Inspiring kids to love the garden

By Nic Wilson from Dogwooddays

Discovering the wonder of nature is a lifelong journey.
Image source: Oksana Kuzmina

My own childhood memories of high summer are filled with light, scent and taste: my dad’s mesembryanthemums with their candy-coloured faces following the sun, honeysuckle perfume saturating the evening air and summer raspberries still warm as I popped them in my mouth.

I was lucky enough to spend my childhood summers playing in a third-of-an-acre garden with apple trees, flower borders, a vegetable plot and a wild area where I was often to be found, at the top of the Scots pine, with an apple and a book.

Modern gardens are getting smaller, and more families are living in urban settings, often with only a balcony or window ledge for outside space. So how can we engage today’s youngsters with plants, nature and the outdoors, especially during the long summer holidays?

How to create a natural den

This living willow den will grow into the perfect hideout for small children.
Image source: Peter Turner Photography

The Scots pine canopy of my childhood was a special private place – the kind of secret outdoor space that many children like to create around themselves. But there are no mature trees in our small garden, so I planted a willow den for my kids as a place where they could be alone with nature. Willow dens are created by using whips (young, thin willow rods) that will root when driven into the ground and kits can be purchased from specialist suppliers to train into wigwams, domes and tunnels. As they mature, the foliage cover develops and entirely screens the centre of the den from the outside.

My children loved their den. We have fond memories of eager faces appearing from the entrance playing ‘peepo’ and small hands thrust through the foliage to wave at us from within. Willow likes fairly damp ground and our den finally perished after six years as the soil is a little too dry, but in ideal conditions these dens will last for years.

How to sow the magic of seeds

Tomatoes you’ve grown yourself are the best tasting tomatoes in the world.
Image source: Romrodphoto

There’s nothing like the magic of watching seeds germinate and develop bright blooms for flower pressing or tasty salad leaves. Getting kids involved in growing from seed can be the start of a lifetime’s fascination with gardening and it’s easy to grow plants like marigolds, lettuce leaves or tomatoes in a container or on a windowsill. If you haven’t sown seeds with the kids yet, it’s not too late. French beans, radishes and beetroot seeds can be sown as late as July, or alternatively you can buy tomato, courgette and pepper plants which will bear fruit throughout the summer.

This year we’ve been growing nasturtiums, calendula, cherry tomatoes and peas so the children can make simple salads garnished with edible petals. We also pickle the nasturtium pods as an alternative to capers – a peppery addition to pasta and pizza. As they eat their way through the vegetable bed, the kids are definitely developing more adventurous tastes and learning about where their food comes from.

How to get up close with wildlife

Nature is filled with beauty when you take time to observe.
Image source: altanaka

There’s a whole world in even the tiniest patch of grass or flowerbed: spiders, woodlice, ants and hoverflies are all easy to spot when you stop and observe the garden close up. We’ve had tawny mining bees in our small lawn this summer, exciting visitors that we’ve been watching as a family and the kids have a magnifying pot so they can examine the patterns on a snail shell or the detail of a ladybird’s wing.

A container in a sunny spot filled with lavender, salvia, agastache, dwarf buddleja or herbs like oregano and thyme will encourage pollinators into the garden or onto a balcony. Putting food and water out for the birds adds another dimension to the garden, allowing kids to learn more about local wildlife.

One of my favourite garden moments was watching fledgling great tits emerge from the bird box by the shed with my five year old son. He’d watched the adults feeding their young for days and was fascinated by the way the fluffy fledglings kept poking their heads out of the hole before finally flying the nest. When the last great tit left the nesting box, to our amazement, it landed briefly on my shoulder and then headed off over the shed – this kind of experience is a fabulous way to ignite a child’s interest, creating the gardeners and naturalists of the future.

Disclaimer: The author and publisher take no responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Seek advice from a professional before using a plant for culinary or medicinal uses.

 

About the author:

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2017). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at www.dogwooddays.net

Expert tips to make your garden wildlife-friendly

A small garden pond gives this song thrush somewhere to bathe and drink.
Image source: Ondrej Prosicky

By making just a few small changes to the way you garden, you’ll really help native wildlife to thrive. To get you started, here’s some expert advice courtesy of some of the best gardeners and bloggers we’ve found – tips to make your garden more wildlife-friendly.

