News From The Plot

As anyone who has ever dabbled in some gardening will know, growing things is nothing if not unpredictable. A crop that was prolific last year may struggle to get off the ground this year round and something that you’ve always struggled to grow might leave you with a plentiful bounty to share with friends, family and pretty much anyone you encounter on the street! We are in the middle of our first harvest at the plot here in Topsham and although we have had a mix of successes and failures, it’s been a great experience nonetheless and for once (mostly due to my co-worker’s enthusiasm!) we’re even planting winter crops.

The season started with an abundance of strawberries and asparagus, beds that my co-worker inherited with the patch. Before I knew it, the kids were actually asking to go the allotment rather than being cajoled by me as they knew they could spend the whole time hunting for juicy red fruit and more often than not, eating it all before the adults got a look in! Our potatoes have been plentiful, the raspberry canes have been producing non-stop for weeks now and our paddy pan plants (an odd mix between a courgette and squash) are providing a steady and constant supply of yellow flying saucer shaped fruits. Our carrots were hilariously misshapen and tasty and the beetroot was delicious although there definitely wasn’t enough of it! Our spaghetti squash, sweetcorn and brussel sprouts are still growing but I’m looking forward to them being ready (especially for the former, an amazing variety of squash I once received from Riverford but never encountered again).

However, we have also had our fair share of failures. Our peas were repeatedly eaten by slugs and snails, our beans have been slow and not particularly abundant and more recently, my gorgeous stripy tomato plants caught blight! Apparently it’s spread across the allotment like wildfire so I don’t think we could have prevented it but I was so sad as nothing beats how delicious a home-grown tomato is compared to the watery, bland shop bought variety. I think the somewhat sporadic weather over the last few weeks is to blame (and is also the culprit of the prolific weeds which we are constantly warring with) but I guess that’s just the way it goes.

But as the season slows down and we turn our thoughts to keeping the plot maintained during the colder months of the year, the thing I’m most excited about is the fact that we are making a pond!! Someone mentioned to us that we could have a small pond if we wanted to use up a little of the space and we jumped on the idea! The kids are absolutely psyched as am I about the whole process, from digging the hole to filling it, choosing plants and hopefully watching wildlife appear and make it home!

I’ve said it before but I really think that growing things with your kids is of amazing value, from teaching them how to garden, to having an excuse to get them outdoors when tempers are fraying to the excitement of when they get to harvest the fruits that they’ve carefully helped grow over the last few months. It also has the added benefit of having a fairly quick turnaround so they see their results within just a few months of starting the process. No need to be naturally green fingered, we can all learn as we go and you won’t regret growing your own (or at least trying to), I promise!


Green Therapy

Just before Easter a friend of ours kindly approached me to see if we would like to share their plot at the local allotment. We enthusiastically accepted and consequently, the last few weeks have seen me nipping up whenever we can spare the time to get a bit of digging in. I had forgotten quite how much I love gardening and just how therapeutic it is. This plot has a few fairly overgrown areas that need tackling and even just the simple act of digging and weeding has brought me much joy (and peace) recently. I’ve taken to digging barefoot, mostly because it irritates me less than getting soil in your shoes but I must admit that there is something wonderful about feeling the earth between your toes as you get to grips with the task at hand.

The children have been nothing short of delighted to have a patch of ‘proper’ garden to tend to although their efforts at helping me weed have often been waylaid by the far more attractive option of exploring the site or darting off to play with other children. I will give them their dues though, they are diligent (and sometimes over enthusiastic!) water-ers and I suspect none of the plants will be going thirsty with Elijah around… I’m looking forward to the Easter holidays being over and dedicating a regular chunk of time once or twice a week to the allotment as part of their home education.

