Friday, 31 March 2017

Sowing window box flower seeds with a toddler: Ladybird poppies

When planning our tiny garden, we wanted to ensure that we'd have space where GarlicBoy could play safely when we're home. We also wanted some storage space for garden cushions and tools etc. A playhouse seemed to tick all the boxes and he loves it. My father and I put it together a couple of days after Christmas and I have to say, that kind of work is a surprisingly good hangover cure! Our urban garden is so small that I had to have it made specifically to fit the space but one thing that did fit in, was a tiny window box outside the window. So I want to sow some little flowers for GarlicBoy that are unusual and that we can make little posies out of. So we decided to sow some poppy seed. I saw these pretty Ladybird Poppy (Papaver commutatum) seeds during a recent visit at the wonderful RHS Wisley (where my husband goes pale every time I suggest that we exit through the gift shop (or, as they call it, the nursery...).  As the tiny "window box" of his playhouse is so shaded, I've decided to let the pots sit on the patiently waiting pumpkin raised bed to get some sun whilst they germinate. This was quite fun to do. As usual, I had all of our equipment set out up so that when GarlicBoy awoke from his lunchtime nap, he could scurry over to his stepladder and investigate all of our tools.

To plant a window box with flower seeds with a toddler:

You will need:
- A flat surface
- Windowbox / flower box (ensure you get one with drainage holes)
- Good-quality seed sowing compost
- Small stones / broken crockery /
- Seeds
- Small hand-held soil sieve (you could just crumble the soil by hand)
- Hand trowel (toddler tools are optional but GarlicBoy loves having his own miniature version)
- Gardening gloves

1. Set out all of your equipment on your flat surface, being aware that soil is going to go everywhere (so we use our garden table)
2. Pop on your gardening gloves
3. Enlist your tiny helper's assistance in using the trowel to transfer soil into the pot. This is, without a doubt, my toddler son's favourite part of the whole process. 
4. Use your trowel to level the top of the soil and water it lightly
5. Open the seed packet carefully. I always like to show GarlicBoy the seeds and we talk about the shape of them and whether they can be rolled over etc
6. The poppy seeds that we used grow quite prolifically in disturbed soil so we simply scattered them on top of the soil and then sieved a small amount of soil on top of them but always follow the directions on your seed packet
7. Place your pots in position!

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Square foot gardening: Planting carrot seeds for the Easter Bunny with a toddler

An empty raised bed awaiting seeds is a yawning gulf of temptation to me, one that begs to be filled with any manner of plants. The problem is that when space is limited and the year is still too young to allow for the planting out of seedlings as per the carefully crafted urban garden plan that I spent hours over, I find the promise of an immediate crop almost overwhelming. So it's lucky for the plan that it's finally time to sow carrot seeds. My little boy was beside himself with excitement at the idea of sowing carrots and immediately declared that he wanted to give some to the Easter Bunny when he comes, to thank him for the chocolate eggs. However, the spacing directions on the carrots (to be sowed 30cm apart) would mean a tiny harvest even by my standards. The solution? I'm going to try square foot gardening for the very first time. So our sowing experiment took a while longer that I'd expected as I had to mark off a square foot of raised bed each time we went to sow something. We were using one of the shadier raised beds in the garden to sow four types of carrot (Purple Haze, Yellowstone, Resistafly, Paris Market - Atlas) and some beetroots (Chiaggia). I wanted to plant interesting types of carrot that we couldn't readily buy at the supermarket. So we went to the nursery together and GarlicBoy chose the types of carrots that we should buy based on the pictures on the packets. We sowed our initial seeds at the front of the beds and will sow another batch in a couple of weeks to try to extend our harvest. 

