‘Gardening together as a family creates real memories,” says Lee Connelly, as he squirts water into a “seed bomb” mix of soil, clay and seeds with a neon water pistol. “Being brought together at home like this really opens up time to create those memories. That’s definitely one positive we can take from it.”
On Friday, schools across the UK closed their gates. Families are suddenly facing the unprecedented and daunting challenge of keeping their children happy, healthy and stimulated at home and, for many, on a significantly shrunken budget. Connelly might be just the hero we all need.
The former Blue Peter gardener has just finished a school tour in which he travelled from Blackburn to his home town of Colchester via Manchester, Birmingham, Swindon and London, teaching an astonishing 10,000 children about the joys of gardening. He has also published a new book called How to Get Kids Gardening. Oh, and he has recorded a fresh episode of his hit podcast The Skinny Jean Gardener, explaining how gardening can help families get through, and even enjoy, self-isolation and school closures.
In other words, Connelly has every excuse to be totally cream-crackered. Yet within minutes of arriving at his home, I am sitting in his garden, next to his shed-cum-recording-studio, squeezing red mush between my fingers. Following an anxious week, it proves strangely therapeutic. My six-year-old daughter Frida, and Connelly’s four-year-old Olive are in grubby-handed heaven.
Connelly, meanwhile, is listing the many educational and therapeutic advantages of gardening with kids and exuding all of the young, cheeky-chappy energy of an early 2000s Jamie Oliver. It is easy to imagine that he may be about to do for children’s gardening what Oliver did for their school food.
“All kids should get the chance to learn to grow their own before they get to secondary school,” says Connelly. “Reach them early, and they’re not embarrassed to ask questions. And yeah, they may drop it during their teenage years, but hopefully they’ll come back to it as adults, and do it with their own kids.”
Raising this country’s next generation of gardeners is an increasingly urgent task. Last summer, the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) warned that the UK faced a green skills crisis in the future unless more children were taught gardening skills. “In a few years’ time,” observed Sue Biggs, the society’s director general, “we won’t have enough gardeners to keep the 22 million gardens in this country going, and that will only make environmental issues worse.”
Connelly recognises the skills gap. “A massive number of the kids we met were talking about saving the planet and about climate change, so their appetite for gardening is really there,” he says. “Lots of them talked about gardening with nan and grandad. But hardly any talked about doing it with their parents.”
Only last month, the Duchess of Cambridge told the Happy Mum podcast: “I had an amazing granny who devoted a lot of time to us, playing with us, doing arts and crafts and going to the greenhouse to do gardening, and cooking with us. And I try and incorporate a lot of the experiences that she gave us at the time into the experiences that I give my children now.”
She is not alone. Many parents are keen to get their children outdoors and into the garden, says Connelly, especially now that self-isolation looms alongside the challenge of keeping it as healthy and productive as possible. Like me, however, many lack the confidence and skills.
My father-in-law is an expert gardener. I struggle to keep a cress-head kit alive on a windowsill. Over the next few weeks, we plan to Skype him for gardening advice and email photos of our efforts. It seems a good way to keep in touch, now that our planned Easter visit has had to be cancelled as he is over 70. Armed with Connelly’s cheerful, bright and easy to follow book, we may even stand a chance of impressing him.
“I basically wrote the book for my friend Jason, and the millions of other parents out there like him, who want to help their kids get stuck in, but don’t know where to start themselves,” Connelly explains.
Connelly himself was equally clueless about gardening until, when he was 26, he and his brother Dale were given a council-run allotment near their home in Colchester, Essex. Put simply, getting to work on the allotment changed his life. He gave up his professional calling as an electrician, and started a successful career growing vegetables and persuading others to do the same.
When he became a parent himself, Connelly was determined that things should be different for his daughter. Olive scattered her first wildflower seeds at the age of two months, he tells me, and now spends hours out in the garden, bashing pots and pans in a home-made percussion station, watching the creepy-crawly visitors to her “bug hotel” and cooking up concoctions in her mud kitchen.
