Monday, 30 November -0001

Clemmie Hambro's gardening week 16th march

Spring has sprung – and what better time to introduce young children to the joys of gardening – especially weeding

Written by Clemmie Hambro
As usual, it is a start that is full of ups and downs but I think it is fairly safe to say that spring is, well, springing. A warmer, brighter sun, a shaking off of your coat, the tapping of the woodpecker and a general sense of unfurling. I find my heart lifting at the sight of new growth in the garden – the burgeoning rosettes of perennials, the catkins, the green noses of the tulips and buds, buds, buds everywhere.

This weekend, in celebration of the spring, we all went out to do some gardening en famille. Now, when you have three children under five, this is not a simple operation. First, you have the clothes issue. Not enough and there is complaining and needing to go inside, too many and there is complaining and needing to undress. Then, who gets the trowel? Who gets the fork? Where is my bucket? I have a stone in my welly, etc.

Next, what to do? I have discovered that with very small children, the best thing to do is weeding as it incorporates a few important events if you are a toddler. First, you get your hands dirty, secondly you get to pull things up and throw them about, and thirdly, you do it on your own without too much interference from me.

An important caveat here – you have simply not to worry too much about the small wellies on your emergent flower beds – the damage is minimal but the happiness gained from doing it cannot be underestimated. The soil was damp, soft and good, and the new season's weeds came away easily in small hands.

So, for the small window of time while the children were busy, I set to on the honeysuckle outside the kitchen door. It is a tangled mess that once in flower is impossible to control. So, I thinned and thinned until it once more resembled a climbing plant and not a bird's nest, andthis gave some light and space to the Chaenomeles that was being smothered. I have a real soft spot for those pretty coral flowers that are blooming as we speak.

I also managed a hasty prune of the dogwoods. This is important if you want a good display of bright stems next winter. If you have the larger Cornus alba 'Sibirica', cut these right back to about 2in from the ground. With the more dainty Cornus sanguinea, you can cut the stems right back, but perhaps leave a third untouched to maintain a good shape. Either way, they are very robust creatures and will cope with most sorts of haircut.

Then suddenly, the little window of opportunity closes. Someone is crying, someone else is cold and it is time to go and do something else. But while it lasted, on a bright, blustery spring afternoon – all tinkering about together in the garden – happy, dirty and occupied, it was completely and utterly magical.

If you fancy gardening with your children or grandchildren, but need a few ideas, then have a look at a new book just published by the RHS called Grow Your Own For Kids, which is actually brilliant. All the various projects are only about two pages long and are easy to understand without being patronising and have great headings, such as Make A Pizza-Shaped Herb Garden and Make A Strawberry Fountain – there are also sections on what could have gone wrong. u

RHS Grow Your Own For Kids: How To Be A Great Gardener by Chris Collins and Lia Leendertz, Mitchell Beazley (£12.99)




Sarah langton-Lockton on her allotment

Saturday had been glorious, with a strong sun wrapping us in its warmth all day. I tinkered in the garden a bit in the morning and then headed off for a ballet school production of Sleeping Beauty, in which dozens of little girls and five brave boys flitted and fluttered like well-rehearsed butterflies. The granddaughters looked beautiful and danced with confidence and elegance. The next day it was still warm and sunny, worryingly so for late February; one sensed that there was something really wrong with the natural world, but it was impossible not to enjoy the warmth and the wide blue sky.

There were lots of people on their allotments and it was good to see them again, tackling spring tasks with relish but also with time for a chat. The birds and the beasts had also ventured forth. Tinkerbell, the black cat who lives in one of the houses at the top of the site, shot across the plot, neatly darting through an openended cloche I had put on one side while I watered the spinach. A robin swooped into the greenhouse, to see if anything was up, and before I could worry about how it would get out, retreated neatly and unscathed.

The allotment looked fine but there had been some casualties. All the 'Douce Provence' pea seedlings have succumbed to the frost, but the 'Aquadulce Claudia' broad bean plants have come through well – a bit of frost damage, but they are already putting on strong new growth.

I covered the peas and some of the broad beans with fleece before the worst of the cold weather. For reasons beyond my comprehension, these were the plants that did least well. Also, the fleece snagged badly and has developed some nasty tears. I shall buy better quality next time.

My policy for a long stint on the plot is to do as many things as I like doing, provided I also do one that I don't, so I began by clearing a patch between two raised beds that had become infested with dandelions. The soil is wet at the bottom of the plot, and the roots mostly came out intact when I persevered in dislodging them with a hand fork.

The ones whose roots snapped off will grow again, although Charles Dowding is of the view (in his magisterial new book, Charles Dowding's Vegetable Course, reviewed last week) that if you remove 15cm or more of older roots there will be too little left in the soil for viable regrowth.

If all else fails, suggests the lovely woman I buy organic meat from at the farmers' market, also a keen allotment grower, I can make dandelion jelly from the flowers. Internet research comes up with quite a few recipes that extol the jelly's golden colour and delicate taste.

The one I like the look of is an American recipe, requiring a quart of 'lightly packed, fresh, organic, bright dandelion flowers', with any fragment of stem with its bitter milk and unpleasant green bits discarded. A quart works out at about 1,000 flowers, making this a less attractive proposition than it first seemed. I may stick to raspberry jam.

Having done my bit with the dandelions, I tackle the asparagus bed. A light film of annual weed is flourishing in the blanket of well-rotted horse manure I covered the bed with in autumn. It is a pleasure to pull up the healthy little plants of hairy bittercress, groundsel, chickweed and speedwell.

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