To sow carrot seeds with a toddler:

You will need:
- A raised bed / flower bed / trough
- Good quality seed compost
- Seeds
- Soil sieve
- Hand rake
- Hand trowel
- Gardening gloves
- Raffia / string and pegs / posts
- Seed syringe (Optional)
- Measuring tape

1. Pop on your gardening gloves, mix the compost into the top of your raised bed / flowerbed and water it

2. Using the rake, thin the soil and rake it finely. My two year old preferred digging large holes in the soil with the trowel so I employed my box of gardener's things (useful hooks and string etc) to keep his interest whilst I finished the raking. 

3. Carefully use the measuring tape to measure out a square foot of soil
4. If you're using a seed syringe, get your toddler to help you "load" it with seeds. If not, shake as many out of the packet as you want to sow. I usually sow two to a hole. 

5. Work on the basis that you'll plant nine carrots per square foot and try to space the holes evenly. Now drop (or syringe) two or three seeds per hole. 

6. Lightly dust the seeds with soil pushed through the syringe and water again using the fine nozzle on wa watering can (or hose, at a distance). 

7. Use the pegs to place a string at the edge of the square, so that you know where to start sowing on the next square

8. Add a seed label and move on to repeat for the next square foot of bed. 

Then sit back and check for progress for the bunny every day!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Sowing seeds with a toddler: Proper propagators

With the growing space that I used to use pre-baby occupied by a busy toddler who has more personal belongings than many Royals, I've been severely limited in how many seeds I can sow from scratch. I did have a very small greenhouse but walls of glass and busy bouncing boys didn't really seem to mix in small gardens. So I've had to be creative. I sowed my edible flower seeds into tiny pots encased in postage cases which worked quite well but for the few plants I won't be buying as plugs this year, I did have a single "proper" propagator. In an attempt to interest GarlicBoy in each project (at two years old his attention span swings between fifteen and forty minutes and so I wanted to attract his attention), I've started setting out a little table with all of the tools we'll be using and the little set of steps with a grab-rail that we keep in the kitchen so that he can cook with us. 
This has the twin benefits of ensuring that he can immediately see what we'll be using and that we can start straight away rather than spending his precious attention span wandering about looking for the things that we need. I wanted him to help me sow the seeds, so I hydrated some compost and he placed the seeds. An initial foray into seed sowing had the packet of French Marigold seeds (the mysterious "tomato-grower's friend") sprinkled liberally all over me, the table, and a passing cat, so I started holding the seeds myself and letting him take small amounts from my palm. 
He didn't appear to see the point of the tiny seeds, but he really enjoyed poking the squash (crown prince) and pumpkin (hundredweight) seeds right down into the root holes. It was a bit challenging to explain that they only needed to be lightly pushed down and then covered with soil (which shouldn't be compressed) but he did seem to enjoy it once he got the hang of it. We talked about putting the seeds to bed for a nap so that they can wake up when they've grown and he said "night night" to them as he covered them up. The underfloor heating and the prime position next to our garden doors in direct sunlight have done wonders and just a couple of days later,  the Marigolds are charging up out of the soil, eager to sacrifice themselves to the white fly for my future tomato plants. Hurrah for seedlings, once they're a bit bigger they'll be liberally distributed in the tomato bed and hanging basket as a companion plant.  
Just a couple of days later, spring (and the seedlings)  has sprung!

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Cutting the grass (patch)

Messy straggly grasses
Oh how I envy those lucky souls with seas of grass to tame with a ride-on mower. Not for them the stress of wondering how best to maintain a puny couple of metres of grass marooned within a the confines of a patio and raised flowerbed surround. My patch is nowhere near large enough for a mower (honestly, I don't think that it'd even really fit) but it's just slightly too large to cut with a pair of scissors. So my somewhat uneasy compromise? A strimmer for most of it and then a quick trim around the edges with kitchen scissors to get any stragglers. Bear with me, I know it's mad, but it actually works quite well, and perhaps just as importantly, it's small enough to store easily in the playhouse. The garden had become something of a jungle, a fact that delighted the GarlicCats who spent days crouched nose-deep in the grass playing at being cats in African grasslands waiting for a passing gazelle (substituted here in South West London by a passing beetle). Once clipped and raked, a backbreaking task with my minuscule hand rake, the grass looked even sadder. 
Playing "mighty hunters" pre-pruning
It was patchy in the extreme and the turf clearly hadn't taken in places but had been hidden by the overgrowth like a bad comb-over. The builders are coming back in a week or so to re-seed the bald bits but in the interim at least it looks neat.

