Little Green Fingers, shepherd’s huts and William Morris.

Look what landed on my doormat recently. Now –  there is no shortage of gardening books for children in my house. We have the lot – presents  from maiden aunts; picked up at jumble sales or in charity shops. We may even have bought the odd one. But I must admit to being quite excited about Dawn Isaac’s book.

Dawn is one of my *Twitter mates*and I dip into her blog on a fairly regular basis. Over the months I’ve shared in the re-roofing of the playshed, the construction of the cold frame and the open-air cinema project. So the announcement that she’d been commissioned to write a book of garden projects for children was greeted with high expectations. The day when she drilled her thigh inadvertantly whilst working on one of the projects merely created an added buzz.

Dawn is a garden designer with three young children of her own. She has a rather lovely family garden – so lovely that my own children would be more than happy to live there. In fact, if it weren’t that I’d promised myself to a shepherd’s hut in Monty Don’s garden, I’d move in myself. This is good. What shouts out from the pages is that here is a mother who knows about designing family gardens and how to get little people growing things.

Dawn clearly subscribes to the William Morris approach  – “have nothing that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. I fear like me she has experienced  the problems of housing huge (often ugly) craft  and soggy toilet roll growing projects. Every project here is beautiful to look at  and  helps to instil a love of gardening. I am prepared to forgive the inclusion of the eggbox cress caterpillar – every child should make one, even if they do have a nasty habit of dissolving into a soggy mess on your windowsill due to overkeen watering.

This book would work particularly well for parents , teachers or nursery staff who are fairly new to gardening. The projects themselves are perfect as workshops for nurseries or at primary school.There’s a useful introduction covering the basics of how to start and the projects themselves are helpfully organised into sections – ranging from manageable windowsill projects to larger scale and more permanent constructions. The ‘Scented Hopscotch’ idea was a particular favourite with one of my children. Even if you are an old hand there are one or two items to  get your mojo going again if you’ve run out of ideas..

Thanks Dawn. I love it. But I was bound to love a book written by a woman who scours charity shops for containers, gives gardening kit in party bags and encourages her children to spend their pocket money on seeds in Wilkinsons – wasn’t I?

Garden alchemy

There’s always plenty to do in the school garden – even on dreary Autumn days. One of our regular jobs in November is raking and collecting the leaves that strew the playground and field near the garden. We stow them in a leaf mould bin, made from a cylinder of wire mesh secured with hazel prunings round the back of the garden shed for a year to rot down to the most glorious soil conditioner and mulch. We also add it to our potting mixture and  I take a few trugsful home to scatter in the chicken run. It stops it turning into a quagmire on very rainy weeks. Newly fallen leaves can also be used as winter cover for bare soil although you  will probably want to  remove it before sowing in the Spring .

All sorts of  leaves can be used to make leafmould except evergreens and will rot down, though some will take longer than others. However you can speed up the process by chopping the leaves up (or mowing them). For really large quantities leaf hoovers are a good idea and they will chop the leaves too. You can hire them for a day – or borrow one from someone with a country  estate.

Water them if they are a bit dry and store them in some black sacks which you’ve punched a few holes in  or in a mesh bin (the prettier option) and leave for a year or two.

We use some of the  leafmould as a mulch around trees and shrubs and dig it in as a soil improver. The rest we leave to break down further and mix it with  sharp sand, loam and garden compost in equal parts to make a potting compost.

There are plenty of leaves to rake up around the school grounds but we don’t disturb drifts of  leaves under hedges and other out of the way areas. They may be used as hibernating sites by hedgehogs and other creatures. and we do love our wild areas and wildlife..

Of course, whilst raking leaves and partaking of a bit of garden alchemy is fun we also do our fair share of stamping on leaves, throwing them, making leaf pictures, lying down on them and staring up at the sky on crisp days. It’s not all work at gardening club, you know!

Cotswold Inspiration

Sometimes it does you good to get away for a day or two – even when the logistics are not dissimilar to planning a military operation. So, having arranged a veritable army of ‘aunts’ to manage my three children and their increasingly complex commitments in the absence of BOTH their parents for the first time in their lives I was Cotswold bound to spend time at Daylesford Organic. For the uninitiated it is THE farm shop and cafe near Stow on the Wold for all well-heeled Cotswold based celebrities, where the lawns are beautifully manicured, the coffee is good and the greenest of herbs grows magnificently in handmade willow baskets.

