Baby, it’s cold outside

I appreciate it’s hard to muster up the enthusiasm to get outside for very long this time of year, but personally I find it’s not just my three-year-old who feels better for it if we do!

This week we finally managed to get out of the door to go for a walk in the woods (after a trying half an hour in which I tried, largely unsuccessfully, to convince my daughter that it really was too cold to just wear a short, sleeveless Frozen tutu dress outside).

I’m sure I’m not alone in my clothes battle with a pre-schooler, but for heaven’s sake, why don’t they just take our word for it that it really is cold out there? I have tried just letting her go out in inappropriate clothing to prove a point, but had to give up on that plan of attack when I realised that she’d get hypothermia long before she admitted she was wrong.

We even took a picnic with us, which might seem a bit mad in December, but we like our winter picnics and as long as you’ve got something to put down on the inevitably damp bench and a drink of something warming like a hot blackcurrant, then you’re sorted.

If you only fancy a short trip outside this month for an activity then I’ve got two suggestions for you. One is very messy though, so do remember I have warned you in advance….

Children love making suet bird feeders because it gets everywhere, so be prepared! You will need about an equal mix of vegetable suet and bird seed, although this is not an exact science. The suet can be melted on a camping gas stove outside in an old saucepan (or indoors on the hob) that ideally you can just scrape out rather than having to wash, as that’s the least fun bit of this activity.


Spread your bird feed out on trays, mix in the melted suet and, once it has cooled a little, children can either roll a pine cone with string attached in the suet and then in the seed (less messy and good for those who are queasy about getting it on their hands) or put it in a yoghurt pot.

The yoghurt pots need a small stick across inside at the bottom to act as a ‘perch’, tied on with a piece of string in the middle. The suet is then packed in on top of this. Leave it to set overnight in a cool place and then the suet ‘cake’ can be knocked out gently and hung up outside for the birds to enjoy.

And for a very quick last minute Christmas tree decoration, why not make a ribbon tree? Simply find a small stick about 15cm long (or cut to size) around 1cm thick and attach strips of old ribbon or material up the ‘trunk’ by simply knotting them onto it, one above the other.

Once you’re happy with the amount you have on (I think mine took about 13 pieces, but it will depend on the thickness of your material) then cut diagonally from the bottom up each side to make a tree-like shape. You can then screw an ‘eye’ (I used an old picture hook) into the top and hang it with some thread or thin ribbon. I made mine (pictured) in a bit of a rush, so I’m sure you can do much better!

Have a wonderful festive season and if you’re feasting on some of your homegrown produce this year – then enjoy! If not, there’s plenty of time to plan what you’ll be growing for next year’s Christmas lunch….

Let there be light

I have a love/hate relationship with autumn; loving it for its gorgeous hues and crisp, cold mornings but resenting the onset of darker nights, bringing with them far fewer hours to potter in the garden.

One of the best things about autumn though has got to be the leaves. You may already know this, but it was a revelation to me recently that the leaves actually contain most of those colours all year round, but they’re masked by the chlorophyll. As the light levels fall, the leaves stop producing chlorophyll and so the green disappears and the other colours take centre stage. A perfect antidote to shorter days if ever I saw one.

So, in the absence of things to pick or grow (although there are a few autumn raspberries and apples still around if you know where to look), this month’s blog is all about bringing a little more light into the world.

All you need is an old glass jar, some glue, a paintbrush and some autumn leaves, the more colourful the better. We cheated a little and used grape leaves from the greenhouse to make this lantern as most of the ones in our garden have become a sodden mush over the past week.

If you can’t find any leaves, torn coloured tissue paper will work just as well, but you won’t get the extra dose of fresh air from collecting them (unless you walk a long way to the shop to buy it).

How to make your lantern:

  • Thin out some PVA glue with a little water to create the kind of consistency that will leave a thin layer all over the jar (we accidentally added glitter too, but it looked lovely so it stayed!)
  • Once you’ve covered the whole jar, gently arrange the leaves onto it and then brush the glue mixture over the top of the leaves as well.
  • Don’t despair if they keep coming off – they will stick eventually! The trick is to use fairly small leaves if possible as larger ones will curl up as you try to put them on the jar.
  • If you’re using tissue paper, the same technique applies but just tear it up into little pieces beforehand so you create a collage effect. Little hands are definitely an advantage if you can get them to do it slowly and carefully enough!
  • While it dries, you can tie string around to help hold the leaves in place.
  • Then pop a tea light in (you may need a taper to light it depending on how big your jar is) and sit back and enjoy all those lovely autumn colours shining through.

