Gardening column: outdoor classrooms

29 March 2019

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HIDDEN in the woodland on the Croxteth Country Park estate on the outskirts of Liverpool is a very special classroom. There are no walls. Instead, the boundaries are marked with red and white striped tape. There are no tables and chairs, and the lavatories are inside tents.

The students are pre-schoolers at an outdoor nursery, Nature to Nurture, set up by Julie White, which was deemed Outstanding by OFSTED in 2016. The children are outside in almost all weathers. The natural environment provides plenty of physical challenges such as scrambling through mud or climbing over logs.

The Forest School ethos is also behind a new business venture designed to help families to encourage their children to engage with nature. Aimed at three- to eight-year-olds, subscribers to the website Mud and Bloom receive a monthly box by post containing everything needed for four growing and craft activities, along with seasonal nature pointers and games. The activities are beautifully presented: March’s box contained the sandpaper, paints, and brush, and screw-eyes and twine to make a wind chime using found chunky sticks. There was also a twig plant-pot project; a packet of cornflowers to sow to attract bees; bird spotting; and a quiz.

Best of all were “Rote Murme” tomatoes to grow. I had never heard of this type, which are much closer to the wild tomatoes of western South America, and reputedly tougher and more disease-resistant than modern cultivars. My seeds are already germinating in the organic compost pellets supplied in my box.

The subscription, which includes shipping, is currently £7.95 per box, or £11.95 for a sibling box, which includes enough for two children to do all the activities. If children do not have access to one of the many new nature clubs springing up, then, compared with a fast-food treat, this is good value.

All the main seed companies have some form of children’s range. Thompson & Morgan market Mr Men and Little Miss seeds. Suttons have a “Fun to Grow” range; Johnsons sells seeds for “Little Gardeners”; and Unwins for “Little Growers”. There are many plants in common: cress, sunflowers, and calendula for a start.

Child-friendly edible crops are probably more likely to sustain interest than novelties such as flowers resembling Mexican hats. A goal, such as a family or community celebration, that will need fresh produce (and flowers for decoration) can give meaning to gardening with children. A pizza garden, perhaps in a circle divided into “slices”, could support growing tomatoes and herbs for a parish event.

The seed company Mr Fothergill’s is raising money for Children in Need from “Pudsey” sunflower and pumpkin seeds. Let’s not forget that other motivator: some healthy competition to grow the tallest or biggest.

www.mudandbloom.com

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