When we arrived there was an impressive strawberry patch, an asparagus bed, rhubarb and raspberry canes galore. Since then potatoes, beetroot and sweetcorn have been planted, I have tomato and brussel sprout seedlings at home ready to go up and just today, my spaghetti squash seeds arrived (I’m a bit too excited about the latter…here’s hoping they are bountiful)! It has been a real pleasure to be up there in the recent run of beautiful sunshine and I don’t see our initial enthusiasm wearing off anytime soon, even if the weather does turn.

All three of the kids seem to have inherited my love of gardening and are keen to see the process of growing your own through from the admittedly sometimes boring stages of weeding and preparing beds to the exciting time that is harvest. I sometimes think that if I achieve nothing else significant with their home education, as long as they love being outdoors and can grow food, I’ll be happy. Nothing tastes quite as good as fruit and vegetables you’ve grown yourselves and although I might sound a little kooky, the conspiracy theorist in me thinks that in this day and age, it’s probably one of the must useful skills to have. So a huge thank you to Jess for letting us share her plot, we will do our best to help keep everything green and growing!

Spring has Sprung

Last year’s daffodils have just flowered in our rather forlorn front garden this week, adding a welcome splash of colour among the dull greys and browns. They may been flattened almost immediately by the recent storms but nonetheless, I’m counting their appearance, along with an increase in birdsong outside our bedroom window in the early hours, as a confirmation of the arrival of spring.  After what has felt like a particularly long winter, I’m looking forward to spending much more time outside and to escaping the four walls we’ve been stuck in before cabin fever well and truly sets in.

I am also looking forward to making a proper go out of growing our own fruit and veg this year. Although we have done so successfully many times in the past in other houses, our last two growing seasons here have been a bit of a failure. Pregnancy, a baby, territorial cats and a garden flooded with sewage were just some of the reasons that contributed to this.  However, I’m feeling confident that this year is our year! So today we unpacked our herb garden kit from the RHS to explore what we’d been given and put up their bright cheery posters, got some tomato seeds planted and generally made some plans about what we want to do and grow this year.

I was almost persuaded by Isaac to buy a lemon and orange tree from Aldi but managed to resist, rationalising that I should make proper plans before starting to buy things spontaneously. Dan had the genius idea of getting a little greenhouse, nothing fancy, to protect our plants from children, cats and birds alike. I’ve spotted one I like and have started planning what the shelves will be full of. Tomatoes, strawberries, potatoes, salad, herbs, peas, sweet potato, squash, onions, garlic, broccoli and raspberries have made the (ambitious) cut so far but no doubt I’ll be persuaded to try one or two other things as well. No doubt also my more sensible other half will gently point out that I can’t fit all of that into the greenhouse and I’ll have to prioritise. But still, it’s good to dream big eh?

Apart from the satisfaction of not having to buy it from the shops and the fact that it tastes so much better, my favourite thing about growing our own is how much it engages the kids. They already love being outside so need little persuasion to get involved when I head out to garden. Sophia and Isaac are both very capable at basic gardening tasks and eager to help and I imagine that Elijah will be much the same this year. (The worried home-edder in me also loves that I can tick off science and maths in the process!) So why not pop to your garden centre with your small folk this weekend and get them to help you pick some seeds and do some growing of your own this spring?

A Green Fingered Shift

As I worked in the Autumn sunshine alongside three enthusiastic helpers in our front garden this afternoon, it struck me that I hadn’t written a column about our gardening efforts for a little while. To be honest, after the garden being flooded with sewage earlier in the year and having to dispose of our potato plants, I was feeling fairly despondent about the whole thing.  That particular happening seemed to be the latest in a string of circumstances that seemed to hinder our attempts at green fingered-ness this year. From Elijah pulling up every seedling that grew, our turf dying in patches with all attempts at reseeding failed, the previously thriving plum tree suddenly looking rather sorry for itself and generally just being so busy that the garden sank down the list of priorities, I felt that gardening was going to be off the cards for us for a while.