I have also managed to take advantage of the sun shining last weekend and managed to get a few jobs done in the garden.

My three-year-old, who was following me around looking for something to do, looked crestfallen when I told her there weren’t many things we could sow outside at this time of year. As usual, she didn’t believe a word I said and had to find out for herself (a trait definitely inherited from her dad) and marched into the shed to find the seed box.

Now unless she’s been hiding it from me, she can’t actually read many words yet, so I was pretty amazed when she came out clutching a packet of grazing rye (a green manure and one of the few things you can sow outside this time of year) and asked ‘what about this?’ So, there you have it: gardening know-how can be acquired purely by osmosis.

It’s true though that there isn’t much you can sow now, but there’s always the living salads I mentioned in an earlier blog which will do fine on a windowsill indoors year round. You can also sow garlic bulbs this month, but if your ground is prone to water logging, then it’s best to put them into trays of compost undercover somewhere cool like an unheated greenhouse or cold frame and transplant them in Spring, otherwise they might rot.


Food for free

I love a good forage. What’s not to love? It’s free, fresh food with a bit of adventure thrown in for good measure. As soon as my daughter could walk, I had her out foraging, basket in hand. Now she’s that bit older, she thinks the garden and nearby fields and hedgerows are her own personal supermarket and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

It makes me sad when I hear children saying ‘I couldn’t possibly eat that because it might be poisonous’. That’s not their natural instincts talking: that’s the words of an over-anxious grown-up. It’s true there are things out there that can make you pretty ill, but they are few and far between and with a little bit of common sense, are easily avoided. I have an old, well-thumbed copy of Richard Mabey’s excellent Little Collins Gem Food for Free which you can still get in bookshops for under a fiver. It fits into your pocket and is a handy means of identifying anything you might be unsure of while you’re out and about.

I have a rule that if it’s the first time we’ve come across something, then my daughter double-checks with me to see if she can eat it. She already knows that most small red berries are not good to eat (at least raw, anyway) but easily identifiable raspberries and strawberries are fine. On our walks I can often hear her chatting away to herself like a little mantra: ‘No mouldy bits, no bugs…’ giving foraged finds a once over before popping it into her mouth.

There’s still plenty of free food out there at the moment if you know where to look. I probably should at this point mention that you shouldn’t take fruit from private land as it is illegal, but public rights of way, footpaths etc are fair game. I’m not sure anyone ever told my Grandad this though, as I lost count of the number of trees we climbed and fences we jumped to get to the best foraging grounds, which probably weren’t entirely legal if you interpreted the law to the letter.
Here in North East England at the moment apples are in abundance almost everywhere and while some can be eaten straight off the tree, others (like crab apples) are better cooked in jams or pies. Autumn raspberries and nuts such as hazelnuts can be found in hedgerows and there are edible greens such as chickweed and nettles literally under your feet.

Blackberries are still hanging in there too, and I like nothing better than to take a couple of baskets out with us to pick some apples and blackberries for a crumble. It’s the easiest thing in the world to make and little hands love to help make the crumble topping and pop blackberries in-between the holes of each apple ring.

  • Make your crumble with half the amount of fat (butter always for me) to flour (use plain flour), sugar to taste, a handful of oats and rub together until it resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Core and peel the apples and make into rings and lay on the bottom of an ovenproof dish, popping blackberries in-between and all over the layers as you build it up.
  • Sprinkle with a bit of sugar and lemon juice to stop them discolouring.
  • Put it in a medium oven at about 160-180 degrees, for about 45 mins.

I never exactly measure out a crumble as it depends on how much fruit I’ve got and how many mouths I need to feed, so don’t worry too much about being accurate. It’s also fun to experiment with different flavours in the crumble – a little ground cinnamon is good with apples, for example.

If you are picking mushrooms then do make sure you know exactly what you’re looking at and even ones that aren’t poisonous can disagree with some people, so it’s not something I’d personally risk with small children. It’s much better to go on an organised fungal walk with an expert.

Foraging is great fun as long as you take a few simple precautions such as avoiding taking anything from busy polluted roads (and who wants to forage there anyway with small people?) and don’t pick anything you’re not sure about. Also, don’t strip anything bare – leave enough for the birds and fellow foragers.