Planning

Plan hedgehog highways as part of your garden design.
Image source: Colin Robert Varndell

Begin by asking: “what does the wildlife need?” says Brian of Brian’s Birding Blog. To answer the question, think about basics like food, water, shelter, and safety. By planning your garden around the building blocks of survival, your garden will be nature-friendly by design.

That’s a sentiment with which Nic of Dogwood Days wholeheartedly agrees – an attitude she inherited from her father who always says:

The garden is an extension of the wider landscape in terms of its links to nature – the birds, insects and animals.

But too often, we design our gardens with privacy in mind without thinking about how our wild visitors will get about. With a little thought, hedgehog-loving Adam of My Life Outside says that’s easily fixed:

By creating hedgehog highways through our gardens we can join up vast swathes of land and give these fabulous creatures a fighting chance.

So get together with your neighbours and create animal corridors by “lifting a fence panel a few inches, cutting a hole through wire netting or drilling through boundary walls.”

And do remember to provide a water source – an oasis for living creatures. As Brian says, installing a pond “gives the birds another food source and somewhere to bathe and drink,” and as Dave of Why Watch Wildlife adds “A source of fresh, clean water is good for invertebrates [and] amphibians.”

Housing

This nest box is a safe haven for blue tits to raise their young.
Image source: Erni

Now your garden works for wildlife, where will it live? Wildlife expert Dan Rouse is a passionate advocate of “messy zones” which she says can be a simple as “a small piece of old carpet and some bricks behind the shed” – the perfect hidey hole for insects and shy creatures like slow worms. She also says:

Nest spaces or nesting boxes and roosting boxes are fundamental for wildlife to survive.

But it’s not just birds who need high vantage points, it’s bugs and beasties too, as Bill at Frodsham Marsh Bird Blog points out. His garden features a tree whose “winding twisted trunk and small branches hold a selection of brightly painted bean cans which have been filled with a variety of fibre material”.

And don’t forget to make spaces for “lone fliers” to hang out – Bill says a couple of catering size cans fitted with a wooden plug and drilled with holes make ideal accommodation:

Solitary bees can access the interior to live their lives away from predators.

The same goes for dry hogweed stems which, cut to length, can also be used to stuff a tin – but be careful handling the live stuff, Bill says, because the sap can burn your skin. And because more bugs mean more bats fluttering overhead during spring and summer evenings, you’ll need to remember to install a bat box too.

Planting

An apple tree surrounded by wildflowers provides pollen and ground cover.
Image source: DrimaFilm

Look at your garden through the eyes of prospective wildlife visitors. Do you have a tree? If not, maybe consider planting one, or if space is a problem, make existing structures work for birds and insects. Bill (at Frodsham Marsh Bird Blog) whose garden is on the small side says:

The washing line post has Ivy growing up it and now provides thick cover where robin and wren have nested.

Wildlife expert Dan Rouse says using your planting to create layers ensures there’s food for all: “Shrub-like plants like lavender or fuchsia give off a lot of smell and still carry pollen for our pollinators.”

And remember to make sure there’s plenty of ground cover to provide shelter for bugs and food for predators. Dan says:

Smaller plants like ground creeper are great for our insects and small birds to hide in too.

That goes for grass too. Lisa at Edulis Wild Food says to delay mowing until wildflowers growing in it have had chance to bloom: “The bees are grateful for the early food and you realise how diverse your lawn can be if not totally mono-cultured.”

Do you have any wildlife gardening tips you’d like to share? Just head over to our Facebook page and leave us a message – we’d love to hear from you. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this gem of a tip from Miles at Forager who says it’s not just the wildlife that benefits from wild planting:

Eat your weeds! Bittercress, sow thistle, chickweed, nettles, dandelion are all delicious and nutritious.

Blooming good tips for flower growers

Colourful flower borders are a joy to behold.
Image source: Artens

To help you get the most from your flower garden, we asked some of our favourite green-fingered bloggers for their expert tips and advice. From planning your beds to pruning, here’s some great advice to get your flowers blooming like never before.

Plan

Limiting your colour scheme can have a dramatic impact.
Image source: Elena Elisseeva

Resist the temptation to plant anything until you’ve had chance to think about the kind of display you’d like to create, says Emma at Palais Flowers. She emphasises just how important it is to think about colour:

Block colour makes a real statement whilst clashing tones remind us of the wonder and diversity of flowers!

