A gardeners year from a Foundation Stage setting perspective. Hints and tips on beginning to provide some growing experiences for young gardeners.
For those of you that have never really grown anything before in your setting, I hope this guide will give you a useful starting place, and that you are inspired to start. It isn’t by any means exhaustive, but if you worry about what to grow when, then hopefully there will be something you can take away and get excited about (and more importantly, to get the children excited about).
It seemed a lot easier to think of a growing guide in terms of half terms rather than month by month. The season varies from year to year and also according to where you live. The growing season starts earlier and lasts longer in the south then in the north. Most seed packets give a range for the growing times - take these as good advice but if you are a couple of weeks out here and there it shouldn’t be the end of the world. More importantly, have a go; be prepared for a few disasters here and there, and take it all as a learning curve for both you and the children.
If you are new to growing food, I would stick to foods you can eat raw for the first season, with the possible exception of potatoes. I would then get more ambitious as you gain more confidence. You can’t really go too wrong with lettuce, salad leaves, radish, carrots, onions and cucumber as well as beans sprouts of all sorts and the usual mustard and cress.
I’m going to take the growing year as beginning in September, to fit in with the UK ‘academic’ year, and the time when most settings will be taking in new children. Also, if you want to see anything in the miserable winter months, you need to do the groundwork in September and October!
One of the problems of being in a school or other setting which closes for the summer, is that you need to plan ahead and bring the season forward or you run the risk of the children not seeing anything productive, as your products will mature during the weeks they are away. Also, unless you have a very kind caretaker, you run the risk of plants being damaged by too much sun and no one to look after them. Thinking around this is often a case of trial and error for your location and soil conditions.
What can I plant now?
bulbs: If you want some colour in your garden in winter and early spring, plant snowdrops, crocus, cyclamen, daffodils. Once in they don’t need much looking after.
Young plants: Now is a good time to buy pansies, violas, and primulas, these will all continue flowering well into the winter, (not planting the seeds at this time though) and if mild enough will continue all through winter into spring. (next year you can plant the seeds in spring).
Edible crops: You need to plant quick growing crops at this time of year for speedy results. Radishes can mature in 6 weeks, carrots in about 8 if you grow a small variety (like Parmex which are small round carrots), salad leaves of all sorts, spinach (make sure it is a late sowing variety), at a push even salad onions, which you can eat when they are still quite small. Root vegetables like carrots cannot be transplanted so you need to plant them where they are to grow or pop them into cardboard tube pots or peat pots and transplant the whole lot. I like Swiss chard with its brightly coloured stems and this will survive a cold winter and look great once established, even better when left to flower.
Herbs : If you want some quick herbs in a new plot, buy established lavender, rosemary, curry plant and creeping lemon thyme. All are evergreen and you still get the lavender smell from the old dying flowers if you leave some of the plant through the winter. I do, the children love just brushing their hands along it. Children are fascinated by curry plant - it's quite strong smelling and you get wafts of it in windy weather. Rosemary flowers in the winter too, so more to see in those cold months. They are supposed not to like clay soil but mine grow in clay, I just add sand to the immediate growing area when I plant them.
All of these can be grown in tubs if you don’t have a garden and most of them can be grown indoors, even the herbs, although you may need to keep them trimmed to keep them small. If growing in pots, do make sure they have holes in the bottom and improve the drainage by putting in gravel, bark, or old teabags (yes I mean that!), before adding your compost.
Our autumns have been fairly warm in recent years, so much of the list above can still be planted at a push. You may even pick up some cheap bargains at end of season fairs or garden centres.
Beware though the early frost. Generally speaking, don’t plant anything outside when there is a frost, as this damages the roots, especially in a clay soil, which holds more water than other soils. If you want to grow some very late carrots, or other veg, then grow them in pots and bring them indoors overnight if it looks cold. If you are planting into a garden bed, mulch well with bark or gravel to help protect them until they become established.
If you have a garden you do need to tidy it up. If you are in your second season, dig up your dying annuals and collect seeds for next year. Let the children examine seeds, paint them or make some collections for the investigation table. Take seasonal photographs. Keep your perennials in, it gives height to the garden and also provides a habitat for hibernating insects and also seed for birds.
If you have clay soil and this is your first year, dig it over and leave the big clumps as they are….let the frost do the work for you, it will be easier to dig in spring. If this is your first season and you have recently acquired a small plot or garden, cover it with black plastic sheets and leave it for the winter. This will kills off grass and many weeds and you will just need to dig it over in the spring.
This is the time to try some fun things indoors. Lots of kitchen food can be grown eg avocado, carrot tops, onions (to see how they grow), apple and orange pips etc. Try scooping out a large carrot (so that it doesn’t split) and fill the reservoir with water. Skewer it and hang it up, the leaves grow round the carrot. Do this with parsnip and even beetroot. If you want to show the white flower changing colour, gently split the stem and put each bit in a different colour. Do this with celery and you get stripes…you do need a dark colour though like red or blue. Grow bean sprouts and eat some nutritious sandwiches.
