Diarmuid Gavin: Plant a life-long passion
Give your kids a digital detox and get their digits busy in the garden, for an irresistible hit of fresh air and plant magic they'll love for life
When you eventually manage to wrestle the digital devices from their grasp and insist they accompany you on an outdoors adventure, you'll find that children of all ages adore the great outdoors. They love the freedom from restrictions, permission to run around and the fresh air.
Open spaces for families are vital for our wellbeing, particularly in urbanised areas where green space may be under threat from potential development. Whether it's parks or our own gardens, outdoor recreational space should be utilised as effectively as possible. These are the places where healthy habits are born, and gardens - whether big or small - make the perfect playrooms and educational hubs for children.
The thought of gardening can be a turn-off for kids, but if it's introduced to their lives in an interesting and fun way, it can kickstart a hugely rewarding life-long passion. And when they see their flowers bloom, or get to grow their own vegetables, or pick fruit from a tree or bush they've had a hand in planting, they really begin to appreciate the magic of nature.
I created my Garden of Pure Imagination (see overleaf) for last year's Chelsea Flower Show, and in recent weeks it has found a new home at Dublin's Dundrum Town Centre. The garden was designed to spark this interest: to create a sense of wonder and to plant a seed in young minds. My team wished to create a sensation of awe that would inspire the next generation of gardeners - in other words, to make gardening cool!
But you don't need twirling trees or cartoonish shears in your plot to engage with green magic. Plants are a great place to start: if you select the right type for young minds, they will be amazed at the craft of gardening and the transformative power of nature.
So, read on for my guide - compiled with the help of my 12-year-old daughter, Eppie - to gardening projects that will grab the interests of children and make them think about plants in a new way. To help you to do this, I've also listed plants that grow or take root super fast, since, as we all know, the attention span of a little one these days demands quick results!
Top tips for gardening with children
● Kids love bright colours, so summer gardens should be used to their full potential to excite young minds. Plant the brightest colours in the most interesting shapes for real inspiration. Lollipop shapes, such as Allium, and amusingly shaped topiary are always fun.
● Heavily scented Monarda, or bergamot, flowers look like messy mops of hair to little people, and come in deep red or pink. They can look great when planted beside the deep-blue colour and towering structures of Agapanthus flowers. Children will love their huge flower heads, as they appear like fireworks, and last for months. And in Dundrum we've caused a stir with our 'Beware of the Agapanthus' warning signs - creating plant-based mysteries in tiny minds!
● Poppy flowers are bright red and soft to the touch and when they go over, the kids are left with brilliant seed shakers.
● Plant chocolate cosmos, or Cosmos atrosanguineus. The chocolate-vanilla aroma from its deep crimson- coloured flowers is straight out of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
● Snapdragons, or Antirrhinum (pictured ), are a real favourite - watch the bees go right into the flowers for nectar and see the 'doors' snap shut behind them.
● Include tactile plants such as Stachys byzantina, commonly known as lamb's ears (pictured below). This silvery grey plant has the softest, fluffiest leaves of all; it is really charming.
● Section off a children's flower bed to give them a sense of ownership. Get them kids'-sized tools, such as their own little trowel and a small rake.
● If you have the space, planting a tree can be a memorable activity for children. I did this with Eppie and her friends when they were aged six. They each planted a fruit tree and have charted the annual progress, produce and growth ever since.
● Turn your garden into a place of adventure. Make dens, treehouses, willow wigwams, or even just simple pop-up tents in summer.
● Keep busy in autumn, too - bulbs are an easy place to start. Plant daffodils, crocuses and tulips either in pots or straight into the ground.
● Go on nature walks. In autumn, collect foliage in as many colours as possible. Point out the different-shaped leaves of the oak, sycamore, willow and beech trees. Show them the leaf scar of horse chestnut: when you detach the stalk of a leaf from the tree, it leaves behind a scar in the exact shape of a horseshoe! Collect acorns, chestnuts and winged maple seeds.
How to attract wildlife to your garden
● Create a wildflower meadow
Wildflowers that will attract pollinating insects generally like poor soil. Choose calendulas, snapdragons, poppies, cornflowers, poached egg plant (Limnanthes), cosmos, nasturtiums, scabious, comfrey and flowering meadow grasses. Mix all these seeds in a bowl, sprinkle them onto weeded and raked soil, and gently rake them in. Now water using a watering can with a rose to activate the seed. In about six weeks' time you will start to see the results.
● Put up bird boxes and baths
Then share the delights of watching your chirping visitors with your little ones. Older children will have fun identifying the different species.
● Plant a butterly corner
Smaller garden creatures need a hand too. Butterflies happily feast on nectar-rich plants such as sedum, fuchsia and Michaelmas daisies, and later in summer they love verbena, buddleias, marigolds and lavender. But they also need places to breed and for caterpillars to feed, so if you have a space for a little wild area in your garden, nettles, sorrel, thistles and bird's foot trefoil will provide good cover. Plant spring bulbs such as crocuses, alliums and Muscari (grape hyacinth) now to provide a continuous supply of nectar.
