Parenting: The magic by your back door

Celebrity gardeners are encouraging kids to get green fingers this summer, says Sian Griffiths.

When pop star turned television gardener Kim Wilde gave a flower bed in the garden of her Hertfordshire home to her seven-year-old, she didn?t expect him to raid her own patch to stock it. Her daughter Rose, 5, stuck to pansies in her garden but Harry had an altruistic vision. “He took all my mistakes, my failing plants and put them in the middle of his patch ? basically he wants to bring them back to life,” says his proud mum, who is passionate about letting children “live close to the earth”.

It?s a passion shared by a number of celebrity gardeners, including Alan Titchmarsh and Rachel de Thame. This year gardening looks set to be the hot kids’ hobby as top gardeners urge youngsters away from their PlayStations out into the world of compost heaps, ponds and – for Wilde’s children, at least – replica fairies hidden in flowerpots.

Gardening is good for kids, says Titchmarsh, who runs a charity to help schools create nature reserves and enthusiastically relates how “bruiser” schoolboys melt at the sight of a newt. Now, as the voice of the televised Gordon the Garden Gnome – catchphrase “let’s get mucky!” – he has a brand new platform from which to spread the green gospel to under-fives. “When I was a kid the phrase ‘Can I play out?’ was on everyone’s lips,” says Titchmarsh. “These days it’s fallen into disuse. But it is such a great thing being outside and finding out about the world around you – insects, trees, flowers.”

He’s often shocked at the ignorance of today’s children. He tells the story of one little boy who exclaimed “disgusting” on learning that the cow he had seen on a trip from the city was the source of his glass of milk. The solution, he says, is for parents to let children grow their own food: strawberries, raspberries, cherry tomatoes, fast-growing salad and radishes are all edible favourites.

Rachel de Thame is the mother of three, including 14-month-old Emma and agrees with Titchmarsh about the importance of letting children loose in the garden. Already she’s letting Emma explore. “I say smell that flower and she will stoop down and stick her nose in and rummage about,” says de Thame. “There is a plant commonly known as lambs ear, with a felty silvery leaf. My older daughter used to love to stroke it.”

She agrees with Titchmarsh that parents could usefully re-introduce slightly dated pursuits such as flower pressing or bird spotting. “I used to love pressing leaves. It may seem old-fashioned but it’s still something children enjoy.”

For Wilde, whose book about gardening with children is published this month, it’s not just about staying healthy and learning the names of plants and wildlife, it’s also giving kids a magical, Alice in Wonderland experience ? hence the fairies in the flowerpots. She talks lyrically of Harry raiding the raspberry patch and of Rose proudly presenting her with flowers from the wildlife meadow even while she visualises the headless stalks and thinks, “Oh God, it took me ages to plant that.”
They do garden art: Harry does “Andy Goldsworthy type pieces, cutting heads off my allium, making swirls in gravel, picking marigolds,” she says. “It’s creative.”

So how can you encourage your kids to get green fingers? All three experts agree that you must give your children a decent bit of soil. No good giving them “that shady bit with poor earth that nothing will grow in”, says Titchmarsh, they’ll just get disheartened.

Buy them miniature tools. And take them to the garden centre to choose plants. Don’t use chemicals ? just in case they nibble a worm. Though Titchmarsh takes a robust line: “There’s an old Yorkshire saying, ?You’ll eat more than a peck of muck before you die’.”

Oh, and make sure ponds are safe – children can drown in unsupervised gardens. Wilde says she got rid of her large pond in favour of a manageable water feature when her two were toddlers.

It all sounds very worthy but gardening? For kids? Isn’t it a little, well, fuddy-duddy? For de Thame’s older children, Lauren, 16, and Joe, 13, definitely. “Teenagers have no interest at all,” she sighs. It’s uncool to be seen with a trowel and dirty fingernails.

However, for the under-10s gardening could be the business this summer. And there’s always the chance that you could be sowing the seeds for your very own celebrity gardener later in life. Already Rose and Harry are saying they want to be “planters” like their mummy, says Wilde.

So, she advises: “Next time you’re thinking of going to the cinema and splurging £30, why not just pop off to the garden centre, get trowels, compost and a few plants and have a lovely afternoon outside?”