Use this time as well to plan what you want to grow for the space you have, the time, and your interest and experience. Planning now will save time later.
You should start to see some bulbs now, depending on the winter; it’s the first burst of colour you will see in the garden. Your pansies and primulas should still be going, and you will also see crocuses and snowdrops, and cyclamen. If you have had a warm season so far, you will even see the daffodils popping up now.
Now is the time to buy seeds that you want to grow this season. Broad beans can be sown early February, they are traditionally one of the earliest vegetables to grow. You can also plant early varieties of carrots, onions and potatoes now, although you will need to start them covered or use a fleece to keep off the frosts. Better still, grow what you can indoors or in a greenhouse if you are lucky enough to have one. You can buy relatively cheap plastic cold frames or mini greenhouses and these are ideal as you can dismantle them when not in use.
I use this time to prepare the beds for the growing season; if the winter is mild you’ll see new shoots on any perennials starting to pop up. This is when I cut back the old growth (some people do this in the autumn, but I like to have something to look at through the dreary winter). If you have a bare bed, dig it over on a nice sunny day.
Edible crops: This is the month you need to do some serious thinking and what you plant now will be affected by when Easter falls. If you are in an all year setting, this won’t affect you, but if you are going to be closed for 2 weeks at Easter, what you don’t want is plants germinating so the children don’t see them, or drying up because there is no one to water them. On the other hand if Easter falls later as it does this year (2006), leaving it until after the holiday leaves you short of time. Most plants will take around 2 weeks to germinate so I would suggest you plant either early in March so you have decent sized seedlings, or in the last week before the holiday. Carrots and onions can be planted in succession so if you planted some in February you can plant more now. You can plant tomatoes, beans, peas, cucumber, courgette now. Think in terms of the space you have. Cucumbers, courgettes, melon, squash all take up a lot of room and need a lot of water. Beans can also take up room, unless you go for a bush crop variety. For children, Id grow the tumbler variety of tomatoes, you can use a pot or even a hanging basket for these. These are easier to manage and take up a lot less space. They produce masses of small cherry like tomatoes so they are easier to eat too. If you have plenty of room, I would grow sweetcorn, children just seem to love this. Sweetcorn needs to be planted in a block rather than a row so you do need space for this.
Flowers: If you want flowers until the autumn, then now is the time to plant them too. Depending on what you want, sweet peas are lovely and scented, and very easy to grow. I love nasturtiums, their flowers are lovely, they can be eaten too, and they self seed which means you will have them popping up all over the place in a couple of years (great if you really don’t like gardening much). They are also great for observational paintings. Any bedding plants will soon cheer up a new bed, go for ones you like the look of. If you want something interesting for the children, chocolate cosmos really does smell of chocolate (but the slugs love it so do protect them); and the sensitive plant is appealing as the leaves curl up when touched.
Herbs: I think herbs are great and they are not difficult to grow on the whole. I’d go for ones that smell, like mint, sage, thyme (lemon thyme is nice), basil, coriander, chives, chamomile or oregano. I’m a bit partial to bronze fennel which looks and smells wonderful and you can nibble the seeds raw. These can all be sown from seed, and grow well in pots. Some are annual like basil and will need replacing every year, others are perennial like chives and will just give you bigger and bigger clumps every year. They are ideal if you have a garden bed but don’t really want to spend a lot of time managing it. Mint has very invasive roots so unless you want a bed full of mint, I'd grow it in a pot.
Ok, so you’ve got Easter holiday out of the way and your topic is growing. Your season is now very short if you want to produce anything before July. However if you’ve not been too well organised, don’t despair, you can still grow quick growing varieties of carrots, salad crops, spring onions, radishes that will mature in anything from 6-12 weeks. You can also put in maincrop potatoes but your best crop will now be in September.
This is when you will be planting on and transplanting outside. You can ruin an entire crop now if you ignore those late frosts. If you live in the south the chances are your last frost would have been in April, but midlands northwards, and there’s still a chance of frost in May. Protect your tender seedlings, tomatoes, basil, cucumber, beans with fleece or cloches (those large plastic bottles are ideal for this). This is the time to think about looking after what you have got.
Slugs and snails.
You will see these around from March onwards if its been mild but your newly transplanted seedlings are fresh material and can be decimated in one night. They will adore your chocolate cosmos and I have seen many a basil crop ruined by slugs in a day or two. There are a number of things you can do, the more the better really, as I feel that attack from several angles is better. If you want to be organic, then don’t put down pellets. Snails have a homing range of quite a long way so don’t be tempted to chuck them into the neighbours garden (!), they will come back. Try these approaches.
Sadly, by far the best way of removing snails and slugs is to go out at night with a torch and collect them up. If your environment is quiet, you can actually hear them. What you do with them then is a matter of conscience; ducks are very partial if you have a pond or lake nearby. Personally I can’t do that so mine go in the compost bin, where they help to recycle the compost and the heat kills of any eggs so they don’t reproduce. But if you are a school, this probably isn’t an option for you.