And do consider how your planting scheme will keep you in blooms throughout the growing season and beyond. Dave at Wild Nature Blog loves year-round colour. He goes for “winter and spring flowering clematis, verbena bonariensis for summer into autumn, and late-flowering species such as sedum.”
Keeping the blooms coming is great for nature too, wildlife loving Dave says: “Insects are a critical part of any food web, so this will benefit all wildlife in your garden.”

Prolong

Removing spent blooms from roses will prolong the plant’s flowering season.
Image source: Jason Kolenda

You want your flowers to bloom for as long as possible, and while staggering your planting is one approach, regular and judicious pruning and deadheading will make all your flowers last longer and produce more blooms.
We all know that bedding plants can get a bit leggy later in the summer, which is why Carol, aka The Sunday Gardener, pinches out the growing tips of her bedding plants during May and June. She says:

It makes the plant grow more bushy and throw out side shoots so the plant has more flowers.

Try this technique with “verbena, begonias, geraniums, busy lizzies, petunias, lobelia, fuchsias, and just about all bedding plants, including sweet peas”. Carol also recommends deadheading your plants regularly to help them bloom until October.

Pick

Enjoy flowers in your home and your garden.
Image source: Maya Kruchankova

Don’t leave it until your blooms are past their best to deadhead them, says Sara at My Flower Patch. She says, picking flowers encourages more to take their place, meaning you get to enjoy all your favourite blooms inside your home as well as out. To give your cut flowers the best chance of lasting, she says to:

Pick freshly opened buds in the cool of the morning, or as the temperature cools in the late evening with a sharp pair of scissors or flower snips.

Pop your cut flowers into “a bucket or jar of water, and leave them to ‘condition’…Then choose your favourite vase to arrange them into.” Her favourite flowers from the garden are, cornflowers, cosmos, ammi visnaga, sweet peas, scabious and antirrhinums, all of which will go on to produce more blooms as you pick.

Prune

For spectacular wisteria you’ll need to prune your plant at the right time.
Image source: SpiffyStephie

Wondering when’s best to prune your wisteria? Horticulturist, Lou Nicholls says to get the best display, remember the old adage:

Longest cut, longest day; shortest cut, shortest day.

By pruning the “long whippy growth at midsummer back to 5 buds” you’ll encourage plenty of side shoots for next year’s flowers, Lou says. Then come midwinter, reduce all those extra side shoots to two buds, and you’ll have lovely “big flowering spikes” to look forward to.
As well as pruning, keep your eye on new growth on your climbers says Thomas at Thomas Stone Horticultural Services:

Look at any climbing plants like roses or clematis at least once per week and tie in any new growth with 3 ply twine.

Do also remember your foliage, as well as flowering plants, Thomas says. Try treating your “box hedging, and topiary, as well as other plants with liquid seaweed which will strengthen the foliage and make them stronger to fight foliage diseases.”
If you have a tip for making your garden bloom, we’d love to hear from you. Just drop us a line via our Facebook page. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this lovely daffodil tip from Susan Rushton:

Don’t cut daffodils, pluck them.

She says by gripping at the base of the stem and pulling, you leave the end of the stalk sealed; with the sap still inside the flower will last longer and won’t contaminate the other stems in the vase.

Expert gardening tips for beginners

Gardening is a lifelong learning curve based on shared knowledge, trial and error.
Image source: Rawpixel.com

If you’re just getting into gardening and could do with some help and advice to set you on your way, we’ve got just what you need: handy tips from gardeners from across the blogosphere. These growers have planted and grown it all before, so give yourself a head start by learning from their wealth of experience. Here are five golden rules of growing for newbies.

1. Enjoy

Take time to enjoy your garden’s journey, not just the finished product.
Image source: NinaMalyna

The first thing to remember about gardening is that it’s supposed to be fun. Learning anything new can have its frustrating moments, but do remember to give yourself the time and space to enjoy working outdoors.

Be confident, says Geoff of Driftwood by Sea, who created his amazing seaside garden from scratch as a total beginner. His message is simple: “Go for it and you will succeed.”

Hayley of Hayley’s Lottie Haven grows a wonderful selection of healthy fruit and veg at her allotment, and her advice is also simple: “Take a step back to enjoy the fruits of your labour.” She says:

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in weeding, watering and harvesting, we forget to look at what we’ve achieved.

