like garden designer Dawn Isaacs, author of 101 Things For Kids To Do Outside, out this month from Kyle Books.
“The first requirement is personalized space,” she explains. “Even if it’s just a wheelbarrow that they’ve decorated, it’s far easier to get kids enthused about their own patch of garden than to involve them in your own projects.”
Use clothes pegs and string, suggests Dawn, to separate vegetable beds. And choose easy, fast-growing crops such as lettuce, Parmex carrots (a bite-sized circular variety with a quirky appeal), broad beans and radishes. They may not like the taste of these, but they make great tree sculptures in woodland salads.
“Plants simply don’t grow quickly enough for kids,” warns Dawn, “but if you combine gardening with craft you get an immediate result.”
For Easter and Mothering Sunday gifts, try scented bath bags – circles of muslin cut with pinking shears and filled with fast-growing herbs such as lavender, sage, rosemary and thyme. Tie them with ribbon for hanging from a bath tap to scent the water.
Herbal tea drinkers will love small decorated pots with varieties of mint (you can even buy chocolate flavour), while edible flowers have a superbly anarchic appeal for kids. Grown from seed (so as to be pesticide-free), nasturtiums, marigolds, borage and chive flowers can decorate cupcakes or be frozen inside ice cubes.
Plants that are colourful, edible or attractive to wildlife work best for kids. Try borage, pot marigolds, nasturtiums and nigella for the ground, and lily bulbs, begonia tubers and Eucomis bicolour bulbs to for a mix of pots and containers. Never forget how much nature wants to grow, says Dawn Isaacs – letting kids loose with a pack of wildflower seeds can spark dramatic results. Help things along with nettle plant tonic – take a bucket of nettles (thick gloves needed), add water and stir periodically to brew a foul-stinking, foaming tonic (dilute with water).
Still short of ideas? RHS Wisley has free family events – spring trails, scavenger hunts, seed sowing – most weekends and during school holidays. And there’s sage advice from Alexis Pym, outdoor educator at Wisley: don’t stifle a child’s natural interest by making it too much like hard work. This month’s spring schedule, for example, includes identifying spring flowers and learning how to do a perfect cartwheel.