With A levels cancelled, universities closed, jobs furloughed, our 5 children and son in law are back living at home. There are 8 of us. We are like the Waltons. Thankfully we have our garden to spill out into and enjoy. And it has reminded me just how flexible and accommodating our outdoor spaces are and how they bring people together.
The boys panicked when gyms closed and resourcefully kitted out my rose garden pergola with monkey bars, weights and other ab crunching devices. Each evening they ‘go to the gym’ and play loud music to drown out the blackbirds. As a family we have started gardening together. This is something new. We have cleared and set up a vegetable plot and planted a fruit cage of blueberries and raspberries. We have a rota for watering, grass cutting and edging. My grown-up children are secretly enjoying gardening even though they would never admit it. We are very lucky. I can only imagine how tough it must be for families with no access to an outdoor space.
Now, more than ever, our gardens are a sanctuary, a place for regaining our sanity and keeping a perspective on life. Our gardens are more important to us than ever right now. And if you don't have a garden just taking a walk, spending time outside in the fresh air with nature, or even sitting beside an open window you won't fail to notice that all around there are new flowers opening, birds nesting, bumble bees and butterflies out and about. Spring is glorious this year. Nature and our gardens are unaffected by these strange times, which I find reassuring
Being locked down has turned the nation into avid bread bakers and gardening enthusiasts. We are hungry for flour, seeds, plants and compost. We are itching to give our gardens a makeover and grow vegetables for our families. My own knee jerk reaction to lock down was to start making goat's cheese from my own herd's Guernsey goat milk, and sow every vegetable packet lurking in my seed box, some dating back to 2011. Surprisingly they have all germinated. I can’t wait to see what we manage to harvest.
Maybe it’s our deep-rooted survival instinct kicking in? Or perhaps it’s the simple pleasures of handling soil, being outside amongst nature that eases stress and makes us feel better. Or it could be that in a world spiralling out of control, the small sense of achievement we feel when tiny seedlings germinate on the windowsill is great for our wellbeing? Whatever it is for you, gardening has always been good for us. And with lock down and jobs furloughed many of us have more time on our hands and incentive to start gardening.
The good thing about being locked down with your family is they will suddenly take an interest in the garden. If you, like me are the only gardener in your family, it is actually quite nice when they start to notice all your hard work and dedication. But it can be equally quite worrying when your non gardening partner suddenly picks up a spade for the first time or worse some shears or a power tool. And having young children running riot in your flower beds is pretty stressful too. The trick is to channel their new found gardening enthusiasm into doing something productive in your garden and useful for you.
Cutting back the stems of cornus encourages new bright red stems to grow for next winter. It’s still time to do this. Most older children capable of using secateurs safely will relish an afternoon spent chopping away in your borders. Use these off-cuts pushed into pots or vegetable beds as colourful pea sticks or push them into your flower beds as twiggy supports for those floppy flowers.
Younger children can be given rounded scissors and sent out to clip back lavender and rosemary, tidy up dead foliage, dead head daffodils and snip cut flowers for the house. You could even set them a 3D topiary challenge sculpting a tough evergreen shrub like box, lonicera nitida and privet.
Compost bins should be emptied now, contents spread liberally as a mulch around roses, trees, shrubs and on vegetable beds to improve soil fertility. Children have a deep fascination for decomposition and decay making this the perfect task for them. Give your child a wheelbarrow, large tub and fork and they will spend hours emptying and examining the contents of your compost bin, delight in discovering worms and hopefully spread the compost in the right place for you.
The dry Spring weather means vegetable plots, new trees, fruit bushes and containers need watering now. Children love slopping water about. Give young children small plastic watering cans which are light and easy to carry and makes the task last longer. Designate pots and plants for them to water and care for.
If you don’t have a garden but you are itching to start growing edibles try sowing mixed salad leaves and herbs in pots on a window sill or balcony.