The Connellys, in other words, already have the perfect outdoor classroom from which to home school. “I feel well overprivileged to have a garden; so many of the kids I met last week don’t have one,” says Connelly. “But you really don’t need all that much space. A windowsill or a balcony will do. Actually, starting small is a really good idea.”
His book is full of practical tips for getting started on a limited scale. For example, you can divert your toilet roll tubes and egg boxes from the recycling bin, and instead repurpose them as planters to place on windowsills. Plastic bottles can be upcycled into hanging baskets in which to grow tomatoes in tight spaces.
“When I was at Blue Peter, we’d come up with all these awesome ideas and activities for families,” he says. “Then I had Olive and realised how unrealistic some of them were. You don’t need expensive equipment, you’ve got to let go of the urge for everything to look perfect and pristine. Use cheap and free stuff you’ve already got around the house and kids can learn so much.”
One skill they can practice is patience. If, like most, your children struggle with delayed gratification, Connelly suggests arming them with water pistols. It is a sure-fire way to boost their enthusiasm for watering, but in fact: “Waiting for your seeds to grow is almost the best bit,” he says. “Everything in our children’s lives is so instant now; gardening is a great way to learn patience. Good things come to those who wait.”
Engineering and environmentalism are sown into the act of gardening: “Making your own mini-greenhouse from a recycled bottle, or turning it into a watering can instead, teaches kids about resourcefulness and not needing to be part of our modern, throwaway culture,” says Connelly. There are creative lessons too: “If you want kids to get excited about gardening, the best thing is to sit down together and design a garden that you’re all excited about.”
Don’t forget conservation studies. We have already made the hedgehog home from Connelly’s book in our own garden. An old storage box and some branches are all you need to spark your children’s curiosity about habitats.
Then, of course, there’s the all-important subject of nutrition. Research from the British Nutrition Foundation suggests that one in 10 children aged 11 to 14 thinks pasta comes from an animal and does not know that carrots and potatoes grow underground. Incredibly, Connelly himself did not learn the latter till he was 25. Just a few years later, however, he had created a kitchen garden so good it supplied vegetables to the restaurant at Jimmy’s Farm, the rare-breed piggery and visitor centre run by television presenter and farmer Jimmy Doherty.
“I’m all about the veg,” he says. “There’s nothing better than planting something, seeing it grow and then eating it. But make sure you grow something your kid is enthusiastic about, something they’re going to eat and enjoy. Not many children want to eat a fistful of radishes. And if you’re not looking forward to eating it, you’re not going to care for it. So how about making a runner bean tepee instead? All kids want a secret den they can hide in. An edible one is even better.” All you need, he points out, are some bamboo canes. Moreover, the end of March is just the right time to begin sowing the seeds inside.
Earlier this year, the Wildlife Trusts recommended that all primary-age children should spend part of every day learning outdoors. Analysing research conducted by University College London, it found that doing so raised children’s well-being and health, boosted their feeling of connection with nature and also increased their motivation to learn.
Gardening’s value, it seems, extends way beyond the curriculum. At the start of this month, Loseley Fields Primary School in Surrey hired its own part-time eco-therapist, with the aim of tackling children’s mental health problems by engaging them in gardening. Even the most emotionally robust children are now likely to have concerns about the coronavirus, and the impact it might have on their lives and those of their loved ones.
“Children share a lot of stuff when they’re gardening,” says Connelly. “It came out again and again in the sessions we ran in last week’s schools tour. None of the kids used the word ‘stress’ but they’d say things like, ‘we love computer games, but gardening makes us feel good’. The implication was there. It’s calming.”
Sue Biggs of the RHS agrees: “In these uncertain times, with many children having to stay home for longer periods of time, growing plants can be a great way to feel connected, reduce anxiety and take a moment to look after our well-being – and you don’t need loads of space.