But then two things happened. The first was that a friend from Church invited us to go to Broadclyst Community Farm to help out. We spent a very pleasant day there in the summer, getting to grips with where things were, weeding and planting out lettuces. We were made very welcome and hope to be back there again soon to get stuck in. The second thing that happened was that Eli got older. I know that sounds ridiculous but somehow, over the last few weeks, he has got just a tad less destructive and a tad more helpful, or at least less inclined to undo everything I’m doing.

Our front garden has been looking more and more overgrown recently and so yesterday afternoon whilst the kids were happy, I took my gloves and clippers out there to start tackling the irritating ivy that continues to prosper despite my best attempts to eradicate it. Before long, I had not one but three accomplices. Sophia took it upon herself to weed our flower bed, Isaac picked up all the garden waste we created and put it in the compost and Eli…well he just pottered. But, and this is a big but, he didn’t hinder our work. He tried to help dig a little bit, he played with the dustpan and brush, he chattered away and generally was just content to be with us as we got on with the task in hand. A repeat of the situation this afternoon and all of a sudden, I’m feeling inspired again for our garden. Sophia and I are resolved to properly rid the gardens of weeds and hopefully plant some bulbs in the coming weeks for Spring. And now that I know he won’t be quite such a pest next year, I’m looking forward to growing some veggies again. You can’t beat a few hours working in the garden to rid everyone of cabin fever and feel productive and inspired. So here’s to a 2017 with gardens overflowing with bountiful produce and many happy hours spent getting there!

E+E Column: ​’Just try it, you might like it…’

This evening I managed to sneak a whole head of cabbage into our tomato and lentil soup without the kids noticing, or more importantly, complaining. It got me thinking though…why are kids universally so weird when it comes to food? With a few exceptions and the odd very specific dislike, most adults I know are very open minded when it comes to trying new foods and are amenable to a wide variety of foods. Every child I know, in contrast, is either very limited in what foods they will eat, are adverse to trying new foods or have gone through a fussy period that has now passed. 
It’s been the subject of countless books, articles and discussions on parenting forums and seems to be an issue that has plagued parents for generations; for once, not a new phenomena. But why? I can understand a certain reluctance to eat when they’ve been interrupted mid-play or when they have friends around. For a small person, there are a lot of things that must seem a lot more exciting than eating. But then when they are hungry, why is there often such resistance? 

At first I thought it might be a throwback from evolution, perhaps their gut instinct is to stick with what works. If they know what foods they like, what makes them feel full up, what helps them grow, perhaps they don’t want to deviate and try something unknown that might make them feel ill or not nourish them? But then perhaps (probably!) I’m reading too much into it. Perhaps it merely comes down to issues of maturity and control. So much of a child’s life is controlled and organised by their parents, food is possibly the one area where they feel that they can claw back some control. No matter how much cajoling, admonshing and bribing a parent delivers…ultimately, the child is the only one who can choose what they let pass their lips. As adults, we are able to choose what we prepare for our meals but rarely do we let children choose for themselves with the exception of sandwich filling or cereals. It must be pretty frustrating to have to eat what you are given, even if you don’t fancy it and to not be able to choose what you want to eat. Even worse when your parent presents you with something you’ve never eaten before that looks a bit odd…

I love getting a weekly veg box but it does sometimes present problems as I struggle to creatively serve some rather obscure veggies in a manner that the kids will accept. For the record, Sophia does not like kohlrabi fritters, neither of them particularly like chard pie and everyone (myself included) struggled with roast oca’s (a small knobbly tuber)! I’ve finally concluded that the best approach is to prepare a mix of familiar and unfamiliar meals over the course of a week, to try and always have something on the plate that I know they’ll like and most importantly, just to relax. At the end of the day, they’re not going to starve and if they don’t like takeaway curries or roast lamb quite yet, I’m sure they’ll grow to like them one day and for now that just means more for me! 

E+E Column: Update from an urban garden

Earlier this year, I decided that I wasn’t going to do any gardening this year due to Eli’s tendency to pull leaves off plants and where possible, uproot the whole thing. I thought rather than keep fighting a battle with a ridiculously cute and stubborn toddler, I’d just give ourselves a year off and save ourselves wasting time and resources only to see it all destroyed by whichever schema of child devlopment ‘tiny terror in the garden’ falls into.