And I’ll just mention that, although my daughter will tell you firmly that sloes do not taste good raw and they’re not on the Top 10 list for foraging with children, they make an excellent flavoured gin for grown-ups and are available in a hedgerow near you now. Just look out for the prickly branches though – the scratches can be really nasty so I’d advise using gloves. I’d also recommend not popping into your local store on the way home to buy a bottle of gin on a Sunday afternoon with a small child in tow either. I think I’m still the talk of the village weeks on….

Slow Gardening


Time is something most of us don’t have enough of.  I could do with several more hours each day to fit everything in, but when I actually stop and think about it, I’d probably just whizz around like a blue bottomed fly in those as well so maybe it’s a good job I don’t.

It was a timely reminder of the importance of slowing down once in a while when I found myself contemplating a snail crossing my path for a good ten minutes. My daughter had spotted this particular snail some way off, slowly ambling along.

However, there was no question of us walking around it. “We have to wait for the snail to pass,” I was told, quite firmly. You know those times when you can sense a meltdown fast approaching if you disagree? It was one of those. So, we stood there patiently waiting for the snail to make his way across our drive.

To begin with, I was a bit annoyed, thinking of all the things that needed doing, but then it (slowly) dawned on me that it was actually quite relaxing to do nothing other than just watch this snail. To take in all the colours and patterns on his shell; to watch it rock side to side gently as it moved. My daughter was completely focussed and it made me realise that as adults, the times we spend completely engrossed in nature are often few and far between.

I tend to think of myself as in touch with nature as I spend so much time outside in the garden or allotment but if I’m entirely honest, a lot of that time I’m not really taking it all in; I’m thinking about the next job that needs to be done.

Therefore, in honour of my completely made up ‘Slow Gardening Movement (well, we can have it for food and all sorts else, so why not?) this month’s blog is not going to give you something to do or make in the garden with your children. I challenge you instead to do as little as possible.

Just breathe in a little bit of nature together, wherever you are. Kick off your shoes and socks, sit on the grass and feel very blade between your toes; lie on your backs and watch the clouds go by. Go on, try it. You might like it. And besides, all the jobs that need doing will still be there tomorrow…..

Mud, glorious mud

Those of a nervous disposition, look away now: I’m about to admit that my three-year-old is pretty grubby a lot of the time.

Granted, it has a lot to do with having a mum who is a part-time community gardener, but more than that, she, like most children given half a chance, loves getting her hands dirty.

Many parents obsess about sanitising everything and trying to control exposure to germs, but by being super-clean and worrying about children playing outside, we’re actually in danger of making them ill.

Studies have shown that children who grow up on farms have far fewer allergies than those living in an urban environment, and farmer’s children are exposed to plenty of germs!

I’m no scientist but what I do know is that there’s an awful lot of good microbes in a handful of dirt and that early exposure as a child to a healthy microbiome – the community of bacteria living in your body – is key to building a strong immune system in later life.

So if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably with me on the whole dirt thing, so you might want a few ideas of how to get more dirt into your little one’s system!

The good news is, that you won’t have to do much as most children don’t take that much encouraging to get dirty (it’s us adults that make them feel they shouldn’t!) However, you can provide a few props to help with creative play, alongside letting them sow seeds, prick out plants etc.

We’ve just built a gorgeous mud kitchen (pictured) out of old pallets and recycled wood for The Hop Garden which has already provided hours of entertainment to our younger visitors, but you don’t have to be that handy with a hammer to incorporate truly messy play into your garden.
“Cocktails anyone?!”

Simply provide access to a spot of dirt you don’t mind being dug up (best avoid any prized flower beds), an old baby bath or washing up bowl, a container of water, spoons, cups etc. and leave them to it.

In no time at all they’ll be whipping up some culinary delight that you simply ‘must try’ made with a generous dollop of mud and some leaves and flowers and getting all those healthy bacteria into their system in the process.

I was reliably informed that the concoction my daughter had created for me to drink was in fact ‘chocolate beer’ – I need to watch out or she’ll be having all my hops to brew next!

Flower child

It’s that time of year when you really need to be out in the garden enjoying the sunshine, not reading blogs about being outside on a computer (or for that matter, writing them😉 So, this post is short but sweet, but makes the most of the gorgeous flowers you can find in hedgerows and gardens this time of year.

Making a fresh flower headband is an activity which you can help even very young children to do, and by the age of three, many will be able to do most of this themselves.

