What I learnt about gardening with children

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“When are we going to start planting again?” my gardening-mad six-year-old asked me a month ago. “I’m not sure,” I replied, looking out of the window at the carnage that remained of last year’s attempts to grow a kitchen garden on our north-west-facing patio. A morass of mouldy pots full of towering, sturdy weeds; the remnants of French beans that grew tall but never yielded, their dry stalks still clinging to bamboo sticks; the strawberry plant so desperate for more space its runners had embedded themselves into our rotten decking; the husk of a slug-ravaged kale plant: sad, straggly reminders of a failed venture. It had all seemed so hopeful last year. On the first warm spring day, I bundled both children into the car, announced we were going to the garden centre and told them they could pick any vegetable seeds they wanted. They grabbed packet after packet. Into the basket went beetroot, heirloom carrots, butternut squash, beans, peas, lettuce and, hell, even artichokes and asparagus. Why not? How hard could it be? © Leo Goddard/FT I lugged a couple of bags of compost to the till, picked up a few faux-terracotta pots and off we went. We spent that afternoon planting the seeds in trays, keeping some inside and placing others in our pop-up greenhouse, carefully labelling and watering. I sat outside that evening, glass of wine in hand, entertaining visions of self-sufficiency. I could relax about a no-deal Brexit. Soon, I would have an abundance of rainbow chard. This year, I vowed to do things differently, although I did not necessarily know in what way. Looking for inspiration and solace, we set off for the new Children’s Garden at Kew, a playground funded by private donations and with four different themes: water, earth, sun and wind — the four elements needed for plants to thrive. As I stood on the wooden walkway constructed around the gnarled girth of a flourishing 250-year oak, I felt small and humbled. A few metres away the children, quite oblivious to the living history around them, tore it up on the slides and trampled over the flowerbeds. I realised I would need the help of an expert. The next step in my horticultural rehabilitation was a home visit from Jane Perrone, one of the FT’s gardening writers and experts and host of the On the Ledge plant podcast. I felt a bit ashamed as I opened the patio door, but Perrone was unfazed and surprisingly upbeat about the state of my garden. Rose’s son receives advice from Jane Perrone © Leo Goddard/FT “Nice lawn, and lots of great plants,” she said, as she went around identifying what was growing in my flower beds. “How much sage do you actually use?” she asked, pointing at a plant that could provide enough burro e salvio for the whole of Rome. “I’d cut that back.” When it came to the pots, she could tell at a glance where I had gone wrong. “There just isn’t enough earth for French beans.” It’s true, I admitted ruefully, I had not quite filled the pots, as I had not bought enough compost. “Growing plants in pots is hard. They are like intensive-care patients: they rely on you for everything. And if you cannot tend to them twice a day, they might not make it.” She lifted up one of my faux-terracotta containers: “There are no holes in the bottom of this pot, so it can’t drain away excess water. And roots need air as well as moisture.” Rebecca Rose and her children in the new play area at Kew Gardens © Leo Goddard/FT More schoolgirl errors: most of the pots were too small, we had planted the seeds too close together and far too deep in the soil. The rule of thumb for covering over seeds is to sprinkle as much earth as the height of the seed, I learnt. We also have a slug and snail problem, I said, in my defence. Get the children to round up the snails in a pot, and then you can dispose of them, said Perrone, in a tone that suggested something a little more terminal than throwing them into next door’s garden. For the slugs, wool pellets are best. You sprinkle the little furry pellets liberally around the plant, and water them well. They soon weld to form a mat that slugs do not like to walk over. The mat protects plants for about a year, then breaks down harmlessly into the soil. The eggshell approach is less effective, she said, picking up some lingering spiky shards from my strawberry plant. “And this is poisonous,” she added, referring to a foxglove that had shot up out of nowhere. “Can I make a potion with it?” my son asked. “NO!” we said in unison. It is important, when growing edible plants with children around that they ask adults before nibbling at nasties such as euphorbia, which produces a toxic sap, otherwise our gardening adventure could end up in a trip to A&E, whispered Perrone. “There are many, many plants that are anything from mildly toxic to absolutely deadly.” Gardening: the benefits Feeling blue? You could be suffering from a lack of green, writes George Steer. In 2005, US author Richard Louv used the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe a sense of alienation from the natural world and the effect on mental health. A 2013 survey by the charity Mind found that seven out of 10 people “experienced significant increases in mental wellbeing” after they had undergone ecotherapy, a treatment that involves gardening. Children who learn how to grow food and spend more time outside are more likely to “engage with their surroundings and develop a sense of responsibility”, according to the RHS Campaign for School Gardening. “The psychological benefits are obvious, whatever your age,” says Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University. Why? “Because gardening gets people thinking about things other than themselves”. After our garden inspection, over a cup of tea, Perrone laid it on the line. I had been overambitious. Growing things from seeds is not always the way to go. There is no shame in buying fledgling vegetable plants. Focus on a few easy wins, she said. Too long a lead time is not good for children. And do not forget to grow things that adults are going to enjoy, too. She produced from her bag a quartet of little potted plants: golden garlic, which can be used in an omelette; greenery called buckler leaf sorrel that is good for salads; flat-leaf parsley; and a perfectly formed alpine strawberry plant. “These come from mountain places, they are pretty tough,” she said to the children. “Mum and Dad won’t ever get to taste these.” She then brought out jars: one full of coriander seeds, the other dried peas. Coriander, in my mind, is a delicate, fragrant herb that was impossible to grow at home. Not true. Perrone suggested that the kids take the jar of seeds, sprinkle them willy-nilly on the flower beds, and see what comes up. We all liked the sound of this devil-may-care approach to planting, although I was not sure my husband would want to see sudden outcrops of coriander in his precious lawn. The dried peas would be soaked overnight and then planted in any old tray of soil. Within a couple of weeks seedlings would appear, and quite soon we would be snipping off pea shoots to put in our coriander and sorrel salad. Rose’s children getting wet and muddy while learning about gardening © Leo Goddard/FT © Leo Goddard/FT I asked Perrone if there was any point in trying carrots and chard again from seed. Why not, she said, but read the instructions properly. The problem is, I explained, that the packets that I put on sticks in each pot disintegrated in the first heavy rain shower. Take a photo of the packets, Perrone said, so you can carry the instructions around with you. Simple but clever advice. Another thing we could do, Perrone ventured, is to plant out the remains of any supermarket potted parsley or basil plants, rather than letting them rot on the window sill. Separate them out: they are often several plants that need to be teased apart, observe how deeply they have been planted in the soil and pop them in a larger pot of soil outside. Come to our live event Is now the right time to buy property in London? Join us at the FT’s new London office to discuss whether now is a good time to buy property in the UK capital. Event chaired by Nathan Brooker Buy tickets here What about watering? Last year it was so dry and hot that I may have overcompensated by overwatering. “Don’t go by what the soil looks like on top,” she replied. “Stick your finger in the pot and see how dry it is. Or poke it with a wooden kebab stick and see if it comes out wet or not.” I promised I would follow her instructions. The children and I would plant out the small potted plants, scatter coriander seeds, sow peas and try just one or two other vegetables by seed. “And one last thing: get everything ready before you do the actual planting, so the children don’t go off the boil. They probably won’t be able to focus for more than half an hour, and you will end up doing the rest yourself.” Such is life, I thought, but felt a renewed enthusiasm for this laid-back simpler approach. My garden may not save me from a no-deal Brexit, but hopefully I will never have to buy a packet of wilting coriander ever again. The plants Perrone brought © Leo Goddard/FT