Tales from the Greenhouse: by Jean Barratt

Having a child with complex needs at home unexpectedly can be difficult and confusing for both the child and their extended family. Seashell Trust has been reaching out to the families of the children and young people it supports and to other families in the same situation.

Here, Seashell’s Royal School Manchester horticulture teacher, Jean Barratt, has put together some ideas about how to make the most of the growing season.

Although the garden centres are shut, there are plenty of seed packets available in most supermarkets and this is a perfect time to think about outdoor planting.

Runner beans and broad beans are a good bet and a few seeds will produce enormous plants and lots of beans.  I like the beans as they have a nice feel and students enjoyed handling them and they withstand a bit of bashing around.  We started ours in small plant pots so the students could see their particular plant begin to grow and take responsibility for watering it. However, they will do just fine in the ground.  Grow them up the tallest canes you have and they will race away.  Slugs can be a bit tricky at the start but used coffee grounds are a good organic deterrent as are crushed eggshells, though once the beans are well established they will be fine.  The bean pods appear at varying heights and can be picked whether you are in a wheel chair or six foot tall.  They are easy to pick, even for those who struggle with fine motor skills.  Our students particularly liked the fuzzy feel of the inside of the broad bean pods.  And of course they are a brilliant part of your 5-a day when you get round to cooking them.

One tip I can give you that is a universal truth across all ages and abilities: novices tend to plant seeds too deep.  This is not too disastrous if you are growing in open ground, but if you are starting things in pots it means the roots have nowhere to go.  We solved this by encouraging students to fill their pot two thirds full then getting them to lay the seed/bean on top and then fill up with compost or soil.  Works every time!

In the next couple of weeks try planting radishes.  These are very quick growing and pretty indestructible, but make sure they get watered well and don’t let them get too big.  The clever people at Suttons Seeds came up with the idea of putting the seeds pre-spaced on a roll of degradable fabric.  This was great for visually impaired students and those who would have struggled with fine pincer grip handling of small seeds.  All we had to do was make a shallow furrow using a string guide to keep us straight, lay the strip in and scatter the soil back over the top.  Magic!

This is a good time to plant beetroot too.  The seeds are small and a bit fiddly but most students cope with planting them.  These are another crop that need a lot of water in dry spells but the students were amazing at keeping on top of it. By the end of the summer a large number of my budding horticulturalists were spontaneously and independently fetching the watering cans and getting cracking. This is a vital job to do but one that can easily be combined with some water play too to keep the whole thing fun.  Many of the students at Seashell view the watering element as the reward at the end for their hard work and find it highly motivating.  I always use a watering can with my students rather than using a hose as it gives them multiple opportunities to repeat and learn the process.  I have also learned that the hose and sprinkler can be too stimulating for some and can make it difficult to end the activity calmly.

If you are working with a child who can get a little carried away with the sensory delight of soil and compost, please don’t be put off from keeping going with your project.  Something which helps my students is to have an additional bucket of soil/sand/compost to hand so if the sensory impulse to dig everything up becomes too strong, you have something to redirect with.  This isn’t a magic bullet, but over time, knowing they can use the bucket of sand to meet the sensory need, can help prevent all their previous good work from being ruined.

If you have light, sandy soil, have a go at carrots – don’t bother if you are on heavy clay soils.  Also, don’t add any fertiliser when you sow your seeds, not unless you specifically want to grow two legged rude carrots! Sow following the instructions on the packet and in a very short time your seedling will appear.  Thin them out so the carrots have plenty room to fill out and your family will have tasty treats in store.

There are lots of scare stories about not handling the carrot plants for fear for attracting the dreaded carrot root fly, but we planted spring onion seeds between the rows and the smell of the onions seemed to confuse the flies and we were fine.  It is hard to describe the look of surprise on the face of one of the students when he came to pick the crop of carrots.  I am not sure what he was expecting to appear when he pulled up the feathery tops, but his face had a look of pure astonishment when he realised what he had unearthed!

This will be the year without bedding plants for most gardeners but it doesn’t mean we have to be without colour.  A packet of Larkspur, Clarkia, Nigella and Godetia sown directly into your borders will give a riot of colour until the frosts and give you no trouble at all.  Larkspur and Clarkia were grown as some of our flowering cash crop and we provided the school office with cut flowers until October.  For some of our students delivering bunches of flowers was an important part of their routine which many seemed to enjoy, though some were occasionally a tad over-enthusiastic in their delivery method.

If you do not have a garden try growing strawberry plants.  These are very robust and will withstand heavy handling.  They will do very well in a window box or planter.  Any old hanging baskets can be used for this purpose too.

The larger plastic milk cartons can be cut away to make hanging planters.  We used these for drought-resistant herbs like thyme.  Any sunny windowsill will be fine for leafy herbs like coriander and parsley.  We always plant a garlic clove at the base of any soft herbs as it prevents aphids taking up residence. There are lots of things to try and despite the lockdown you will still be able to get basic gardening supplies from supermarkets so there’s nothing stopping you.

Finally I would suggest you all invest in a packet of sunflower seeds.  The seeds are easy to handle, edible, and easily germinated.  Our students were fascinated by the butterflies which came in an unending stream once the flower heads opened.  In the autumn we hung the seed heads outside the forest hut window and dozens of blue tits and finches of all types visited us on a daily basis.  Nature truly is the gift that keeps on giving.