The cats are above my menial labours (literally)

Sunday, 26 March 2017

First harvest of 2017!

*Drumroll please*. It is with enormous pleasure that I can now reveal the first of our 2017 harvest! It is a sprig of Rosemary, which we used in one of my absolutely favourite comfort dishes for cold weather, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Chicken with lentils and rosemary. A puny harvest? Yes. Technically cheating as I bought rosemary plugs and just grew them larger? Yes. But enormously satisfying to nip out to the garden wielding our herb scissors and to be able to harvest my very own home-grown herbs and use them minutes after they're cut rather than produce some sad, limp, week-old, pesticide-ridden herbs from an overpriced supermarket packet? Of course. I did a little herb dance with GarlicBoy and strutted around like a peacock that's just laid a golden egg. It's not the 90p that I saved by growing the herbs, it's the primal sense of happiness and satisfaction that I get from providing for my little family in even the tiniest sense. It's good for the soul. And the stomach of course.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Swing low, sweet strawberries...

Strawberries being planted in a hanging bag
One of the many problems faced by people with very small urban gardens like mine is that even if you're lucky, the amount of growing space that you have in full sun is pretty minimal. Because the garden is so small, half of the growing space that I have in my raised beds is darkened by shadows cast by the fences. So I'm having to find ways of maximising the amount of sunny space that I have available. Strawberries are a particular problem. 
The waterlogged berries you buy in supermarkets cannot come close to comparing to the flavour and smell of home-grown berries but the plants themselves don't need to put roots down deep enough to justify using the space in our raised beds. So although I'm trialling a couple of new climbing strawberries in the raised beds (they'll climb the trellis mounted on the fences), I'm planting my two dozen normal strawberry and pineberry plants ("Snow white" and "Malling opal" respectively) in a hanging bag thing and a vertical garden hanging pouch, both of which I'll position on sunny walls. So fingers crossed for a bumper harvest!
Vertical gardening pouches planted up with strawberries and pineberries

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Starting afresh: planting a cover crop in raised beds

The only nice thing about having our poor little urban garden decimated by our builders was that I was able to start again, planting a completely toddler-friendly garden from scratch without feeling bad about rooting up existing plants (because the builders had killed them all). But one of the problems with that is that it means that I am stuck with a load of raised beds, flowerpots and planters that are filled with soil that's got nothing growing in it and isn't being held together by roots. To avoid the proliferation of weeds and the soil drying out, I've decided to sow a brief cover crop of spinach in one bed. I have planted some in my bottom wall planters and so thought it might be a good idea to do so in the main beds too. I thought I'd try out a seed tape as I haven't tried them before. It was slightly ridged and so I'm worried that it might have gotten damp at some point and to be honest it felt a bit like cheating to use a tape. It also felt a bit like burying loo roll rather than sowing seeds so I'm not at all convinced that it'll grow but we'll see. The pepper and tomato plugs that I've ordered to go in this bed won't arrive until May so hopefully we'll have a decent in-between crop of spinach before then. 

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Set up an urban bird feeding station with a toddler (for picky urban birds)

