Healthy's new contributor Kim Wilde inspires us all to go outside and get digging this summer.
I've always been a nature girl at heart. I loved my Brownie- and Guide-camp days out in the Hertfordshire countryside, as well as the regular school trips to Cuffley Camp. I especially loved these outdoor adventures in the summer, when the days were longer and the light lasted until nearly nine o'clock. My oldest friend Clare, a born and bred country girl, would teach me the names of local wildflowers as we'd walk for long afternoons in Bramfield Forest on the doorstep to our homes. Clare's parents were vegetable and flower growers, as were many of the new neighbours I met when my family moved to rural Hertfordshire when I was just eight.
In my 20s, I spent most of my time in London (enjoying the 1980s popstar life!) and was far from living the country dream. But my need to be near the country was never far away and my return to the earth began when I moved back to Hertfordshire, in the 1990s. I bought and renovated an old 16th-century barn and, as the renovations meant spending a lot of time outside, I became more and more aware of the changing seasons: the exuberance and freshness of spring; the colour and fragrance of summer; autumn tints on the surrounding hedgerow, and the dark silhouettes of bare winter branches. Little did I know it then, but I was being seduced by nature. After meeting and later marrying my husband Hal, we planned our brand new garden together on a bare canvas of rough grass, which, rather conveniently, was south facing.
Armed only with Rosemary Verey's Garden Plans, and a longing to grow fruit and vegetables, we set out our infant garden including raised vegetable beds, a small herb garden and an avenue of hawthorn trees. My reduced music commitments meant I needed something into which to channel my creativity, so I wasn't content just to potter in the garden. Instead, I enrolled on a horticultural course at Capel Manor College in Enfield, Middlesex, and became a born-again gardening enthusiast.
Since completing the course, our garden has become the beneficiary of my newly acquired knowledge, and continues to expand. Last summer, I enlisted the help of my two favourite boys from Garden Invaders to make a tropical garden area where a pond used to be (I was worried about having a large expanse of water and two children running around.)
Talking of children, getting them involved in gardening is great fun - but needs patience and a cunning plan! As soon as Harry (six) and Rose (four) see me working in the garden they want to help, but of course their kind of help can soon undo all the hard work. Take a deep breath when they deadhead your beloved alliums or dig up that row of radishes, and direct them to their very own plot instead. Having said that, it's good to let them have some creative input with the rest of the garden, too. The seemingly random way kids approach gardening makes for a truly organic garden, as perfectionism goes out of the window and a simple love of choosing and planting seeds takes over. After all, they're better off being encouraged to be outside than inside, even at the cost of a few beloved plants (I talk from experience).
Garden centres sell colourful gardening tools for kids, as well as quick-growing annuals to keep up their interest. Sunflowers are brilliant for growing competitions (the Titan variety can grow up to four metres high), while radishes and peas are easy to grow and yield tasty results for all the family. Last year we had great fun creating miniature gardens in seed trays. We used stems of rosemary, which look just like mini conifer trees, weaved willow stems to make fences, and a tiny water feature was simply made from half an upturned walnut!
But our garden isn't just aesthetically pleasing. We have a herb garden just outside our kitchen door, so much easier for grabbing a bunch when cooking. I use mint in everything from a bowl of home-grown early potatoes to a summer Pimms. Rosemary gets chucked in with the roast chicken, and lemon balm in a relaxing bath. Herbs are easy to grow and the majority need little more than a sunny, free-draining site to thrive. If you plan a herb garden, be sure to include somewhere to sit and breathe in their oils - now that's what I call aromatherapy. Take time to relax in this outdoor sanctuary and recoup your energy, as next issue I'll be talking to you about my health and fitness plans for the summer. Now, where did I put my trainers?
How to... create a tropical garden
With our mild winters and hotter summers, you'd be surprised by the exotic plants you can grow in the UK. Here are my favourites:
Melanthius major (honey bush) is an evergreen shrub treated as herbaceous in this country. Its fabulous blue/green, deeply cut foliage can reach over two metres high. Grow it in a warm position, in humus-rich, well-drained soil, and mulch the crown in winter.
Phoenix canariensis (Canary island date palm) is a tropical evergreen which needs fertile, moist, well-drained soil. It prefers full sun and protection from wind. Protect it in winter by wrapping the leaves in horticultural fleece.
Agave americana (century plant) has vicious, rigid, grey/green fleshy leaves. Not ideal if children are about! It needs free-draining, gritty soil and can reach two metres. Frost won't bother it but plant it at an angle so water can easily drain away.
They all look sensational planted among cannas, dahlias and the stunning purple flowers of Verbena bonariensis.