Child's play: Put budding young gardeners to work – and have some summer fun too

By Emma Townshend
Sunday 23 October 2011 03:05

It's come around to the time of year when school-uniform manufacturers torture small children by showing constant TV adverts for new autumn blazers. Actually, they torture us all with this horrible reminder that any minute now the holidays are going to be over.

If, like me and my mum, you feel cheated and deflated every time someone pokes their nose into your summer idyll and tries to sell you a protractor set with five felt-tip pens thrown in, it's time to reassert your rights to a full and lengthy August. There are still a few weeks to go before you have to think about name-tapes and packed lunches – and one of the nicest ways to spend this time is in the garden.

School-holiday gardening does require some serious boundaries to be set at the beginning, not least because otherwise everyone gets soaking wet and covered in a muddy solution of hose water and new compost. Don't suggest big, general tasks such as digging over flowerbeds. If you're trying to get kids involved, pick something small that is intended just for them.

Although we've all fallen in love with veg-growing for kids this year (see the IoS campaign at, some of the nicest things to do in the garden now relate to flowering plants – for example, now is the time to begin planting daffodils in pots for next spring. This is quick and simple, and allows you to send borrowed children home with a souvenir that will, next spring, remind then of the day you spent planting. Using any pot (making sure the drainage works by adding broken pottery or grit at the bottom), plant the bulbs at the required depth, covering with compost. Choose a nice little early bulb such as February Gold for best results. Scatter the surface with some baby lettuce seed in the shape of the initial letter of their name to make an extra gift which will take days rather than months to show up. (Remind grown-ups that the lettuce needs watering for best effect.)

For the impatience of childhood, though, nothing is as satisfying as a bit of instant gardening. Creating a miniature garden (see box) is something I used to do with my grandparents for the local show, and country dwellers may find such a category still exists on their nearest village green. Choosing tiny alpine plants and making an exotic landscape in an old tea tray, complete with tin-foil-lined pond and miniature gravel paths, is a first experience of the joys of garden design for many kids. And some little plants, such as sempervirums, are remarkably tolerant and will live contentedly in a miniature garden, sending up towering giant beanstalk flowers the following summer to show just how happy they are.

Child's play: Make a mini garden

The structure

Start with an old tea tray or baking tin, drilling drainage holes if you want the garden to be permanent. Work out where the paths will go, edge these with copper tape (£6.80,, then fill with horticultural grit.

The planting

Your best bet is little alpine plants such as dwarf hebes, which look like miniature trees, and sempervirums, rosette-forming plants that give the effect of shrunken Yuccas. Hebe buchananii (£3, makes a particularly pretty domed shape.

The fine details

Now for the personal touch: a Chinese bridge made of Lego or even a full Lord of the Rings hobbit set, with a Gandalf and cart, (£13.20, will give your garden a truly magical feel.

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