Garlic towers is ready for our first feathery patrons
A rainy weekday afternoon and an overexcited toddler with energy to burn combine brilliantly to mean one thing - bird feeders! We had a birdfeeder outside our sitting room window before we embarked on our harebrained scheme to gut and refurbish our entire house last year. For almost the entirety of 2016 it was therefore replaced with a skip, more rubble that I can believe honestly came from this house and a variety of builders pretending they weren't murdering our garden. However, now that the trauma is over, we are ready to do our bit to help sustain the urban bird population. Usually the closest we come to seeing birdlife in our part of South West London is the carpet of chicken bones spread all over the pavements after the weekend (horrible, like a chicken genocide. Chicken shops that serve drunken patrons have a lot to answer for). Garlicboy got a bird spotting book for his birthday last year and so I was keen to set a feeder up by our window where he could learn to identify the birds that come to visit. So I've had our feeder and some nuts and seeds ready and waiting for a rainy day. This is such a fantastic activity for a toddler as they can really get involved by filling the feeders and helping to make the suet / fat bird cakes. First we made the suet bird feeders using the RSPB recipe as a guide that we adapted for what we had at home. I find the RSPB schools guide a really good source of inspiration when looking for activities to do with GarlicBoy. 

To make fat balls / suet bird cakes

We used:
Two small yoghurt pots (washed out)
String (a long loop)
Birdseed (we used these RSPB seeds we found on Amazon)
Suet (I happened to have some of this suet in the fridge but I'm sure any brand would work)

1. Melt the suet over a very low heat. Open the windows and resist the urge to gag repeatedly - the smell is pretty vile. Cats appear to swoon with delight over this smelly greasy stuff so try to keep them off the oven. GarlicBoy enjoyed watching me stir this and seeing the bits of suet melting (from a safe distance on his little ladder of course)
2. Have your toddler / young child fill the pots about half full of seeds. GarlicBoy loved this and more seeds when on the floor than in the pots but running his hands through the seeds and pouring them into pots by the handful all added to the sensory fun for him
3. Carefully pour the liquid suet onto the seeds, making sure any little people are out of the potential splash zone
4. Under careful supervision, let the toddler / child stir the suet into the seeds. GarlicBoy really enjoyed doing this but I had to take care that he didn't touch the sides of the yoghurt pots (which were seriously hot!)
5. Then I added the string loops, made sure the string was submerged in the suet mixture and put them both in the fridge to solidify

Whilst the bird cakes were hardening, I got out the bird seed and peanuts and gave them to GarlicBoy with a spoon and a tiny cup so that he could fill our feeders. This was a fantastic activity and he really enjoyed filling them using his hands, a spoon and the cup. Again, it was really messy but he had a ball and the seeds etc liberally carpeting the floor were easily hoovered up in a couple of minutes when we were done. We then did puzzles and played with his trains and did some reading for a couple of hours until the bird feeders were hardened and then just before supper we went out to the front garden and set up our larger bird feeding station (complete with a small dish of water). As of going to press not a single local bird has visited our feeding station (the small, feathery ingrates...) but we remain hopeful and our RSPB bird book for children is stored by the window in readiness so that we can start our ornithological adventures together as soon as the birds decide to play ball. 

How children can get involved in this activity:
- Playing with and scooping seeds and peanuts into feeders (and seeds into the yoghurt pots for the fat feeders). REMEMBER to supervise your child closely because if they're anything like mine they'll try to inhale the nuts which could be a choking hazard.
- Stirring the seeds into the liquid suet. Again, the suet will be hot so please keep a close eye on them, don't let them touch the sides of the pot and keep an eye on their stirring speed so they don't get splashed. 
- Filling the bird dish with water
- Hanging the feeders (if lifted up)
- Identifying any feathery visitors!
- Learning about helping wildlife in the winter

Disclaimer: The activities suggested on this blog are suggestions only. You know your child and their abilities best and should always supervise any activities closely. Also please note that I am an Amazon affiliate. You can learn more about my affiliate status here.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Cat-proofing the garden

As our son has grown and changed, so has what we need from our garden. Whilst I want to grow as much as I can, GarlicBoy also needs some grass to play on, and we also need space to keep the kinds of things that I don't want him playing with (think secateurs...) so we got him a tiny playhouse that doubles as a storecupboard when we're not in the garden. However, the downside of that is that the cats could suddenly hop over the cat-proof fencing that we installed a couple of years ago to keep them in. I still don't feel entirely comfortable with the idea of keeping the cats in and we've decided that when we leave London, we will let them roam freely, but whilst we live in town we'd rather keep them safe. So I spent an afternoon modifying the existing fencing to cover the playhouse roof as well. It was both boring and difficult but it appears to keep the felines in (and the local moggy toughs out) and they're enjoying being out more often again. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Garden aims 2017