There are some colourful mixed lettuce varieties and peppery ornamental salads, which once cut will grow back again. Easy herbs to grow from seed include coriander, parsley and basil (try making home-made pesto, it’s delicious).If you are feeling adventurous and a little Raymond Blanc-like try growing micro greens, (basically anything edible, but usually brassicas snipped and eaten when tiny seedlings). Great tossed into stir fries, pasta sauces and salads.
When my children were young, they loved eating nasturtium flowers picked straight from the garden. Growing edible flowers is a fun way for children to start flower growing and opens the door to decorating cakes with lavender and frosted rose petals or freezing pretty blue borage flowers in ice cubes. Try brightening up a green lettuce salad with bright orange calendular petals or spicing up a potato salad with crunchy lilac chive flowers. Edible flowers are a good way of sneaking more flowers in your vegetable garden too. So, if you feel your garden has been taken over by vegetable growing zealots you could infiltrate those neat rows of veg by sowing edible flowers here and there. A great way of keeping both flower lovers and hard-core veg growers happy and good for plant health too.
Children love being given a patch of garden for themselves. If you can spare a small square of soil, try making a square foot garden. Divide a 1m2 patch of soil into 9 smaller squares using sticks, canes or string. In each square let your children grow whatever they please. It may be three radishes and a runner bean, a smiley face of carrots, a few peas or some sunflowers. Anything goes. Sunflowers will need tying to a stick for support, a good lesson in knot tying. You will get a mix of everything in one tiny space and it’s amazing how much 1m2 yields. Great for getting children to try out new foods too.
Vegetables grow well in containers. Easiest of all are potatoes. You just plant a large container with a couple of seed potatoes, water and watch them grow and in a couple of months you can empty the pot and harvest your own crop of delicious new potatoes. It’s like magic. For those home schooling this links beautifully with maths, weights, volumes, and lifecycles of a plant.
If you fancy growing a few vegetables in your garden but don’t like the idea of uprooting your flower beds, try incorporating ornamental veg plants in amongst the borders. Wigwams of climbing beans are architectural and ornamental. Try Purple Teepee with long black beans and purple foliage. Think courgette is the new hosta. Add drama with giant artichokes which contrast beautifully with dusky red orache leaves. And chives make a wonderful edible edging, like miniature alliums.
Working from home and home schooling your children in lockdown is challenging and stressful. A garden is a great source of data. Think of it as an outdoor classroom. Children relax, engage and concentrate well outdoors.Try putting a table outside as a private work station. Or use your garden for maths, counting numbers of petals on flowers, spots on ladybirds, yields of vegetables. Identify wildlife, write plant labels, create ephemeral flower art, the possibilities are endless.
Gardening increases lateral thinking and hand eye coordination too, all good life skills.
Children have an eye for detail. They like finding things. Set up garden treasure hunts to find serrated leaves, shiny leaves, how-many-shades-of-green leaves, 4 leaved clovers, coloured flowers, different shaped flowers. Stick them onto double sided sticky tape to make floral bracelets and headbands. Press them onto cards. Use your garden and walks for data collecting, go on an insect hunt. Start a wildlife log, record all the different bird species. Build insect houses, bee boxes, make hedgehog houses, dig a small pond. It won’t be long before your children are telling you all about mason bees, red tailed bumble bees, life cycles of butterflies, which flowers they all prefer and how they feed. The internet is a great source of insect identification. Give them a magnifying glass to examine insects and flowers in minute detail.
Lock down is tough on us all, with so many knock-on effects to our businesses, jobs, family’s health and wellbeing. Our UK growers and nurseries have been hit hard in what is their peak season. With garden centres closed nurseries are unable to dispatch and sell their plants. Across the UK many growers and nurseries are left with little option but to destroy fields full of thousands and thousands of quality plants. I know because I’m married to a nurseryman and it is happening to us right now. Without our dedicated UK nurseries growing beautiful plants for us our gardens would not be the special places they are. So if you are keen to buy plants contact your local nurseries and garden centres direct. You will be surprised to find out how accommodating they will be.
Ellicar Gardens is currently closed during COVID restrictions. We remain open for plant sales of perennials and grasses available to order, pre-purchase and collect at the gate end. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for an availability list or call 01777 817218.