Slugs don’t like anything gritty to move across so harsh grit, egg shells, coarse sand, and even hair around your special plants can help to stop them. Cocoa shell mulch can also be effective but is expensive and should never be used near dogs.
You can buy slug deterrent mats and copper coils and slug deterrent granules which can be put round pots. They work to a degree but need replacing after wind and/or rain and can therefore be expensive.
You can use upturned grapefruit skins to collect them, or get traps - usually you fill these with beer (!). Personally I don’t like this method, but it’s a matter of personal preference.
One of the most versatile plants in the organic garden is comfrey. The more the better if you have the place for it (it takes up a lot of room). For some unknown reason, the large leaves placed as an edge around your seedling rows seems to stop snails. They eat the comfrey instead then hide underneath it in the day time, making it easier to collect them up. I got this method from the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth and I have had some success with it.
You should be eating some of your produce by now, small tomatoes carrots, spring onions, salad leaves. It’s the time when you see your success stories and also your disasters and work out what to do next time. If you have planted seeds for flowers, you will be enjoying them now, and with our milder autumns many will go on flowering into October and November, giving you a good start to the new academic year.
Watering: We all know the children will fight over whose turn it is to water and when. As a rule of thumb, never water in the heat of the day, do it at one end or the other. Personally I prefer the end of the day when the temperatures are cooling rather than warming so make it the last job the children do before they go home. In a very dry season, the water takes more effect and will stick around until morning thus providing more benefit to plants. Train them to water the soil or base of the plant, as any sun still falling on leaves that are then sprayed will scorch. If you can shelter plants when it gets very hot then do so. A mulch will also prevent moisture loss, use bark, cocoa shell, shredded newspaper, or any of a variety of gravels. If you have a water butt, then use it. It is better to water heavily on fewer occasions than a bit every day. Shallow watering encourages roots to stay at ground level where a good watering encourages the roots to grow deep.
Feeding: You can buy all sorts of commercial feeds but you can also make your own, which I do every year, once again using the ever versatile comfrey. Be warned if you have a weak stomach, it does stink, but it also provides a very nutritious feed for tomatoes cucumber, courgette for next to nothing. Simply get a bucket or container with a lid, stuff it full of comfrey leaves, add water to cover and seal the lid. Check it every week or so and give it a stir. This is where you need the nose pegs. After 6-8 weeks strain it, most of the comfrey will have rotted by now, and you will be left with a dark brown (less smelly) feed which you can dilute further. The less smelly way to do this is to make a comfrey tower, a drainpipe fixed to a wall somewhere with a piece of mesh fixed over the bottom, and a bottle underneath to collect the liquid. just stuff the comfrey in regularly and a very concentrated liquid collects in the bottle. I prefer the smelly method as you can almost forget it once you start. The tower method needs topping up almost daily.
Bugs and things. If you want a really good guide to bugs, what they do and how to get rid of them, anything by Stefan Buczacki will provide a simple but effective guide. On a simple level, aphids can be reduced by growing lots of lavender, and also breeding ladybirds. Word of warning though. We had commercial ladybirds from a well known company last year and we didn’t find out until later that they came from Belgium, the eggs hatched and ate each other in transit. Please Id like to urge you to buy native larvae (not eggs) from a UK source if you are UK based. The eggs only live for 5 days and that isn’t long if they are coming from Belgium, and then happen to arrive on a weekend. A UK source (I've always found www.greengardener.co.uk very good) will guarantee your delivery for the next day. If you have specific problems with bugs or disease and you can't identify it or don’t know what to do, please pop along to the gardener’s corner of the FSF and ask. I’m sure one of our more green fingered members will have an answer for you!
Unless you are in an all year round setting, you’ll need to leave your garden to the elements for 6 weeks. This is a bit hit and miss as we never know what the British weather will bring. Unturned plastic bottles (the ones you used as cloches earlier in the year) with the bottoms cut off and a small hole put in the top will collect rainwater if it does rain and help to eke out water whilst you are away. If your plants are in full sun, you can shelter them, or you can mix into the soil those water retaining gel crystals. Otherwise you have to hope the weather is kind enough not to supply you with 6 weeks of constant sun or rain. This is the best reason for cropping earlier in the year or having the more drought resistant crops like the sweet corn in now.
If this is now your second or subsequent season, you will still have some potatoes, onions, maybe tomatoes left for September. Those spring planted flowers will still be in full flow, as will herbs. Make the most of those now. Cut back or get rid of anything that has dies over the summer, and enjoy what hasn’t. You will probably need to do some serious weeding too.
Well, I have exhausted the basics, and I hope you have found something useful to your setting. Do let us know about your successes so that we can celebrate them with you, and tell us about the disasters too, they are all part of the gardening life! What really matters is that you inspire your children for a love of plants, and a wish to look after them, and a desire to grow their own.