What safer place could you be than in your own back garden as all the turmoil of the pandemic swirls around us? Children too love gardening and there are those of us who believe that every child is born a gardener. From around primary school age, they have a natural interest in all living things, both plants and animals.
Later, this interest in plants gets pushed to one side as other life skills come to the fore. But lessons learned in childhood stay with us all our lives and re-emerge later in life when we get the opportunity. Usually when people buy a house with a garden of their own.
So by giving children some basic instruction in growing plants, we feed their natural interest developing it and affirming it as an activity that is worth pursuing, and can become a gift for a lifetime.
Many of today's children will someday remember these times, when they sowed seeds and plants in their parents' back garden. And after germination and growth, the young plants need watering, feeding and other forms of care.
This could become a hobby they love.
Just one note of caution - don't give young growers gardening chores. It will have the opposite effect and put them off growing for life.
By all means build in little tasks, but keep them to something they will find do-able and fun.
STEP 1 - Sow nasturtium seeds
Nasturtium seeds are about the same size as peas, easy to handle even for small children. The nasturtium plant grows big long shoots to over 2m in length in a single season, scrabbling around the ground over other plants, and sometimes even up and through hedges.
The nasturtium came originally from South America where it is specially adapted for pollination, not by bees, but by hummingbirds. These tiny birds, some not bigger than a bumblebee, fly about dipping their long bill and tongue into the flowers to withdraw sweet nectar. They have amazing balance because they beat their wings constantly at high speed, so fast that their wings appear to be a blur.
Because nasturtiums are native to a hot tropical climate, you might expect that they would be killed by frost in our winter, and they are. All except for the seeds that is, because they have a corky layer on their surface that insulates them against frost damage.
Sow the seeds of nasturtium in pots using compost and soil mix. Or sow them directly where they are to flower during the summertime. They need little effort to grow well and make a great show of red and yellow flowers during the holidays. As a bonus, the new plants will produce lots of seeds and continue the flowering of these plants - sometimes for decades.
And better still, you can eat the pretty flowers and the peppery leaves, and pickle the seeds to make capers.
STEP 2 - Grow a sunflower
The sunflower is probably the fastest-growing flower of all. If it is started off well, it can reach to over 4m tall - as high as the window in an upstairs bedroom.
'Sunflower' is a good name because not only does it look like a sun with its bright yellow rays all around the outside of the flower, but it turns its head to follow the path of the sun as it crosses the sky during the day. If you ever see a field of sunflowers in other countries, they will all be facing in the same direction - directly towards the sun.
Why not try to grow a monster sunflower this year?
Sow the seeds, three to a pot filled with soil and compost mix. It is best to start a sunflower by germinating it in the heat indoors, on a windowsill in a kitchen, for example.
Once germinated, or sprouted, it won't need as much heat - but it will still be too early to put it outdoors. Wait until the end of May as frost can also kill this remarkable plant, which comes from North America.
There won't be room for all of the seedlings in a pot and the weaker ones can be removed or planted out in the open ground. (Always try a few seedlings in the open ground. In good soil, watering as needed, they can often grow taller than the ones started off in the luxury of a pot.) If the garden tends to be windy, you will need to stake it with a strong bamboo cane to support the plant, especially if it has a large flower at the top.
Sunflowers are grown now all over the world for their vegetable oil. It has many names in different languages, such as tourne-sol in French, and girasole in Italian, both meaning to turn with the sun
STEP 3 - Share your garden
You might not be sharing your garden with other people at the moment, but you will definitely be sharing your garden with wild creatures of many kinds. Birds are the most obvious form of garden wildlife, and around 30 types are known to visit domestic gardens. These can be fed to support their numbers and allow them to move to other gardens and increase in number.
Some are bird-table feeders, and are very athletic, such as siskins and tits; while others, shy little brown birds such as the dunnock are happy to feed on seeds and insects.
Blackbirds, thrushes, crows and magpies eat slugs and snails and the grubs that damage lawns. Feed them from feeders - or make your own from seeds and nuts added to melted lard and rolled into balls - to support the parent birds during the breeding season as their eggs hatch out. You can find out more on birdwatchireland.ie or irishgardenbirds.ie.
Besides birds, there are hundreds of different kinds of wildlife living in gardens, sharing it quite contentedly with humans. This includes all kinds of insects, beetles, small mammals (such as tiny shrews), and their nests and webs are to be seen in any garden.
Bigger animals such as foxes in urban areas, or badgers and even deer in country gardens are regular though not permanent visitors. You might spot them, but it is fun to look out for the tracks they leave and sometimes their poo, or scat. You'll be lucky to see the hedgehogs which hide away by day but come out to feed at night.
Learning about the wild neighbours that share your garden adds another layer of interest to your garden space and contributes to healthy wildlife population in your area.
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