Let nature do its thing

Let nature do its thing

CoirProducts Grower of the Month for August is Laura (@ourorganicallotment). Laura’s love for gardening came from spending time in her grandad’s greenhouse, especially seeing the tomatoes he has grown. Having got their own allotment in 2018, Laura loves gardening with her two children. In this blog post, Laura talks about what she loves to grow, what it means to garden with children, and what she enjoys the most about gardening. Read on to find out all about Laura’s gardening journey. 

How and when did you start gardening/growing?

One of my best childhood memories was being allowed to go into my grandad’s greenhouse to see his tomatoes. If I was lucky I was even allowed to eat some. He has always grown great tomatoes, and I think that the memory of the smell of them was what first got me wanting to grow my own. Even before we had our own garden, my husband and I would grow chillies on our window sills, and later beans and courgettes in pots and grow bags in our small garden. 

When we purchased our first house the ground was awful. It was a new build with a shallow layer of soil before hitting concrete. The more we dug up the more we discovered builder’s treasure; rubble, stones and even crisp bags and a sandwich packet – where a lazy builder must have buried them after his lunch. We quickly replenished the soil and added some ‘bare root’ fruit trees (which we were quite sure would die). They didn’t, and now our little corner of our new build estate has two apple trees, a pear tree and a range of seasonal fruits.

How has your garden changed since you first started growing?

The main change came in 2018 when we got our allotment. Suddenly the possibility of real cultivation was opened up to us. We purchased more apple trees, built a fruit cage and began our allotment journey. I’ve learnt most of what I know from my neighbouring allotment plot holders. Some are real ‘old boys’, who love to come and look over the fence of our little family and are so happy to give their advice on potato growing, tips on feeding pumpkins and courgettes and gift us runner beans.

Since taking on our allotment I’ve learnt a lot about organic gardening methods. The main lesson, which is so helpful for allotmenting with young children (because there is no time for a perfect allotment), is just to let nature do its thing. If something grows naturally without being forced, it will usually be strong and healthy, especially if it has self seeded. To some extent, this includes without the use of additional heat from greenhouses etc. I don’t tend to grow much that requires heat (other than my luffa this year, but I am co-parenting them and growing them in @allotment_and_cake’s greenhouse). I have a lot of herbs growing wild over the place, wherever they want to pop up, rather than in dedicated herb spaces. Herbs can be natural pesticides as they repel some pests, or their strong smells distract nasty bugs from finding the plants they love. I do the same with self seeding flowers like nasturtium, marigold, borage and foxglove, which I let pop up where it pleases. This not only added colour all over my plot, but they act as ‘catch crops’ – providing bugs and pests with something to eat rather than the crops I am trying to cultivate to eat. 

You talk a lot about gardening with kids. Can you tell us more about this? What do you and your children love to grow and why? What tips would you offer to other growers? What tips would you give for getting children involved? 

Gardening with kids is a necessity with my two girls, and has at times been a hindrance rather than a joy, so I have had to learn how to do it in a way that we all enjoy. Not having a perfect garden is one of those ways, having lots of things they can pick and eat, or pick and destroy…  they can be heavy handed tramplers who love to pick things that I don’t always want to be picked! My girls were 2 and 3 when we first got our allotment, a plot which had been abandoned for some time. It was hard work to get it to where it is today, which has meant long hours on the plot for my girls. As a result, I’ve had the chance to watch them play naturally and entertain themselves as my husband and I have got on with needed jobs. They have taught me how to garden with kids, rather than the other way round. 

As they have grown, their requirements have also grown. The best advice I can offer for parents with young children or grandchildren is really to just notice your children, what do they enjoy doing – and let them do it. Young children only really need a prompt from you, a start to a game, or something to spark their imagination, and they can usually take it from there and can create their own games or worlds with their imaginations. In the early days, I would read stories like Jack and the Beanstalk when we were planting beans, or the Enormous Turnip when planting carrots (read the story if that makes no sense, no one likes a turnip!). As they got older we added a simple mud kitchen with charity shop finds for messy play. Now they are school age they can get involved in planting things with us.

Mud wins! They always have an empty patch of soil where they can do their own thing – usually pour water into holes and make a mud pit. We bought some charity shop pots and pans, and left them at the allotment to aid their play. The abundance of self seeded herbs and flowers on our plot means there is always mint, lemonbalm or other things with petals for them to pick at their leisure to make potions or mud pies, without upsetting the vegetable plants I am growing.

Also – snacks. Grow snacks. Things that can be popped straight into their mouths, by them. It is amazing what children eat when it isn’t put on a plate in front of them.

What do your children love most about gardening? How do you think gardening has benefited them?Do you have any exciting gardening tasks planned for the summer with your children?

Our allotment has been so beneficial in increasing the amount of ‘outside time’ and creative play my girls get – largely down to how much I ignore them when I’m busy and get on with gardening jobs. Being left to their own devices, with the freedom to pick and play, means it is a happy place for them. 

