Children’s author, mother, and nature advocate Katherine Halligan has written over 100 books in her role as a children’s publisher over the years. Living once again in her native California, Sunflower Shoots and Muddy Boots is the first in a brand-new series published by Nosy Crow in collaboration with the National Trust aimed at getting parents and very young children to explore nature together.
It’s wonderful to share Katherine’s guest post below.
Why Parenting Why is a Lot Like Gardening
by Katherine Halligan
Parenting, I have discovered, is a lot like gardening. Before I became a mother, I operated under the illusion that I had control over my life. I made lists. I had a tidy desk and organised cupboards. I thought that if everything was laid out in neat rows, clearly labelled, things would follow my carefully made plans. More often than not, they did.
And then I had children.
As I gave up all notion of control and surrendered to the (happy!) chaos, I discovered I had probably been wrong all along. Nature has its own agenda, just like children do. And children, like plants, tend to thrive in spite of everything I do wrong.
Both gardening and parenting are pursuits where all the well-intended advice (don’t over-water — true! Leave them to cry — not true!) can overwhelm the novice, and none of it is a substitute for the actual doing of the thing. It’s really a question of diving in at the deep end, and just going for it. You will make mistakes along the way, and both gardens and children can be surprisingly forgiving of error-prone gardener-parents. It is also true that, in gardening as in parenting, the devil is in the details: a little bit of tender loving care goes a very long way indeed.
I stumbled into gardening somewhat accidentally, and discovered that I loved it. Parenting was only slightly more planned, and I loved it even more. In both cases, I did have a bit of prior knowledge: a grandmother who taught me the Latin names of plants, and years spent babysitting several small boys. And, in both cases, that knowledge stood me in only slightly better stead than any other novice. Mostly I simply muddle along, going on instinct, hoping that weather and circumstance will favour my wild guesses, which they do more often than not.
Gardening is like meditation for people who don’t enjoy sitting still; parenting is not dissimilar, except that it involves even more movement. You are utterly focused on the job in front of you, so that even weeding (or changing nappies) becomes a bit Zen. And who is better at living in the moment and enjoying the sense of flow that results from total absorption in a task? Children, of course.
Children and gardening are a match made in heaven. Simply digging in the dirt or pulling weeds can keep little ones happy for an inordinately long amount of time. Gardens are naturally messy and full of surprises… and so are children. Put the two together and you are guaranteed to have some marvellous (and very probably muddy) fun.
Planting seeds indoors is perfect for bridging that gap between early spring and early summer, and channelling little ones’ energy into something truly magical. Watching sprouts and shoots unfurl is truly amazing, and a great way to teach them about life cycles: they too started from a tiny seed of sorts.
Starting seeds (the flowery kind, not the baby kind) couldn’t be simpler. Choose something that’s easy to grow and quick to sprout, like sunflowers, sweet peas or nigella. If you want to grow something edible with your little gardener, try peas, beans, lettuces, cucumbers, radishes or pumpkins. (For more gardening ideas, see my book, Muddy Boots and Sunflower Shoots, published by Nosy Crow and the National Trust).
It’s safest to start indoors, since UK weather is still unpredictable — even when it’s all gone a bit Mediterranean lately. Get going 4-6 weeks before the last frost date for your area; once it’s passed, plant seedlings out into beds or bigger pots.
Flowery Fun For Little Ones
1. Let your little gardener choose their seeds. Nasturtiums (which have the added benefits of being edible and loving poor soil) and marigolds are especially child-friendly and sprout within days.
2. Take clean, dry yogurt pots, turn them upside down, and gently hammer a small nail through a few times to make drainage holes.
3. Fill pots partway with seed-starting soil for marigolds; for nasturtiums, just scoop soil from any dry, sandy parts of your garden.
4. Stick seeds down into the soil about 1cm, one seed per pot.
5. Label each pot with a craft stick (children can bling them up for added entertainment)… or skip the labels and mix up the pots to make a mystery guessing game!
6. Water well. A spray bottle is perfect for little gardeners: it delivers plenty of moisture without flooding tiny seeds, plus it develops the hand muscles needed for writing. (And if you do have a water fight, everyone will end up nicely damp, rather than wringing wet).
7. Cover pots loosely with cling film, set them on a tray in a sunny windowsill, water daily to keep moist… and wait! While you wait, enjoy sharing stories about seeds, such as the classic picture book, The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson.
8. These little plants will make perfect presents: wrap pots in a bit of tulle or muslin, tie with ribbon, and give to teachers, neighbours and grandparents.
If you are new to gardening, don’t be intimidated. Children make great gardening companions because they aren’t overly critical and will be delighted by even minimally successful results. Gardening is a fairly forgiving hobby: if you drop stitches when knitting, all you see is that great gaping hole; in a garden, everything else grows in around the holes created by any mishaps. (Again, not unlike parenting, where the good bits usually fill in around the mistakes until they are hardly noticeable at all).
I am not an especially good gardener, just an extremely lucky one. And I am sure, too, that I’m not always a particularly good parent, just an extremely lucky one. When things go well, it is probably as much to do with chance as with design. All the fuss and worry about getting it right generally makes little difference: with a reasonable amount of sunlight and water and love, flowers — like children — will bloom.
Sunflower Shoots and Muddy Boots is out now.
You can buy the book HERE.