Of course, all this loveliness comes at a price but who looks at the label at Daylesford? (Well – me actually. £65 for a few herbs in a basket anyone?) If you are wondering how I can possibly justify such an excursion as work – stop right there! I arrived via the tradesman’s entrance, ambled on down through the farmyard (spotless), past the pigs in the orchard (charming) and on to the organic garden courtesy of Garden Organic’s  ‘From Plot to Plate’workshop for teachers.

Built for Chelsea some years ago the garden incorporates fruit trees and wildflower meadow on both sides of the formal garden along with a beautiful timber framed building which is used for workshops. All the raised beds are clad with willow hurdles and the whole garden bordered by a hornbeam hedge. Two small ponds have been incorporated on the south side outside the hedge giving it a moat like appearance. In fact the whole garden has the feel of a medieval monastery, even down to the large refectory table we all sat round.

The day provided a much-needed opportunity for teachers, parents and others who run gardening clubs and activities at school to share ideas and good practice as well as learn some new tricks and reflect on what has and hasn’t worked.  After a delicious upmarket soup and sandwich lunch, we walked the 20 acre field with Jez, the Head Gardener at Daylesford. It was a rare opportunity to see an old fashioned market garden in operation. Most growers specialise in one or two crops unlike Daylesford. In schools -where all year round growing of a variety of plants to sell or supply the school kitchens is the aim – seeing this in operation, albeit in a scaled up version was really helpful.

As the teachers poured over Garden Organic’s recipe cards and filled in their planting plans for the year, or cast their eyes to the beams where the names of seasonal fruit and vegetables have been beautifully carved, one of the ladies remarked that such a training session could have been run in a couple of hours at school. Of course she was right and this may well be the option in future if Garden Organic’s funding is cut.

On the other hand I would say there are so many positive benefits to be gained from taking time away from the cut and thrust of life at the chalkface and reflecting on good practice in an inspirational environment that a day at Daylesford is one well spent.  You can find out about courses run for teachers by logging onto to Garden Organic’s website and Daylesford run their own courses on a regular basis too.

Mandala magic

In view of the fact that growing things is now very popular at my children’s  school, the recent Harvest assembly was designed with local food in mind. In previous years they have focussed much more on global awareness with fundraising for Water Aid and sending cows or goats to African farmers. At other times they have taken in lots of tins and packets for the local food bank or night shelter. It’s a world away from the more traditional harvests of my youth with a church full of locally grown fruit and veg which was distributed amongst members of the community. However, the gardeners stepped up to the mark and we made a harvest mandala from items foraged around the school grounds and garden. Pretty innit?

My first experience of mandalas came when I did a permaculture course. Permaculture is all about completing the circle, fair shares, using what exists in nature, making things beautiful, everyone playing a part in and for the community……I could go on. And so making a mandala fits beautifully with the ideal.

Google ‘Mandala’ and you’ll find out about the full meaning of making one in terms of spirituality, self-expression and personal growth. For our purposes we used it as an opportunity to have some fun picking what we’d grown and some lovely free foraged plants, arranging them together, celebrating our achievements and sharing them with others.

And as mandalas are above all transient, we took a picture and allowed members of the school community to come up and dismantle it, choosing something to take away and use. The squash was taken home for someone’s Mum to make soup. Conkers were used for games or to ward off spiders in bedrooms. Apples were eaten at breaktime. Sunflowers were used to feed the birds. You get the picture?

It’s a simple, fun, outdoor activity to do with children at any time of year. Use what’s available and let them work together. You’ll create amazing things, and, I guarantee,  have lots of fun into the bargain.

My friend eco campaigner Brigit Strawbridge created some of these amazing mandalas. Check out her blog here.


Baking, beetroot and bunting.

 The recent series of ‘The Great British Bake Off ‘has been greeted with such enthusiasm by my children that one would think they’d never seen a homemade cake or bun before. Maybe it’s the upmarket bunting-festooned marquee in a field approach that’s done it….or the element.of competition. It”s all a bit bemusing to me as they have’cooked’ since they were old enough to stand on a chair and wave a wooden spoon in the air. Other mothers embraced the plasticine, glue, glitter and paint experience. Not me! I know my limits. Making biscuits or decorating fairy cakes filled up quite a few hours of toddler time,especially those awkward moments when friends came round and an argument started brewing. ‘Lets make biscuits’ was guaranteed to restore harmony.

