How to start a growing interest

Children can soon become green-fingered enthusiasts. All they need is someone to fire their natural curiosity. By Sally Ballard
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The Independent Culture
Fancy having a house that looks like the inside of an experimental bio-sphere? Get young children interested in gardening, and you'll soon have compost-filled yoghurt pots of pips (apples, lemons, peach and plum) germinating on every window sill, and carrot and pineapple tops producing lush green fronds in their saucers of water. Go outside, and random colour schemes made up of cheaply purchased petunias, busy lizzies and begonias tucked into home-painted pots will be filling children's borders until the arrival of the first frosts.

As plant knowledge is becoming an increasingly important part of the school national curriculum, from the youngest four-year-olds up, the summer break is a perfect opportunity to nurture green-fingered interest, while expanding the mind on matters biological and environmental in preparation for next term's lessons.

For, says the landscape gardener and gardening educator Steve Brookes - who is in and out of schools throughout the country as his straw-hatted alias Mr Rotavator - youngsters who love and appreciate nature today will care for the earth tomorrow. And children who have hands-on experience and a greater understanding of plants will be better able to cope with aspects of classroom science lessons.

Brookes, who has just finished filming a series of gardening programmes for children to be screened by Channel 4 next spring, emphasises that gardening is for townies and country bumpkins alike: a lack of garden space need not deter young horticulturists. Miniature carrots and potatoes grown in ice-cream tubs on window sills, lettuce, radish and marigolds in grow bags on balconies and tumbling tomatoes in hanging baskets can produce just as much as pots on patios or corners of tended flower beds.

"We have lost a lot of gardening knowledge in the last couple of generations," he says. "Children no longer go down to the allotment with their granddad, so they don't have the opportunity to learn about plants, vegetables and nature in the way they did a generation or two ago. But there is so much enjoyment and satisfaction young children can get out of growing plants and there is so much they can learn. And to help them, parents have to instil the 'wow factor' into gardening."

Once fired up with enthusiasm, what will stop little Daisy wreaking havoc in the wallflowers? "First, you have to show young children how important it is to respect and look after the garden. This is where the 'wow factor' comes in," explains Brookes. "You hold up a handful of soil and say: 'Did you know that there are more living creatures in this handful than there are people living on the planet Earth?' That stops them in their tracks. It helps make them understand why exactly it is important not to walk all over the flower beds so that you don't damage all the creatures that are helping the plants to grow.

"You treat the garden like an adventure; hunt for ants and watch them work. You look at which plants attract the butterflies; look at aphids and ladybirds and talk about the harmful and the helpful creatures. You put out a dish of cat food for the hedgehog and make leaf mounds for him to hide in. Suddenly the garden is alive with creatures at work and children soon understand how important it is to care for it."

Luckily, this is a particularly good time of year to encourage young gardeners, as garden centres are clearing out their bedding plants at pocket-money prices. For a matter of a few pence, children can create instant floral displays - which should set them nicely on the road to a houseful of mini vegetables to harvest, beans to sprout and cress to shave...

Mr Rotavator's Gardening Club, which sends out a monthly newsletter and packets of seeds, can be accessed through his website at www.mr-rotavator.co.uk or by e-mailing mr.rotavator@virgin.net. Or write to Progress House, Avenue Farm, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire CV37 0HR

Mr Rotavator's Holiday Gardening Tips

FILL HALVED and washed eggshells with cotton wool and sprinkle with cress seeds.

Keep damp and the cress will be ready for cutting within days. Give the eggshell a smiley face and the cress will look like hair.

Add a scientific twist by turning the eggshell through 180 degrees each day and notice how the cress leans towards the light.

CUT OFF the tops of carrots, pineapple or parsnip and place in a shallow saucer of water or vermiculite.

The tops will soon produce an abundance of greenery.

PUT AN upturned half of an orange or grapefruit skin on a flower bed overnight. The next morning lift it to find wood lice and slugs.

GO SNAIL hunting by torchlight; look for woodlice and hard-working ants by daylight.

GIVE CHILDREN their own piece of garden but ask them to help with yours.

CHILDREN LOVE miniature versions of adult life. Buy mini-vegetable seeds to grow tiny carrots and pint-sized cauliflowers.

PLANT ANY fruit pip in compost-filled pots or yoghurt pots. Cover with a plastic bag to save daily watering and put in darkness until a shoot appears. Uncover and place on a light windowsill.

DRY LAVENDER and then make lavender bags.

BUT BE careful. Some plants are harmful, such as lily of the valley and sweet peas, poppies, columbine and cacti (especially for younger children, who are inclined to touch the spines). Ask for advice at garden centres before you buy.

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