Above all, look on your new-found hobby as a way to practise being patient. As Adam of Carrot Tops Allotment says: “The world is moving at a faster and faster pace these days, so make the most of something moving slowly for a change.”

2. Embrace the learning curve

Make confident decisions – if they don’t work out you can always change them.
Image source: WeAre

If you’re just starting out, the chances are that you’ll experience a few hiccups on the road to growing success. Our experts’ advice is simple – embrace your failures and learn from them. You’re on a learning curve – learn to love learning.

“Nobody gets it right first time. Plants can be moved, new varieties of fruit and vegetables can be sown and garden designs can be developed,” says Kate of Diary of a Country Girl:

When something works it’s amazingly satisfying and surely that’s why we all garden!

That’s a sentiment with which Richard, creator and curator of a wonderful resource for gardeners, the Veg Grower Podcast, agrees. He says:

“Whether it’s a seed that didn’t germinate or a plant that didn’t flourish it’s not the end of the world. Look into what went wrong and rectify that for next time.”

3. Start off small

Even a small raised bed is enough space to get a vegetable garden started.
Image source: sanddebeautheil

There’s nothing more demoralising than starting off your gardening career with high ambitions only to find you don’t have the time, ability, and knowhow to bring them to fruition. But by starting off small, our experts say, you’ll develop your skills and capabilities so that one day, you’ll turn round and realise that you have, after all, created your dream garden.

“Don’t be afraid to be utterly realistic about your goals,” says Lucy at the Smallest Smallholding:

Focus on one thing at a time and try to enjoy the rambling and vigour of nature. Accept that imperfection is part of living in the natural world!

That’s advice that Kris, The Allotment Cook would recognise. When he first took over his allotment, trying to do too much meant he achieved little and he admits: “ I was aching in places I didn’t even know existed.” He says:

I learnt to take things a bit slower, plan and be patient….I focused on strawberries, chillies, potatoes and onions. The plan worked and I was eating them all the way through the winter.

If you’re taking on a large plot, don’t feel obliged to cultivate it all at once says Sarah at Digging the Earth:

“Simply strim it back, cover and tackle a bit at a time. Just uncover when you’re ready for it., and plant up as you go.”

4. Be adventurous

Experiment with growing unusual plants and flowers from seeds.
Image source: Shutterstock

Garden with a spirit of adventure and you’ll never look back, our panel of experts say. Always keen to take a chance on something new, they know they won’t always succeed, but embracing challenge means your gardening journey is always exciting and fun.

“I try to grow as many plants from seeds and cuttings,” says Sally at Sally’s Garden Blog. “I find it fascinating, it saves me a fortune, and there are so many incredible seeds available.”

Dawn of Being Self Sufficient in Wales agrees: “Be adventurous if you want to have a go at growing something different go for it, you don’t have to grow what everyone else grows.” She says:

It’s your garden and if you provide the right growing conditions then the growing world is your oyster.

And don’t just experiment with your selection of plants, try new things with your growing space too, as Dawn of Being Self Sufficient in Wales suggests:

Experiment: growing vertically will give you more growing space.

5. Get some training

Try the internet or book a local gardening course to learn new techniques.
Image source: Kaspars Grinvalds

With so much gardening knowledge available at the click of a mouse, it can be difficult to know which advice to put your faith in. That’s why it’s a good idea to get yourself some training from a reputable source, or simply invest in one good gardening book to get you started.

Sally at Sally’s Garden Blog puts it succinctly. She says:

I bought a really basic gardening book which had a weekly gardening project, I loved it, it really made me want to get gardening.

25 years later, via a postgrad degree in landscape architecture, and a lecturership in horticulture, Sally now works as a professional gardener.

Alice Vincent who gardens 60ft up, takes things a step further. Her book ‘How to Grow Stuff: Easy, no-stress gardening for beginners’, contains just the sort of advice fledgeling gardeners need to get them started. She says:

If you kill something, try and learn why.

Pete at Weeds up to me Knees says it’s a good idea to keep your eye on the courses on offer through your local authority, something he feels he’s benefitted from greatly: “the secret is, whatever gardening knowledge you have you can always expand on it as there’s so much to learn!”

We hope you’re inspired to get out into the garden and start digging. If you have any tips for gardening beginners that you think we’ve missed, just drop us a line via our Facebook page, and we’ll get back to you. In the meantime, we’ll leave you with this little gem from Geoff at the Driftwood by the Sea:

Always do what you feel is right for you and your plot. Don’t be swayed by what the experts say!