However, it’s the middle of May and somehow I have several potato plants thriving, we’ve revived several strawberry plants from last year, saved some mint, sown several packets of wildflowers and the kids are currently nursing brussel sprout, poppy, sunflower and tomato seedlings which they planted a few weeks ago (after Dan, not in on my decision, let them choose a few packets each in B+Q). We’ve also been donated some chives, a squash plant and have been offered a pallet so I can finally realise my dream of a pallet herb garden!

And yes, Elijah has pulled all the blossom off the plum tree, uprooted the mint plants half a dozen times and dug over the wild flower bed several times. But do you know what? That’s ok! This year gardening has happened so organically (pun definitely intended) and with minimal effort on my part so I’m feeling ok about the whole thing. I’m especially excited by the loofah seeds donated by a kindly neighbour! I’ve adopted a more philosophical approach to things. We’ll do our best to keep plants alive, to water them and repot as necessary and we’ll try and redirect Elijah’s attempts at joining in to the flower beds that we don’t care so much about. And at the end of the season, we might have some vegetables to eat and some flowers to put on the table. If we do, that’s great! And if we don’t, we can chalk it up as experience gained and move on. I look forward to having a more in depth gardening experience again in years to come as time and space allows but for now, I’ll grab the bits and pieces that come our way and enjoy them. It’s still a great learning and recreational experience for both the kids and me and it gets us all outside every day for a little bit. So all in all, I’m very glad that we’re accidentally growing again this year!


Taking a well earned break from gardening

E+E Column: Here Comes The Sun…

…and with it, my favourite kind of parenting – outdoors parenting! Everything seems easier when you’re doing it outside; the kids can be louder, they can be messier, they can run around without breaking things until the cows come home, they even seem to fight less. Sunshine and warmer days are nothing short of miraculous and the season of spending hours in the park, at the beach and in the garden is definitely upon us, at least if my kids are anything to go by. Even our shoddy little surburan garden has been transformed into a playground every evening this week with them only reluctantly coming in from the fading sun when it’s time for dinner or bed. There’s basically a patch of lawn possibly 8 ft by 2 ft, a similar sized bed of gravel, a range of plant pots, two sun loungers, some wooden planks and a water table. It hardly seems inspiring from an adults perspective but somehow, my big two have been managing to eek out hours worth of play from it all this week. And the tiny has been beside himself with happiness, toddling around and soaking himself at the water table three times before midday.

It’s not just the children that are happier though; all the adults and especially parents that I’ve seen this last week or two, seem to be as well. Our winter wasn’t particularly cold but it was very wet and very windy, hampering even the bravest of souls attempting to get outside. Cabin fever was rife and now, finally, we have all been let out, like a bird out of a cage. I even found myself optimistically (and possibly foolishly) organising a beach trip for this weekend with a friend and was pondering the potential for a barbeque. We’ll see how that one pans out…

And with the sun comes a fresh appreciation for the county we live in. With the moors and beaches aplenty within stones throw, I don’t think any of us need encouragment to make the most of our surroundings this coming summer, most families I know are chomping at the bit to get out, have some adventures and make some memories. On top of all this, it’s at this time of year that I especially find myself content with our decision to home educate. All children are different but mine (and a lot that I know) definitely aren’t designed to be inside, sat down, for hours each day. They thrive on being outside, on exploring and learning through seeing, touching and doing. So I will be absolutely jumping on any excuse to take our learning outdoors this summer. Whether that’s just workbooks in the garden or a trip out like today’s visit to Torre Abbey, we’ll be outside every minute we can. (And of course, if the weather now turns and we get another two weeks of gales and driving rain, it is most definitely my fault for jinxing it by writing this and I apologise profusely….)


Eli embracing the muddier side of nature...