Cut a thick strip of paper or card that is long enough to go around your child’s head (we used white but anything you have to hand will do just fine). Either put double sided sticky tape along the entire length or cheat by doubling over regular selotape, which is a bit fiddlier but will still work.

Wander around your outside space looking for flowers and leaves that catch your child’s eye, and arrange them on the sticky side of the headband, filling as much or as little as they like until it’s finished.

Make slits in the bottom of one end and the top of the other so they slot into each other when it meets at the back of the head or simply selotape it together and you’ve got a simple but effective headband that can be made within even the shortest of attention spans!
If you have a little more time and are inspired to do some more flower projects, why not try making flower prints? You will need a small rubber mallet for this, but it’s very simple to do.

Just take two pieces of old white cotton and cut it into squares of equal size (it doesn’t matter what size, but probably no bigger than A4 is a good idea). Gather some flowers and leaves and arrange in a picture on one of the pieces then lay the other piece of cotton on top. Give it a good bash with the mallet until you start to see the colours come through and then peel off the bits of flowers and leaves to reveal the masterpiece beneath.
It’s a bit of trial and error to get the right flowers and leaves – ferns work really well and any white flowers tend to end up as a brown mush, from my experience!

I still haven’t quite worked out what to do with all the fabric pictures yet, although they would probably look quite nice in a frame. I did hear of one woman who made her entire wedding dress using this technique, but I don’t think my skills are up to that standard quite yet!

Treat yourself to an edible tent

When I think back to my childhood, one of the most vivid memories is of the camps I made in the woods. The favoured spot was a tiny patch of trees in the local cricket club, where we’d amuse ourselves for hours as my Dad sweated it out on the pitch; we were oblivious to the game, only aware that when it was all over we’d get a soft drink and a packet of crisps as a treat.

They weren’t grand camps by any means, constructed mainly of sticks, leaves and grass cuttings kindly left in helpful piles nearby by the groundsman. But they were such grand palaces in my imagination, complete with several ‘rooms’ and all mod cons.

My daughter loves making tents and camps indoors but now the weather is warming up a little (well at least it was, briefly), I thought we’d take our camping adventures outside for a change.

You may be thinking ‘what’s this got to do with gardening?’ and you’re about to be rewarded for your patience hanging in there. With a few sturdy sticks or poles, some string and about 15 minutes to spare, you can make your own teepee suitable for a toddler in the back garden.

I used hazel cuttings for ours, as we had a tree that needed a prune so it was going spare. You can use most tree cuttings, but best to avoid willow as it will readily root in the ground. If you don’t have handy trees to prune, just use bamboo canes from a garden centre. It won’t look as rustic, and it will cost you a little more, but it will still work out just fine.

Mark out where you want your teepee to sit, making sure to leave enough room for a doorway. There’s no set number of poles you need, but I’d recommend using at least five to get a decent teepee-like shape. Simply push them firmly into the ground and then pull together to tie with string at the top, leaving the wispy bits sticking up if you have them.

This will eventually be an edible teepee, so make several horizontal lines around it (again, leaving room for the doorway) with string to provide support for the climbing plants. There are plenty of options for climbing beans, peas etc. and you can add some nasturtiums (edible flowers and the seeds can also be used as capers) as well for extra colour.

It’s a bit early to risk putting beans out yet, so best start them off in pots on the windowsill or greenhouse now, ready to plant out when the risk of frost is passed (which may be a while for us in the North East, but by end of May for everyone else….) Plant two to a small pot and make sure the lip of any beans you sow is pointing upwards – when you plant them out you’ll need enough to put two either side of each pole.
I got a bit ambitious with my teepee floor, and it may not work, but I thought it would be lovely to have a soft cushion of scented chamomile (above) to sit on while you’re hiding in the teepee, so planted a couple of plants in the centre. You could try other creeping herbs such as thyme as well.

I didn’t think a toddler would be able to get much out of the actual making as it’s a bit fiddly for little fingers and you need to be able to reach fairly high, but my daughter loved adding her own kitchen, cooker, bedroom and the like made out of tiny sticks to the construction as we went along, muttering quite happily to herself – that was an added bonus! So why not dig out that inner child this weekend and make a teepee? You know you want to…

Salad days

Ever stared at a salad bag in the supermarket and thought the contents look a little tired? Or, maybe like me, you look at the price and then put it back! Well, the good news is you can be eating your own fresh salad every day with minimal effort and cost.