Eventually we progressed onto chutneys, mincemeat, lemon curd, fudge, lavender sugar, raspberry vinegar and all those handy goodies that can be prettily wrapped and given to teachers at Christmas. It beats raiding the chocolate or wine shelves in pre-Christmas supermarket madness both in terms of your purse and stress levels.

Then came campfire cookery which is fun, if slightly inedible at times and involves FIRE. (What is it with boys and fire?) Actually anything eaten out of doors tastes better as far as my children are concerned, even the odd cremated potato or squash.  However, there comes a time when one has to progress onto proper cooking – putting a square meal on the table -and that time is now.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think that this has been planned in any great detail. It is an intention and happens when it happens. For instance we tackled yorkshire pudding on a day when a bit of distraction therapy was required. Saturday has evolved into pizza night, purely because it’s easy to make a batch of dough in the morning before we go out and it’s quick  to assemble an easy pizza and salad when you’re exhausted. And when my eldest son found a recipe in a book for ‘Men only Lemon Drizzle Cake’  based on a competition entry at the Flower and Veg show, open only to the blokes, it simply HAD to be made.

Like many parents I dream of having children who will eat anything – even beetroot. I am a devotee of the theory that ‘If they grow it and cook it, they’ll eat it’ but thus far my optimism has been somewhat misplaced. Cue the sainted Nigel Slater with a beautifully styled new programme, a not-so-sleepy child and a log fire last Friday.  Drawn in by butter beautifully wrapped in brown paper, yogurt in kilner jars, a huge kitchen and the quietly seductive Mr Slater he decided that roasted beetroot with goats cheese and sourdough bread was a ‘must make’ dish.

It was made – and a pretty good job of it he made too. And it was eaten…….but not by him.  You can’t win them all but at least he has another dish with which to impress future partners.

Seed time, Harvest and new beginnings

Happy New Year! In case you’re wondering –  I haven’t lost the plot. September has been the start of the year for as long as I can remember. I imagine it has everything to do with my agricultural roots and perhaps a little to do with being a teacher. Farm tenancies traditionally start in September as do school years. The previous year’s crops are harvested, seeds are collected and next year’s planting plans are finalised in a brand new notebook. Yes. It’s at this time of year that I get to indulge my unhealthy interest in stationery!!

Of course we are still harvesting from our plot – in particular borlotti beans for drying, courgettes, tomatoes,raspberries, dahlias, sweet peas and lots of herbs. But there is a sense of things coming to an end. I have been sowing green manures in vacant parts of the plot after harvesting and making plans for the coming year. And there is the Harvest Supper to look forward to.

This year’s plans also involve the local primary school where I have run a gardening club for a number of years. The exciting news is that this year gardening is on the curriculum. On Wednesday afternoons I will be working with each class in turn on a garden related project. I start tomorrow with Year 6 and a Dig for Victory garden to enhance their topic work on World War II. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.

And if you’re looking for other jobs which can usefully be completed in September – either at home or with schoolchildren – here’s my Top Ten………

  1. Sow green manures on vacant parts of your plot
  2. Order garlic, shallots and over- wintering onions for planting next month.
  3. Sow something for Winter. There are some ready made planting packs available for those who want an instant Autumn into Winter garden from Rocket Gardens or River Cottage.
  4. Expose Apples and Pears to the sun to ripen
  5. Make chutneys with gluts of courgettes and green tomatoes.
  6. Plant Strawberry plants to increase your stock. If you are very organised you will have potted up runners from your existing stock. Aim to replace plants every three years and give each plant plenty of space.
  7. Earth up leeks
  8. Plant bulbs for Spring. This is a great project for school. We’re planning a daffodil maze this year near the garden shed.
  9. Place mesh or similar under pumpkins and squashes to allow air to circulate underneath and stop the underside becoming soft and mushy.
  10. Start your plan for next year’s edible garden..

Reasons to be cheerful

The wind’s whipping around the back of the house. Every time I step out of the door it rains…and I mean biblical torrents. I have a ‘to do’ list which looks like a queue for the latest Banksy exhibition and my PC  is throwing a strop worthy of Violet Elizabeth Bott. Hence the messy looking hyperlinks!! Today may not be the best of days.  But who needs a blogger who moans? Enough! I need some blue sky thinking.