Their favourite thing to grow is peas. We grew peas (edible and sweet peas) in coir pods this year, and have a whole row of them growing in abundance. They love to rummage in the leaves to find the pods, then eat them there and then. 

Last year I started a little allotment group for children at our site. The main reason was to create activities that they could get on with and allow their parents some time to get some work done. I’ve instigated a painted stone hunt across our allotment site, organised a knitted pumpkin hunt (where some of our older growers knitted the pumpkins for our younger growers to find). In the winter I held a bird feed making morning, where we all smushed up bird food and peanut butter and smeared it all into pine cones using an RSPB recipe, to hang on their allotments.

What is your typical day like when it comes to tending your garden?

I am lucky enough to work part time, and my allotment days are Monday and Friday. My typical day will always start with having a good walk round, usually taking a few photos of how my plot has grown or developed. This is a great chance to take it all in and spot where the main jobs will be. I tend to store up food waste at home for the allotment compost bin, so opening that up and adding any scraps in will come next.

Weeding weeding weeding is usually the next on the agenda. We have a beautiful brick path which we inherited from the previous owners, and it is forever weedy and a mess. Pulling weeds from bricks is a weekly job!  

Depending on the time of year, I will attend to whichever crop is growing at the time. I like to make my own plant feeds, so I might go on a wander to find nettles, or make up some comfrey feed or mulch from the comfrey I let grow wild on the plot. Comfrey is a great soil mulch. After planting out any new seedlings I will just get on with tidying up, turning the compost heap. Every few months I’ll replenish our woodchip paths with free woodchip delivered by the council, to keep the weeds at bay.

The allotment is never a quiet place, there are always comings and goings from other allotment holders. Lots near me are retired so a lot of time is spent having a chat. I have learnt so much about how to grow different crops from my neighbours, and quite often I’ll gain a seedling or plant from someone who has a spare or too. 

I always finish up my Friday visit with a coffee and chat with my best allotment neighbour Jess, who runs the @allotment_and_cake instagram page. She is also a garden designer, so always has helpful tips and hints.

What do you enjoy most about gardening?

Being outside. I can’t get enough of outside time, especially in the sun. I work in an office, so I really value my time at the allotment to clear my head, have alone time (when I’m not chatting to pensioners). Actually, chatting to pensioners might be my favourite thing. Where else in our busy lives of parenting and working would we have the opportunity to make such cross generational friendships? And friendships they are, I have come to have genuine care for my allotment community, who look out for each other, support each other with weeding if they are ill, water each other’s plots when on holiday and enjoy each other’s company.

Everyone online talks about how they love the instagram growing community, and it is great – but nothing beats real life people for me. Chatting to real faces and making people smile. Some of the older people at our allotments live alone and the allotments can be their only social time. What a gift to share that time with them and take the time to chat and share their lives.

What are some of the benefits of growing your own?

The lack of pesticides is a major benefit. I started buying vegetables from Riverford some years ago, and the weekly newsletter which includes information from their farmers about some of the goings on in commercial non organic growing has been eye opening and horrifying. Growing your own means you are in charge of what you put in your mouth. All goodness, no badness. Plus, you learn to eat what you have and make the most of it. Food like cauliflower leaves and broccoli stems suddenly become dinner when they would before have been discarded in the bin. There are of course the added benefits that go alongside growing your own, like the calm of being outside, the stillness of watching your garden and the mental restoration that can bring.

Have you used any coir-based products? What are some of the benefits of using coir-based products?

Yes! I was given some spare coir products by a friend at Christmas and I’ve been using them all year. We have grown a lot of our seedings in the coir pods (coircoins) and also used the bricks as a starter for our seedlings.

In particular, I think coir products are GREAT for gardening with children. Firstly, my girls absolutely love adding water and watching them expand to more than twice their size. It’s like a magic trick. Secondly, the pods (coircoins) are the perfect size for little hands, and with the little bags they are in they are quite mess free – every mum’s dream. Adding seeds, particularly large ones like peas, beetroot and squash, into the pods is so easy for children. They can’t plant them too deep, and they get the extra benefits of seeing the roots growing out through the bottom of the pods, a free science lesson!

I found using coir products a great space saver too. Rather than having a windowsill filled with pots on a tray, I could fit twice the amount of coir pods (coircoins) all lined up. I transferred the seedlings from the pods (coircoins) into the plantable coir pots, then planted them straight out when they were ready. Simple!! Not a piece of plastic in sight. The lack of plastic is also a really great reason to use coir products with kids, and start conversations with them about the importance of using natural products.

What are your future plans for your garden?

We have been trying to grow sichuan peppercorns, which I believe take a few years to establish. It has been a slow start, but 2023 should be the year of the peppercorns for us! I’ve also made friends with a new allotment holder who has promised to show me how to turn the produce from my little apple tree into jam.

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