Baby, it’s cold outside

xmastreestick
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.

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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….

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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.

 

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!

Salad days

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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.