Firstly my passion for sunflowers knows no bounds and so I was delighted when Ben Ranyard of Higgledy Garden  asked me to write a guest article about them on his blog. Nip over to read it here. Ben grows and sells seasonal cut flowers and his blog is full of fabulous pics and info about all manner of delighful blooms.

Secondly I will be making another batch of elderberry cordial soon as the berries on and around the allotment are almost as abundant as the raspberries. You’ll find all the details here Did I mention the raspberries? They are Ah- Maize – Zing this year!

See. It didn’t take me long to see the blue skies.

Not so lazy Monday afternoon

I like to begin the week with a burst of energy and running a session of ‘extreme’ gardening at my children’s primary school on Monday afternoon is as good a way as any. Trying to cram in something fun, meaningful and safe in 25 minutes, often in the most appalling weather with a dozen or so highly keen but often ill dressed apprentice gardeners gets the adrenalin  pumping almost as much as tightrope walking between tower blocks or ironing halfway up a mountain.

I have to admit to having a bit of a love-hate relationship with the school gardening club, particularly after meeting some other teachers at ‘Seedy Sunday’ recently. For they have a whole two hours on Wednesday afternoons in which to garden and (get this!) actual teachers at the school actually work in the garden, in actual lessons and they have loads of actual volunteer helpers!!!

I know that we are far better off than many school gardening clubs for, as you see, we started with  large school grounds and proper raised beds. I often meet or hear from people who are attempting to run gardening clubs with little or no support or funding and are getting just that bit brassed off. I salute them all.  Gardening with keen children is the best job in the world but if you are faced with difficult circumstances it’s easy to lose your mojo.  Below is my recipe to get it restarted.

  •  Do what you can do well and not what you’d like to do. Sounds simple enough but the perception seems to be  that the only way to go is with an all singing, all dancing club, where you have funding, resources, lots of helpers and above all enough time. Reality check! If you are the only person running the club in 20 minutes a week at lunchtime this model is not for you. Dip into books, the media and get help from the likes of  Garden Organic and RHS Campaign for School Gardening but don’t feel you have to do it all. If you can’t sing and dance just growl to begin with. (With thanks to Malcolm Smith, Lead Garden Eucation Officer with the Food for Life Parnership for the metaphor).
  • Offer to garden with individuals whom the school feels would benefit from the attention. This is a great way to get back to enjoying gardening with kids and when the school see the benefits you might find them more prepared to be actively supportive on bigger projects.
  • Offer to use your gardening expertise with individual class projects eg planting a small Roman herb garden with classes studying the Romans, growing beans in various conditions as part of a science lesson, taking a small group outside to do measuring in Maths by planting veg at the correct intervals. You won’t have to worry about funding as the school will provide the wherewithal and you’ll have the teacher and teaching assistant to help. What’s more the class and teacher will want to take care of their work in the long term.
  • Suggest a one-off project eg Autumn bulb planting with donations of bulbs from parents and refreshments for those taking part. It’s a great way for a bit of parent/school bonding and publicity for the school. You might well find that one or two parents enjoy the experience so  much they offer to help more regularly. The Woodland Trust supply hedging plant packs free to schools and if your school has enough space this could work as a one-off too. 
  • Treat the school gardening club as an exension of (or alternative to) your own allotment. You supply the seeds and plants etc and in return for gardening with children ,you get to keep or sell the produce in a wheelbarrow market to parents. There may be other parents without gardens who would be prepared to help in return for some fresh veg.
  • Suggest a garden themed class competition eg design and plant a hanging basket or sunflower growing competition with a prize donated by the school or local business. Get the local paper involved.
  • Make some links with the local community. There may be a local allotment association, veg box scheme or plant nursery who could offer some expertise or freebies on an ad hoc basis to take the heat off you for a while. It’s good publicity for them too.

After all gardening in school as a volunteer may be a bit ‘extreme’ but it shouldn’t hurt you.

Let them eat cake

There’s a definite foodie theme to this post, mostly in the form of cake.. Not that I haven’t taken healthy eating seriously so far this year but there have been one or two celebrations and everyone knows that a celebration needs cake.

