Let there be light

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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.

 

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Food for free

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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.
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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

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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

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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.
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“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

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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!
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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.
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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!

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.
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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 🙂