Toby had a very specific request for the allotment this week. He wanted his plot to have ‘a pond and lots of flowers and beans’. So I had a think, and came up with a bucket pond surrounded by flowering herbs interspersed with vegetables and strawberries.
I’m not sure it’s conventional allotmenting, but on our heavy clay soil any patch of earth left uncovered dries and rapidly sets to the texture of a brick, so our greatest successes have come from a layering of veg with other plants (mostly fat hen, a prolific annual weed which keeps the soil covered and can be used as spinach).
I prepared a new patch for Toby as we’ve rotated potatoes into his old one. The new one already had Pot marigolds thriving along one edge, has some of the best soil on the plot, and is one of the more sheltered areas as it is near the shed, although still in sunshine for much of the day. When you give a child a patch of their own, if they intend to grow anything in it and not just use it to create a fun mud pit, it is important to pick the best patch you have for them. Growing can be full of set-backs, and if you want a good chance that some of their crops will succeed and thereby instil a love of gardening and not just bitter disappointment, they need the best chance you can give them – good soil, good light, plenty of help if they allow it (or alternatively the acceptance that you will do almost all the work and they will take all the credit).
The bucket pond was made from an old chicken fertilizer pellet tub, well washed. A washing up bowl would be ideal too. You will be amazed at how much life even a tiny pond will attract to your garden.
We sunk the tub into a hole and packed the soil around it, leaving a lip of a couple of centimetre above the soil to prevent minibeasts falling in. Toby found some nice big flat rocks to place in the bottom – making the water level shallower and providing places for water beasties to hide. We then wedged a log in to allow any creature that did fall in to escape easily.
We filled the bucket with water from the existing bigger pond on the plot – you can use tap water (any chlorine in it will evaporate off in a few hours) but expect to wait longer for it to be colonised, plus you may get an algal bloom if there are higher nitrate levels in your tap water. I noticed a couple of water hoglice in the transported water (swimming cousins of woodlice), and I expect there will be all sorts of tiny things that we didn’t notice, including daphnia (water fleas, a favourite food for just about any other creature that takes up resident).
I situated the bucket pond close to the edge of Toby’s patch, so he can kneel and peer in without trampling his plants. Toby decorated the edge with a broken plant pot to make it look attractive and also to provide a hidey habitat for minibeasts. We brought herb plants with us (surprisingly good value and range at the local garden centre) and I showed him how to look at the labels to see how tall and wide each would get, so he knew where to position them.
We planted short herbs at the front, including winter savory, chamomile and oregano planted on a slight mound to help drainage as they like it dry and may struggle in our clay. Hopefully they will ramble about and provide a delicious smell if he happens to lean on them. I sunk Pineapple mint down a dip to the side to help moisture retention in a place where I’m not worried about it roaming, or it would have needed to be planted in a pot sunk in the ground. Tall herbs including bergamot, hyssop and lemon balm went in behind the pond. All the herbs were interspersed with a new strawberry plant and the waifs and strays from other parts of our plot, including some broad beans (only half a dozen of the autumn sowing had germinated and survived the winter). Toby also sowed radish seeds he had harvested from dried pods, and nasturtium seeds collected from the soil while I was weeding (these will likely need to be relocated if they all germinate as they can get very vigorous).
The herbs and veg should support each other over the year, for example the herb flowers should bring in pollinators for veg like the broad beans, or in the case of nasturtiums to act as a sacrificial species as the blackfly prefer nasturtiums to broad beans, keeping the veg pest free and pollinated. Open flowers like the chamomile should also bring helpful hoverflies to munch on aphids. All the herbs are also edible, or for tea, so are earning their keep in every way. I just hope the clay doesn’t prove too much for them.
Toby helped to water in his new plants, then wandered off to lie on a picnic rug and watch his big brother who was absorbed by colouring a Star Wars book.
‘Toby’s plot’ normally means I weed, plant, water, and then weed some more, then Toby breezes through at some point with Ollie and eats everything ‘we’re harvesting mummy!’, but perhaps this year there will be a little more watering and the odd bit of planting from him too.
Either way, he sees the process of seed to food, the rhythm of the seasons passing by on the plot, and so far eating his own body weight in peas doesn’t seem to have done him any harm.
Notes: Always watch little ones near water – if you have really small kids you can fill the bucket with large rocks so only a couple of centimetres of water is open at the top. Always include the lip between bucket and soil level and an escape branch too, or you will end up drowning everything from worms to woodmice. If you use shards of terracotta as we did, be aware the edges can be razor sharp. I prefer to plant only edible, non-toxic herbs so it doesn’t matter if the kids happen to munch something, but it’s good to repeat the mantra ‘don’t eat anything without showing me first’.