Firstly on January 22nd there was the grand opening of the Fitzmaurice School Polytunnel which will help our ever expanding group of apprentice gardeners grow crops all year round. As you see, we know how to party with the local MP Duncan Hames and town mayor Isabel Martindale, another keen gardener who regularly offers us freebies. The polytunnel is a 24 by 12 foot beauty  and was completed by a band of willing volunteers over several weekends in freezing conditions. In this they were sustained by copious amounts of tea,coffee, soup and …you’ve guessed it ….cake. We’ve still to kit out the inside  but, for the moment she has an inaugural sowing of peas, growing away in some guttering. Special thanks to Mandy Dunn of Beautiful Birthday Cakes for her fabulous creation.

Then it was  our second birthday on the blog on February 2nd. I marked the day with a trip to the allotment to do a bit of mulching and sat on the bench sipping coffee and eating cake – more of the St Clement’s  muffins I am so keen on.

They also made an appearance in the cafe at Seedy Sunday, the town’s first seed swap event yesterday along with a seed cake containing potatoes and chocolate  muffins (with courgettes). All delicious. All good for you. All gone.

And in case you think I’ve abandoned my greens altogether in favour of the sweet stuff, feast your eyes on these litttle shoots, cheering up the bleakest of February days on the kitchen windowsill.

Microgreens are dead easy to grow and are particularly appreciated by impatient garden apprentices, like my three.  They are ready in about two weeks and are delicious in soups, (if you can get your child them), salads (are you kidding?) sandwiches or just as a snack (better luck with these latter two). We have a speedy salad mix growing in recycled plastic trays, some peashoots just emerging sown from a cheap packet of supermarket dried peas and some in one of our hairy pots but more of that another time.

It promises to be a frantic planning and seed sowing time over the next few weeks. I’d better make sure there’s enough seedcake in the tin. Here’s the recipe in case you’re interested courtesy of Harry Eastwood with a few countrygate tweeks..

Whisk together  3 eggs, 160g caster sugar and 1/2 tsp salt until they have doubled in volume and look like custard. It takes about 5 minutes!! I used the mixer as I don’t have arms like a prop forward and it gave me plenty of time to grate the potatoes!

Finely grate 240 g Maris Piper potatoes (they need to be the floury type of potatoes). Add these to the mix and combine.

Then add 100g rice flour, 50g ground almonds, 2 tsp baking powder 1 heaped tbsp caraway seeds and a scant  tsp freshly grated nutmeg (far superior to the ready ground stuff) along with 2 tbsp brandy. I have raided the cooking sherry on occasions but brandy is better.

Whisk it up briefly and pour into your cake tin. Place in the middle of the oven (180C /350F) for 40 minutes. When done remove from the oven. The top should look a bit like crumpets indicating you’ve achieved fluffy cake perfection.

Unmould it and cool on a wire rack.  When cool sprinkle caster sugar over the top and store in an airtight container.

Crocuses,coleworts and cumulative frequency

I lead a full life, rendered ever more varied by a once a week foray back to the chalkface to tutor year 11 students who have got lost along the way. Mostly I stick to things literary but  occasionally I have to teach Maths. It’s a win win situation: I get to remove my wellingtons for a few hours and my children can  tell their friends that at last I have a ‘proper job’. (Presumably running a business doesn’t count).

This week’s dubious pleasure is  cumulative frequency. No. I don’t know why it’s so important either unless one wants a career in market research or trainspotting but there are a lot of questions about it on GCSE papers. And since there’s only so much  one can do  to inject a modicum of pizzazz into such a topic I have occupied myself in other ways, as you see.

Dodging the showers to plant hundreds of bulbs – crocus, anemone, daffs and fritillaries with  an entire school  during The Big Bulb Plant on October 2nd.

Dodging the showers to  pot up some strawberry runners as a ‘present for less than a pound’ for an eco event.

Dodging the showers to collect compost from the allotment for son number 2’s recycling project – a salad train fashioned from plastic grape containers, lolly sticks, treasury tags, cereal boxes and lettuce seeds.

Dodging the showers to pick the ingredients for son number 1’s latest homework – a Tudor peasant’s feast of pottage and flat bread.  The Tudors liked their coleworts (kale) and so they feature quite significantly in the pottage.

You may notice a pattern emerging here, rather suggesting that I might be a rain goddess. Well at least I can use the experience to illustrate the principles of cumulative frequency.

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