The minty fresh taste of summer

By Nic Wilson from Dogwooddays

Chocolate Mint is one of the more interesting varieties
Image source: Nic Wilson

Mint is the most versatile of herbs – it adds zest to summer desserts and savoury dishes, and flavours herbal teas and cocktails. It thrives in semi-shade where other Mediterranean herbs like thyme and rosemary might struggle.

There are so many types available, all with different scents and uses – so it’s helpful to know a little about the different varieties before you start growing. But if you just want to jump into growing something versatile, then a basic mint plant is perfect for getting started.

Which Mint?

Banana mint has a mild flavour
Image source: Nic Wilson

My favourites include tall apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) whose furry leaves add a fresh tang to boiled new potatoes with butter; it’s also really good in mint sauce. For herbal teas I prefer spicy varieties like peppermint (Mentha x piperita) – a cross between watermint and spearmint, Moroccan mint (Mentha spicata var. crispa ‘Moroccan’) and Tashkent mint (Mentha spicata ‘Tashkent’), also known as spearmint.

For even more flavour, I combine the mint with lemon verbena leaves for an aromatic hot tea, or add sugar, cool the tea and add ice cubes as a refreshing drink on hot summer afternoons. Moroccan and Tashkent mint also have the advantage of being resistant to mint rust, a common fungal disease that can affect leaves from spring until the autumn.

Other varieties to try include ginger mint (Mentha x gracilis ‘Variegata’), an attractive plant with variegated yellow and green foliage that tastes great with fruit salads. Or choose dark chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata ‘Chocolate’) my children’s favourite, with deep red stems and leaves that really do taste of mint choc chip ice cream.

The spicy foliage of basil mint (Mentha x piperita f. citrata ‘Basil’) adds a tang to oils and vinegars,and the soft leaves of banana mint (Mentha arvensis ‘Banana’) have a mild flavour with just a hint of banana. There’s even a variety from Cuba called Mojito mint (Menthat villosa ‘Mojito’) which has a warm sweet flavour ideal for combining with soda water, lime juice, white rum and sugar to create the traditional Cuban highball.

Growing and Propagating Mint

Mint is a vigorous plant that spreads unless contained
Image source: shutterstock/Izf

It’s a good idea to grow mint in containers, unless you have a large patch that will tolerate invasion by this vigorous perennial. I have grown mint in large bottomless pots sunk into the ground – you just have to be vigilant and pull out any surface runners before they root and escape into the garden.

Mint thrives in semi-shade and likes to be kept well watered, but it copes with full shade and full sun too. It’s best to avoid growing different mints close together or in the same container as they can lose their distinct scents and flavours.

Once you have mint it’s quick and easy to propagate by stem or root cuttings. Either turn the plant out of the pot, break off a few roots (with or without shoots) and bury just below the surface in peat-free compost, or take several stem cuttings from a healthy plant and place around the rim of a pot filled with gritty compost. Keep moist until you see new growth and then pot on.

In the Garden

Corsican mint (or ‘mini mint’) forms a green carpet on the ground
Image source: David Eickhoff

Mint is also valuable in the garden as an ornamental plant. Creeping Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) creates a relaxed look trailing along a gravel path, between stepping stones or over rocks. At only 3-10cm high, it forms a mat on the ground and releases its spicy aroma when crushed underfoot. As with all flowering mints, this Corsican mint is a magnet for bees which love its tiny mauve flowers.

Hanging baskets are another ideal place for ornamental mint. Indian mint (Satureia douglasii  ‘Indian Mint’), a tender perennial in the mint family, has delicate white long-lasting flowers that cascade over the sides of a basket. Or as we’ve done this year, plant sweet strawberry mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Strawberry’) in the centre of a hanging basket surrounded by trailing strawberry plants and then harvest both for a delicious dessert – just add cream.

 

About the author

Nic Wilson is a writer, garden designer and Garden Media Guilds Awards nominee (Best Blog, 2017). She enjoys growing flowers and unusual fruit, vegetables and herbs, and loves to encourage nature into the garden. She also blogs at www.dogwooddays.net

Disclaimer

The author and publisher take no responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Not everyone reacts positively to all edible plants or other plant uses. Seek advice from a professional before using a plant for culinary or medicinal uses.

 

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