If you asked my younger self, I don’t think I’d ever have suspected I’d end up being professionally green-fingered.
Indeed, my love of gardening only properly kicked off in my late 20s when I entered a local competition and won ‘Most Improved Garden’. I was delighted. I’d never won anything before and, for the first time, I realised I was actually quite good at something.
Then, the arrival of three little dragons in quick succession (three under three!) meant that I could no longer do anything on my own, let alone gardening. Quickly, I began to really miss the head space it gave me. I realised my mood was suffering, anxiety setting in. For me, being outside not only clears my mind but it centres me.
Becoming a mother massively changed my life in every respect, as it is wont to do – I’d gone from chief breadwinner – wearing Austin Reed suits, attending three-piece Thursdays and champagne Fridays while working my way up the corporate ladder – to dungaree-wearing dependant, constantly splattered in a variety of children’s bodily fluids. I felt totally alien.
The drive for vitamin D
Desperate to get outside again and needing to keep my mind healthy, I prayed I had bred green-fingered offspring, before realising the matter might be in my own hands. So, after a move to the coast and a big house gut job, I set about redesigning our new garden with the intention of getting the kids involved.
In such unprecedented times as these (sound the most overly-used phrase of the moment claxon) I want to share some of the ideas that have worked for me in getting the kids’ hands dirty in my garden. Even better, you can pass this off as a bit of home-schooling – just upload your efforts to Google Classroom and you can rest smug having shown off to the competitive parents. I’ve even uploaded photos of my seven-year-old daughter making slug traps!
I’m delighted to say that all three of my wonderful (for which, read feral) children – Leonie, Axel and Ziggy – are showing great interest in nature, from planting flowers and vegetables to identifying birds and insects. They’re particularly loving growing their own carrots, tomatoes and potatoes, and the act of nurturing something you can eat from seed teaches great responsibility as well as giving them immense pride.
This is one of my kids’ favourite and easiest things to attempt in the garden – growing runner beans up supporting canes to create a secret edible teepee.
How to build a secret edible teepee
What you’ll need:
4 large 30cm pots with holes and saucers
8 long bamboo canes, 1.5 to 2.5 metres long
Runner beans – Scarlet Emperor or Polestar are perfect
30 to 45 minutes
The best time to do this is NOW. Decide on a sunny spot to best place your wigwam – a south facing aspect is ideal. It will be here all summer, so make sure you’re happy with its positioning.
To get started, you’ll need about one square metre of space and four large pots. If you’re putting your wigwam on grass, you can plant into the soil. But if, like me, you only have decking, use pots with large saucers underneath. There are some LED pots on the market that kids will love if your budget can stretch.
You now need to fill your pots with soil. Place them in a circle, making sure you’ve left an entrance for your little people to be able to get in. Use a ready-made seed mix and fill all the pots up to approximately an inch below the top.
Now, get your bamboo canes and make a teepee structure by pushing two canes into each pot. Make sure you push the canes down well, then firm-up the soil around them so they are secure and can stand on their own with no support from you. You’re nearly there.
Use some garden twine to bind the top of the bamboo canes together à la Monty Don, then wind the twine around the canes so that the beans have something to hold on to when they start growing. Wrap the twine around the cane a couple of times, then wrap the twine around the next cane, and again, then wrap the next cane and so on, creating a layer of twine at roughly 10cm intervals along the length of the canes until you have a teepee shape. Remember to leave an entrance!
You will need more twine at the bottom than the top, as the new plants will need most help and support when being trained at the bottom. Once your structure is complete, make sure your canes are secure and then give all your pots a good water soak.
Now for the fun bit – the planting. I recommend using the red flowering runner beans Scarlet Emperor, or the extra-long Polestar for shits and giggles, both of which you can pick up in all good garden shops for a couple of pounds.
Working with five beans per pot, plant the lovely big seeds about 2cm apart behind the canes, pushing them in so they are covered by about an inch of wet soil.
The aphids will love your wigwam almost as much as your kids, so to prevent losing your crop of crunchy beans to these green meanies, you need to plant a sacrificial crop. I know, it sounds awful but trust me, it’s worth it.
Nasturtiums are perfect for this as they act as a combination plant for many crops, not just runner beans. They grow ridiculously quickly, bloom in wonderfully cheery colours and repeat and repeat, so when they start to look tatty, you can just cut them back and watch them regrow before saving the seeds for next year come autumn. You can also eat the flowers and the leaves – they’re quite punchy but worth a try, almost radish-like. Plant five seeds, just as you did with the beans, but at the front of the pots this time. The lovely flowers will soon cascade down over the sides and look splendid.
Now, all you need to do is keep your pots watered regularly until they have started to establish themselves. Try and water them every second day, giving them a good soak without drenching them. The seeds will begin to germinate within a fortnight and will start to sprout through the soil.
Once they get tall enough to hook onto the first level of twine, give them a helping hand by tying them to the canes so that, eventually, the bean plants will start to wrap themselves up into a teepee. When tying a plant in, make sure you don’t cut off the water and oxygen supply by binding them too tightly. To avoid this, wrap the twine around the cane first and then wrap the same bit of twine around the stem, loosely, before tying a bow around.
For the next few months, make sure you go out and check your wigwam regularly to keep it watered and tied in. The nasturtiums will tend to look after themselves, but do cut back any fading blooms.
Get the kids to start harvesting the beans when they are about six to eight inches long. The more you pick, the more they will grow, so be prepared to pick daily and really do make sure you check the whole plant as they practically sprout overnight! You should get six to eight weeks’ worth of cropping from this wigwam.
The beans are best boiled or steamed. They make a super green side dish, and growing and eating them will help teach your kids where food comes from. Not only that, you’ll be showing them how fun and easy it can be to grow their own food and encouraging them to eat their greens – something they’ll likely be much more amenable to having grown them themselves.
For further benefit, not only do the kids have a secret den they can escape to, you too can get a bit of peace!
Once your teepee is finished flowering, remove all the plants to the composter or your brown bin, keeping the soil to reuse. How about growing your own garlic?
I really hope you enjoy your gardening adventures and I look forward to sharing more with you. In the meantime, if you have any gardening dilemmas, questions or topics you would like me to discuss, please just shout!