Children of all ages love sowing, and mixed salad seeds are just perfect for starting out as you can’t really go wrong. They also germinate on a warm windowsill pretty rapidly, so are ideal for those children (and adults) with a limited attention span…

The best container for your cut-and-come-again salad is recycled: a plastic punnet – the kind you get in supermarkets to stop fruit getting squished (just make sure it is one with holes in the bottom).

Once you have your clean container, put a layer of compost on the bottom about an inch (or 5cms) deep or so and press it down gently so you have a firm, even surface.

Then give it a light watering; some children are more enthusiastic waterers than others, so you may need to give them a hand to ensure you have at least some soil remaining in the punnet. It’s important to water before putting your seeds on otherwise you’ll end up with a bunch of seeds in one place and nothing at all elsewhere!

Sprinkle a selection of seeds over to ensure an even covering but don’t fret too much about exactly how many seeds are on there – it’s not an exact science! You can buy mixed salad seed packets for about £1 and if you’re feeling adventurous, add some spinach seeds, radish, spring onion etc. as well to the mix.

Lastly, scatter a light covering of compost over your seeds  – you’re aiming for just enough to cover them rather than a complete burying so that they expend all their energy getting to the surface.

Place the punnet on a piece of cardboard or something waterproof if you’re worried about your windowsill and then sit back and wait to admire your seedlings as they emerge. It should take a matter of days to see something happening (you can often see the first stirrings through the sides, under the soil – another reason why it’s a good idea to use the plastic punnets) and within a fortnight, it should be ready for a first cutting of mini leaves.

Be frugal with watering and only water if the soil is dry to the touch (but don’t leave it like a desert for days or the tiny seedlings will give up the ghost).

It’s up to you whether you thin some out and pot them on if you have space to grow them into full size salads, but if you leave them small, you should be able to get two or three cuttings out of each batch (scissors are the easiest way to harvest). It will look a little drastic, like a shorn sheep for a while in-between cuts, but it will come back again at least once. If you start another punnet as soon as you begin eating the first, you should be able to have a continuous supply.

And that’s it – a really easy and cost effective way to get fresh salad that has the added bonus of not being sprayed with chemicals to keep it fresh in the supermarket.

New beginnings

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I’ve been writing a blog for The Hop Garden for many years, and this is a new off-shoot of that one, for little green fingers.

I hope it might provide some inspiration for those wanting to get out in the garden with small people, but not sure quite where to start.

Gardening with children, even from a very young age, is a wonderful low-cost activity. It also has the added bonus of giving us adults the perfect excuse to switch-off from our often hectic lives for a while and re-connect with the childlike delight that comes from growing and exploring the natural world.

And Spring is a perfect time to start: the nights and mornings are getting lighter and there are some encouraging signs of nature starting to wake up from winter, even in Northern England!

For a simple activity, head out in your garden or the local woods or park and see how many signs of Spring you can spot together such as flowers and buds on trees and bushes.

Take time to look closely at the tiny petals on snowdrops and crocus you find and, if you fancy something a bit more imaginative with a toddler and upwards, ponder on who might live in them (fairies are always a favourite with my daughter!)  A whole host of stories can evolve from these humble beginnings.

It’s also a good time to start sowing seeds, and as soon as they can handle small objects, children will love playing with seeds and compost. I have some wooden paper potters, which aren’t essential, but they have been a great investment for our community garden (I think they were about £8 the last time I checked) as you can make endless pots out of newspaper from them for free.

They are also great for reducing the amount of plastic pots we use and as the paper is compostable, you can plant the whole thing into the ground or into a bigger pot, which is particularly effective for crops such as peas which get a bit grumpy if they have their roots interfered with.
If you’re just starting out, you can’t go far wrong with early peas and a packet of seeds will last for ages. Just plant two in each pot – little hands can push them gently under the surface approximately up to their knuckle deep.

Simply make sure they’re well covered and the exact depth doesn’t really matter as long as they’re aren’t so deep that the port peas give up trying before they get to the surface! Let the strongest seedling grow on once it appears and keep them well watered, but not soaking, on either a window sill or in a greenhouse until the risk of frosts are past.

Peas do need some support – just old twigs and branches stuck in the soil to make a frame will do or you can make an elaborate teepee out of poles and string if you’re feeling more adventurous, which has the added bonus of being an edible hideaway.

I’ve found even the most vegetable-averse child cannot resist a pea they’ve just picked out of the pod🙂