I imagine I am like other 'Independent' readers in no longer living near green-fingered relatives who could help Matthew to enjoy gardening. He is not quite three, but I would like him to have his own plot in our garden. I would like him to grow some fail-safe flowers and vegetables, as I could not bear it if nothing grew.
Could you advise me what to try? Like most children, he likes strong colours and his favourite is orange.
CAROLE PENDREY, her husband, Ray, and their son live in a Thirties pebbledash semi alongside the Lichfield road out of Walsall. In the front garden is a silver birch which drips elegantly over the pavement, an informal line of roses and hellebores marking the division between their garden and their neighbour's, and a drive leading up to the front door, which has a light, glassed-in porch.
'Good for raising seeds,' I thought as I rang the bell.
Sean, the Pendreys' wolfhound, made me think again about seed-raising. I am blind in my devotion to Irish wolfhounds, but after watching him gambol round the garden like an exuberant mammoth, I wondered if Mrs Pendrey had posed the right question for this workshop. The problem surely was not so much a matter of gardening with Matthew as gardening with Sean.
'Why did you go for a wolfhound?' I asked Mr Pendrey as we watched Sean plunge down the lawn at the back of the house. Two bounds and he was at the end of it. 'Well, you have ambitions, don't you?' he said. 'Dreams,' he continued fondly as the great paws crashed down on the aubrietia. The dog weighs 11 stone.
We had come out the back to look for a suitable site for Matthew's plot. Immediately outside the house is a rather blank terrace of concrete slabs with a large cherry tree on the left. Then the ground drops quite steeply to lawn below. The change in level is taken up by a sloping rockery laid out either side of narrow central steps.
The rockery is shored up by rough drystone walls, and the path that leads you down the steps continues down the middle of the garden with lawn on either side and a nice hawthorn planted in the grass on the right. Narrow flower borders run along the two side boundaries. Where the lawn finishes, there is a further drop in level to the last part of the garden: two weedy but nicely paved areas of brick, laid herring-bone fashion.
In the strip of lawn on the left of the path is a small hexagonal bed with a low wooden edging. Two paving stones lead from the centre path into this bed, and this seemed to be the ideal place for Matthew's garden. It was sunny, open, easy for him to get to, well defined and not too big.
Children, though, will not garden because you think it is a good, wholesome activity for them to get involved in; they will do it because you are doing it, and they are only likely to learn to love it if the person they are doing it with loves it too. Mrs Pendrey's childhood was filled with aunts who gardened. 'There's no family around now like my aunties for Matthew to learn from.'
He will have to learn from his parents then, even if, as Mrs Pendrey feels, they will be only one step ahead of him. 'I buy gardening books,' she says, 'but it's like slimming. You buy the books and you think you've done the job.'
It is good for children to garden because it is the most potent way to teach them to respect plants and, by definition, the wider environment. This is not, of course, the kind of heavy preaching that you ought to go in for when your offspring is tending his sunflowers. Concentrate on the practical. The philosophical will seep in along the way.
Matthew, it seemed to me, was rather young to manage a plot on his own. You can put children off things so easily by expecting them to stick at it long after they want to move on to something else. At present Matthew is as interested in JCB diggers as he is in growing things; JCBs may well win the day.
My three children all had gardens, but I did most of the initial clearing and digging for them, so they could start off on ground that was likely to give good results. This is important. Although you may grit your teeth when handing it over, a child's plot needs to be on good soil and in an open situation. If it is stuck in a dark, dusty corner under a laurel hedge, disappointment is inevitable.
Matthew had his own smart plastic wheelbarrow with a rather complicated watering device built in the back, together with a matching plastic spade and rake. The spade would be frustrating to use, with its blunt edge. I think he would be better served by real tools in the shape of grown-up hand forks and trowels.
They may look like miners' shovels in the hands of a three-year-old, but they are better designed for the jobs they need to do, and they have the advantage of being of the real world. Children appreciate that. It is a sign you are taking them seriously.
You need to distinguish clearly between matters of fact and matters of taste when you garden with children. When they are helping you to sow seed, water plants or dead-head flowers, certain principles must be grasped and followed. As to how to arrange their own gardens, they must do what delights them.
Matthew's love of orange was a good starting-point in suggesting what might go in his plot. Children need to start with plants that are robust and give instant effect. A child's garden is no place for a sickly, demanding plant or one that takes a whole summer to get its act together. Choose those that cheerfully overcome the problems of being over- or under- watered. Whether or not any plant of Matthew's will survive Sean's enthusiastic overtures is another question.
French marigolds, bought in full flower, were the sort of thing I had in mind: easy-going, long-lasting, needing just enough attention by way of dead-heading to engage a child's interest, but not so much that they would die without it. And nasturtiums, started off in pots inside, so that the principles of seed-sowing might be understood.
At the back of the plot, a bit of a wigwam for climbing beans. Children like to give, as well as receive, and growing vegetables they can give you for Sunday lunch provides them with the opportunity to do so. Matthew is too young to handle small seeds successfully, but beans are easy to sow singly in 3in pots. They will also germinate and grow fast enough to keep him interested in their progress - unless another JCB comes along to join the one currently working at Clopton Bridge on the Stratford Canal where Matthew goes every day to watch. In that case, it might be a close- run thing.
Mustard and cress are good for instant effect. You can scratch out initials or faces or abstract shapes in the earth with a stick, then dribble seed in the furrows. Fold the earth gently back over the seeds and firm it down. Water the ground carefully and, if there are animals in the family, cover it. Within four or five days the scratched lines start to grow green. Installation art. How fashionable.
Sunflowers, pansies and marrows have also worked well in my children's gardens and are sufficiently 'fail-safe' to avoid disappointing Matthew too severely at the start of his gardening career. But if Mrs Pendrey really wants him to enjoy gardening, she is going to have to get stuck in herself. Buying the kit is not the same thing.
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