Wednesday 16 October 2019

'Children love to grow things': How to help your kids love gardening and develop green little fingers

One of the best things you can do for your children is educate them about the importance of nurturing plant life, writes Kathy Donaghy

Debbie McHugh, with her children Nyanna (12) and Josh (7), pupils from Kill O’ The Grange National School in Deansgrange, working in the school garden. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Debbie McHugh, with her children Nyanna (12) and Josh (7), pupils from Kill O’ The Grange National School in Deansgrange, working in the school garden. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM
Paddy Madden says growing things teaches kids resilience and patience

Kathy Donaghy

One of the things I remember most about my maternal grandmother is her garden. She grew everything she needed to eat, from garlic to potatoes. Her green fingers were legendary, mostly out of necessity on her windswept farm overlooking the sea in Inishowen, Co Donegal.

My own desire to make things grow and encourage my children to get their hands dirty in the garden are epic. The trouble is, I, like many parents, don't know one end of a trowel from the other and I haven't much of a clue about where to start.

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As we've moved further away from the generations who grew their own food, we seem to have lost confidence in our gardening abilities. However, many intrepid gardeners are finding ways to pass on the vital skills of nurturing plant life in a new generation.

When mum-of-three Sandra Sharpe from Blackrock in Dublin did a gardening course with the Royal Horticultural Society of Ireland (RHSI) at Marlay Park, she didn't realise the way gardening would change her family's life.

Last year, Sandra and three fellow mums won 'Best Postcard Garden' in the Bloom Garden Festival at Dublin's Phoenix Park. They first met when they took charge of the garden at Kill O' The Grange National School in Blackrock where their children are pupils.

The school's children are central to the endeavour and Sandra, who is mum to Evie (7), Alex (5) and Zoe (3), explains that while the school's garden is small, there are still plenty of opportunities to get growing. The junior classes have just planted sunflower seeds while first-class pupils are waiting for their sugar snap peas to appear above ground.

According to Sandra, it's important that the children have ownership of the school's eight raised beds and so they asked the children what they'd like to grow before they mapped out the year ahead.

Flowers they could enjoy from inside their classrooms topped the list and the mini gardeners planted dahlias last March. "When the dahlias die, we'll dig out the tubers. They love the tubers because they're really ugly and yet they turn into beautiful flowers," says Sandra.

"They want to bring the tubers home to plant them in their own gardens. It's instilling a real sense of pride in them. They remember planting the seeds as infants and they love getting dirty and digging out the worms," she says.

Sandra's own children have embraced gardening at home and at school, and have learned all about the importance of leaving areas of gardens uncut and unkempt to encourage pollinators like bees and butterflies in.

School Principal Hilary McBain says the transformation of the school garden has been phenomenal. Because there's so much going on in schools, she says teachers often don't have the time to get involved in gardening. And she says having parents get involved in this way has brought the school community together in a unique way.

Mother to Nyanna (12) and Josh (7), Debbie McHugh, who first took on the school's garden, says kids learn so much from being in it.

"I want them to see the energy and the patience it takes for food producers to put food on our plates. We took a class out and we were harvesting beans and sugar snaps, and we gave them the opportunity to taste them straight from the plant. Their parents were gobsmacked that they tried the greens, but they ate them because they had seen them grow," says Debbie.

Getting their hands dirty, being able to identify wildlife and being in the great outdoors all flow from gardening, and Debbie says it's wonderful to watch the children figure stuff out and develop garden skills like being able to use a spade properly.

Gardener and biodiversity expert Patrick Hunt, who goes into schools to help them plan their gardens, points out that if you teach the kids the basics, they will pass that on to their parents.

Based in Dunlavin, Co Wicklow, Patrick firmly believes there should be a garden in all schools, but lack of funding means this isn't always possible. He says parents who want to encourage their children to get planting should start small by planting seeds in pots at home.

"If you have a garden, give children a raised bed of their own even if it's just a square metre. They can use it for something or just experiment. Take them to a garden centre and let them sow a few seeds. It's important to give them ownership of a small part of the garden. If they see it as theirs, they'll be more likely to look after it," he says.

Keeping it simple is key in the early stages when getting your kids involved, according to Patrick.

"It could be something as simple as allowing them to have a strip at the back of the garden and keeping a look out for what wildflowers pop up or what butterflies there are. Children are much more open to the idea of naturalistic gardens than adults who can find it difficult to let go of order. A little bit of hand weeding - as well as being therapeutic - is great for younger kids. They love making a game of finding the longest root. I sometimes ask them to see who can pull out the weed without breaking the root and then we measure the roots. At the end of it all, they might ask a few questions. Once there's a motivation, children are very keen," says Patrick.

He advises parents to start small and to keep going. "It takes time. Keep plugging away and it comes right. Once you have a few things under your belt, you'll be able to see what works."

On Sunday, the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin's Glasnevin kicks off its free drop-in family gardening sessions. Felicity Gaffney, Head of Education at the gardens, says the programme was so successful last year that they are starting the half-hour drop-in sessions again this year.

Children and family members can come along and learn to plant vegetables and flowers in a special area of the gardens with experts there. "One of the functions of the National Botanic Gardens is education, so this is really important for us.

"It allows us to explain the importance of plants and show people how easy it is to grow their own food," says Felicity.

As one of the Heritage Council's schools experts, Paddy Madden spends a day with primary school children, passing on some of what he's learned over the years.

He says getting children digging in the soil with plastic trowels is a good place to start. "Start by digging in a bed and just look for worms. Another good way to get them going is to plant something like mange tout peas - the kids love to eat them raw," says Paddy.

"Get them growing marrowfat peas. They're really cheap. Just fill a pot with potting compost, cover the top with 10 or 20 peas side by side, then cover it over with compost and leave it on the window sill. In a few days, the tendrils will grow.

"It's simple really. You teach them that a seed needs darkness, water and heat to grow. A good way is to put some seeds in a Ziploc bag wrapped in towelling tissue in the hot press. Children love to grow things. If they get a love of it, it teaches them resilience and patience. It all starts with the love and joy of growing,"

For more hints and tips about gardening with your family, see independent.ie

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