“Whether you sow some tomato seeds, plant a herb on your windowsill, make wildlife homes, or simply give your houseplants or garden a bit of a tidy, we can all benefit from the healing power of plants and nature.”
Nor is this healing power limited to children. In 2005, the American writer and researcher Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to describe the growing problem of disconnection from the natural world and the deleterious effect that can have on our mental health. Indeed, the renowned GP and former British Medical Association deputy chairman Dr Sam Everington began prescribing gardening as a treatment for adult anxiety and depression back in the Nineties.
Over the coming weeks, parents may have just as much to gain from gardening as their children. “When you’re a gardener you’re always learning, so in many ways it’s a childlike mindset – you need to be open and curious,” says Tom Dawson, who runs Gloucestershire gardening and garden design company Bagendon Gardens with his partner Amabel.
Tom and Amabel have two daughters aged six and nearly eight. Since their school closed on Friday, they are planning to focus on planting spinach, chard, cosmos and ammi seeds on their windowsills. “It’s actually the perfect time to do it,” says Amabel, who points out that gardening with the girls “is such an amazing way to connect with each other, with nature and the outside world. It’s also great for teamwork and a sense of continuity. Plus, as it’s cyclical there’s never just one chance to get it right. You can always have another go next year and improve.”
“There are so many things to distract kids these days,” agrees Connelly. “But parents are really distracted too. Work, phones, emails, social media… it can all sometimes get in the way of really focusing on family time.”
Self-isolation and the prospect of home schooling is daunting. It will, without doubt, be difficult. But, says Connelly: “It’s that time outside, when we’re away from it all, that our kids are going to remember.”
Lee's top indoor gardening activities
Loo roll tube seed starters
We always have a good supply of cardboard toilet roll tubes. Rather than chucking them in the recycling bin, however, you can use them to sow your seeds in.
For smaller seeds, create two pots by cutting one in half. Cut into the bottom to make tabs and fold in, then sow your seeds in these mini-pots. The great thing is that, once used, they can just go into the composter or back into the recycling.
Being able to grow plants on your windowsill is what it’s all about, and this mini-greenhouse is where it’s at. All you have to do is cut up a plastic bottle into three separate pieces. Fill the bottom part with compost and sow your seeds. Once they’re watered, add the top part of the bottle (the neck). You now have your own mini-greenhouse in which to watch your seeds grow.
Keep hold of the middle part of the bottle, as this will go over your seedling once it’s ready to outside. This will make it harder for those pesky slugs to eat our vegetables. Once used, you can rinse the parts and save them for next year.
Bird Fat balls
A really great one to get the hands messy. You’ll need some lard, bird seed and some string. Just mix the lard and seed in a bowl, getting those fingers right in there to mix it in. Then mould it around the string and pop it into the fridge. The next morning, you are ready to hang it in the garden or on your balcony for the birds to feast on.
Plant markers are really important to remind us what our seeds are going to turn into. Plus, they get kids thinking about what they will be eating. Use a piece of cardboard covered with sticky tape, some old spoons, or even paint some stones for an arty activity that gets the creative juices flowing and produces some educational conversation.
Bringing the outdoors in, you can make art from old leaves and twigs found in the garden. It encourages children to feel nature, and gets their hands a bit messy.
Lee’s top tips for gardening with kids
- Accept a bit of mess. Plants will get crushed, clothes will get messy, there’s no getting away from it.
- The kids are in charge. If it comes across as a chore then the likelihood they’ll want to be out there again is slim. Let them decide what to do.
- Give children their own space to grow, however small. Their own little allotment is something they can show off and be proud of.
How to Get Kids Gardening, with the Skinny Jean Gardener, £10.76, skinnyjeangardener.co.uk/shop
The RHS Campaign for School Gardening website has more than 300 activities and guides for people of all ages who are looking for ways to grow at home or try something new to feel better. Visit schoolgardening.rhs.org.uk