In the past I've set myself quantitative goals for our garden. I've tried to save us £250 in groceries by benchmarking my harvest against the prices charged in our local supermarket and I've tried to grow certain foods in abundance. This year, gardening with a toddler is going to mean slightly different goals:

This kind of pottering is what it is all about
1. FUN: I want it to be a fun experience that we enjoy together. I want GarlicBoy to experience the joy that comes from watching something you nurture grow. Watering the garden is already one of his favourite activities and I hope to add "picking his own food" to that. 
2. FOOD: I want us to grow a wide variety of foods. I've deliberately chosen unusual varieties of things where I can. I want him to appreciate what a lot of the vegetables and fruits that he eats on a regular basis look like when growing. 
3. HARVEST: I do want to supply as much of our food as I can, including a pumpkin for halloween and ideally some parsnips and carrots for Christmas Day. But I am conscious that my garden is tiny and that I'll be limited in what I can have. So I'm calling this a trial run for when we have somewhere larger in the country and an experiment to see just how much produce you can wring out of a small urban garden when you make every inch count. 

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Super speedy seedlings

Edible flowers being as trendy as they are, you might remember that we had great fun sowing some edible flower seeds together into tiny coir pots last weekend. I've only got one propagator and it's going to be used for a different project and so it was with enormous delight that I realised that the herb plugs I ordered had been securely packaged in plastic boxes that I could use to cover the small pots. They worked spectacularly well leaning up against our windows and the most of seeds sprouted at warp speed (apart from the primroses which sullenly rotted and grew disgusting white fluff).

I think that our underfloor heating might have helped. In order to get on with the garden as soon as possible I have planted them out far too early (over-enthusiasm is a trait I have in spades) because I'm desperate to something living in all of those pots we've readied! Anyway, they're finally all outside in their new cosy soil homes and brightening the garden with their tiny green spots of colour. I can only hope that the rest of my seeds do this well, because in the past I've often covered them with too much soil when sowing and so they haven't germinated but hopefully this experiment is a first step on the road to food literally from seed!
Seedlings in their little playhouse-adorning planters

Monday, 13 March 2017

Instaherbs; a cheat's way to a herb garden

I have mentioned before that as I no longer have space to have propagators all over the house, I'm having to cheat in the garden by buying plant plugs rather than just sowing all of our seeds from scratch. This includes our herbs. Although I initially felt bad about this, I have to say that the immediate visual impact is actually very pleasing, and I wonder if I might not come to feel about plugs the way I feel about making stock from scratch, which is to say that although purists bang on about the necessity, you can actually save a lot of time and still get the same end result if you buy from somewhere decent. I used a small organic herb farm for these plugs and I'm very pleased with them already! I've only planted hardy herbs so far (mint and basil and all those softies will have to wait for warmed weather) but I now have thyme, rosemary, two types of parsley and tarragon on tap which is marvellous news as I tend to use an awful lot of herbs and spices when I cook and those little packets of damp, limp herbs make me quite sad when I have to buy them. I think I'm going to fill out my raised beds with other herbs once the farm has them available. It seems to be a good way to compromise between using supermarket herbs (which I've tried to plant out before) and growing my own from seed. What do you think? (The bottom three planters are for perpetual spinach, softer herbs are going to have to go elsewhere!).