● Get buzzy
Bees love many of the same plants as butterflies and different species prefer different varieties depending on the size of their tongues. So, if you can, include some of the following in your planting plans: clover, honeysuckle, catmint, toadflax, borage, chives, mint, echiums and larkspur.
● Go wild
If you don't have time to cut back all your grasses and perennials, you will really be doing wildlife a favour. Seed heads will provide food and the vegetation provides cover for insects to overwinter. This includes every gardener's friends: the lacewings and ladybirds who like to feast on aphids - our common enemy!
● Create a bug hotel
Create a woodpile tucked away in a corner. Just a few bits of cut wood arranged in higgledy- piggedly fashion will create a cosy place for the common toad to hibernate and breeding grounds for stag beetles and the woodlouse.
5 easy plants to grow from seed
Seeds companies do great ranges aimed at encouraging children to grow from seeds. Unwins' Little Growers, Johnsons' Little Gardeners and Suttons' Fun to Grow ranges are all good to try.
The big seeds are easy to handle and germinate quickly to give colourful flowers in yellow, red and orange. And they're edible!
2 Nigella damascena
Known as love-in-a-mist, this is an old cottage-garden favourite that never fails to delight, with its combination of ferny foliage and pretty blue flowers. Its easy germination will encourage budding gardeners.
The fact that this massive flowering stem comes from that tiny seed is really amazing to kids. Have a competition: who can grow the tallest?
Called the poached egg plant - as it has a bright, egg yolk-coloured centre on a white background - this easy-to-grow plant is good for attracting beneficial insects.
These flowers (pictured) will germinate and grow quickly, and come in bright, kid-friendly colours of orange, red and yellow, and sometimes stripy versions as well.
Not every day in the great outdoors is beautiful, and not every little person has a garden to plant in. However, there's always plenty to do indoors - whether that's in the greenhouse or around the kitchen table. Here are some projects to try:
● Plant Seeds
Mustard and cress seeds are the easiest seeds to grow; you don't need a garden or even much space. They're magical, as they will germinate and grow up within a week! You need some damp cotton wool placed in a container (pictured) to provide the perfect growing environment for the seeds. Sprinkle them on finely and leave in a warm, light place. You can also create fascinating seedling shapes by using a stencil to shake the seeds through, to make animals or star shapes.
● Make a wormery
Wearing gardening gloves, create layers of soil and sand in a big jar. Find some worms in the garden, pop them in and add some veg peelings and old fruit. Put the lid on and punch a few holes in the top for aeration. Then watch the worms do their magic work, converting our waste into soil.
● Identify by smell
This is a fun game where the players are blindfolded and score points for correctly identifying smells. Waft roses, mint, apples, rosemary and lemon balm under their noses.
5 vegetables to grow
1 Cut-and-come-again lettuce
It's great for children to learn where food comes from, but they are short on patience so choose quick seed to harvest, such as lettuce.
An easy-to-grow crop (pictured) which matures fast. If you sow them now, you could be harvesting them in around a month's time - a simple but rewarding activity for children.
Pique their interest with multi- coloured carrots. Quite easy to grow from seed, the likes of 'Rainbow Mix' will create carrots that are yellow, purple or red!
Grow your own pumpkins for Halloween fun. Sow indoors in April for planting out in May when the frost is over. Or 'cheat' with ready-to-go seedlings, which will be in garden centres now.
5 Broad beans
Re-create the magic of Jack and the Beanstalk with easy-to-grow broad beans. Plant in autumn for an early- summer crop, or early spring, and create supports using bamboos.
The garden of pure imagination
I wanted to create a spellbinding garden to capture young imaginations, so I started by visualising a witch's cauldron! Into it I threw dollops of inspiration: a little Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a dash of Wallace and Gromit, and a great big helping of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I seasoned with a sprinkle of Alice in Wonderland and stirred in a helping of Powerscourt Gardens, a little bit of the Phoenix Park and just a sliver of the Botanic Gardens… After bringing to the boil and letting simmer for a while, what emerged was the Dundrum Town Centre Garden of Pure Imagination (pictured above).
It looks normal - quite pretty, really - but it's full of surprises. On the quarter hour, box balls bob up and down and cause a ripple of excitement. People gasp and smile, and then… the trees start to twirl!
Soon, whole beds of plants trundle around a funny folly, while automatic shears emerge from the undergrowth to prune a rotating shrub. A flip table reveals a sundial on one side and a bowl of geraniums on the other, while windowboxes filled with pink hydrangeas move up and down.
Finally, the roof of the folly pops up, tipping its hat to the excited crowds. As it slowly closes, the magic ends - but only for another 15 minutes!