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Planning a small urban garden

I am a massive Pintrest fan (LoveAndGarlic if you must know...) but when it comes to gardening, it fails me miserably. A search for "small gardens" invariably shows up a load of results that are all larger than the footprint of my whole house. Such is the problem with not living in America, land of Pintrest users and, well, space. So what's a keen gardener to do with a puny city garden and a yearning for green growth? Well, you plan, that's what. You plan exactly what you're going to do with every single inch of space. You find ways to grow up, as well as out. You spend hours poring over seed catalogues and standing outside frowning at fences that are stubbornly too weak to support full on vertical gardening panels. You clear out all of the dead plants that your builders carelessly smothered to death and hang baskets and wall baskets and create a blank canvas:

 And then you develop The Plan:
And voila. The garden won't come close to providing what we need in terms of food. But it will provide ample opportunity for GarlicBoy and I to grow a very wide variety of fruit and vegetables to cook together in the kitchen so I think the experience is what's important here. I've ordered the plugs and the seeds, filled the raised beds and now we just wait! 

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Blooming delicious: sowing edible flower seeds with a toddler

One of the nicest things about Spring has to be the promise of the growing season to come. I find myself genuinely excited by the appearance of tiny buds on stems and tiny seedlings peeping up above the earth for the first time. The outside world bursts with life and potential. With that in mind I wanted a small project to do with GarlicBoy that would let him sow and watch seeds grow. I have attached a few hanging baskets to his playhouse in the garden and thought it'd be nice to let him have his own little boxes of flowers. Given that this is our tiny urban garden where every inch of growing space counts, I wanted to make them useful as well as pretty and to expand his taste palate by introducing him to edible flowers. I like the idea of him growing his own food from scratch. Luckily I'd been given a sweet little edible flowers kit for Christmas and so we opened it up yesterday and spent an enjoyable hour putting it together. At two, I was worried that GarlicBoy would be bored but he was fascinated by the whole process. He arranged the little coir pots, soaked the coir coins and was astounded when they swelled to seven times their initial size ("Look, the coins are big mummy!"). He wasn't keen on the taste of the compost (I try, honestly I do, but he's just so damn quick...) but very much enjoyed filling the tiny pots. 
Toddler preparations for seed sowing
Sowing the seeds themselves was thrilling. First there was the smelling of the seeds, the poking and pouring of the seeds, the multiple determined attempts to taste the seeds and finally the gleeful poking of seeds into the soil. We planted Cornflowers, Calendulas, Dianthus, French Marigolds, Nasturtiums and Wild Pansies.
Careful consideration of the seeds

Additional activities: flowers as art
We are taking a lazy approach to herbs this year. With a toddler in the house I sadly don't have the space to have hundreds of propagators lying about the house as I have in previous years (bring on a garden big enough for a greenhouse..) so I'm buying plugs of most things this year. I'll revert to being a purist once we've moved to the country. This applies to herbs too and as a happy coincidence, the herbs arrived yesterday so we re-purposed a couple of the postage boxes as makeshift propagators that are currently sitting in the sun in the dining room and being checked religiously for sprouting seeds every day after breakfast. What a lovely little project, I can't wait to see Garlicboy's face when the first seedlings appear!

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Return of the cats (and their tiny urban garden domain)

Hello good people of the interweb! I'm back. It's been years since I've written about our garden but now that GarlicBaby is GarlicBoy (and a keen tiny gardener), it felt like a good time to get back to the keyboard. A lot has changed, not least our house (which we spent the whole of 2016 gutting and renovating along with the garden and two extensions) but we're finally returning to normality. The garden has changed a lot since we bought the house in 2013:
When we did the house we decided to alter the garden and re-green. I hate that so many London gardens are just patio, my own included. So we had a load of the patio stone dug up and replaced with real live grass. I think it's possible that we're the only people in London with real grass. That dreadful plastic carpet stuff is everywhere I look. So although it's just a couple of metres squared, at least we know that our little boy will have some grass to roll around on when we're at home. I'm making up for the loss of hardstanding space for pots by growing up. I've bought a load of new vertical gardening racks and we'll be greening the fences together. I'm keen to see what a toddler can do in the garden! We shall see. I can't wait to get started, because frankly it looks a mess at the moment!