There are key differences between gardening with school children and pre-schoolers. Firstly, you are dealing with two, three and four-year-olds. They have shorter attention spans, less dexterity and are physically less strong than their school counterparts, so this has to be taken into account when planning activities.
Also, many pre-schoolers will only be attending part of the week. For this reason, I repeat activities over a fortnight and try to run the club on a different day each time so as many as possible have the chance to join in.
Below is a term-by-term guide to pre-school gardening club activities. Please do feel free to add your own ideas and experiences in the comments section - I would like this to become a resource for anyone who is running a gardening club or considering setting up a similar group.
Weeks 1 & 2 Harvesting vegetables and fruit – Well, provided some well meaning person has actually remembered to water them throughout the summer holidays which can be a bit hit and miss - something of an irrigation lottery if you will. Also, weeding the beds is a useful, post summer holiday job.
Weeks 3 & 4 Planting winter hanging baskets – I’m not a lover of these but they do give instant results and the garish colours of winter flowering pansies always appeal to the under-5s. You can also use these as a good fundraiser for your pre-school.
Weeks 5 & 6 Sunflower seed saving - Simply keep and dry a seeded sunflower head and then the children can design their own seed packets and take out seeds from the head to sow next year. There is a useful templates for seed packets here or you can simply decorate envelopes.
Weeks 7 & 8 Planting out winter vegetables – We made our own cloche and then planted garlic, onions and beans. Not sure these are top of any child’s ‘best veg ever’ poll but our options were limited.
Weeks 9 & 10 Make an insect hotel - this will encourage beneficial insects to overwinter in your garden and the children will have great fun collecting items to fill the 'floors'.
Weeks 11 & 12 Plant bulbs – We did layers of tulips, daffodils and crocus bulbs, but even planting a single bulb will give them something to look out for in the spring.
Weeks 13 & 14 Make Christmas cress elves – after all, everyone knows cress is the perfect accompaniment to mince pies…
Due to the cold weather and lack of easy jobs, we don't usually begin gardening club until after the half term break but there is nothing to stop you doing plenty of windowsill gardening. You could try:
Weeks 1 & 2 Tidy up the garden and prepare - Clear away the leaves, pull up any weeds and cut down old, dead growth on the permanent planting. Also, the children can help wash out old plastic plant pots ready for sowing - this involves water and the potential to get soaking wet so is always popular with the under 5s.
Week 3 & 4 Plant bare rooted fruit trees and soft fruit bushes - we are limited on room so we have planted a small family apple tree. We also planted an edible hedge on the edge of our plot using autumn raspberries, but if you have more space you could look at the inspirational mixed edible hedge in one of the gardens at BBC Gardeners World Live in 2009 and perhaps try something similar using black, red and white currants, gooseberry and loganberry plants.
Weeks 5 & 6 Sow early crops directly into the soil – carrots, spring onions, peas, mange tout, lettuce, swiss chard, red cabbage, radishes, coriander and sorrel are all good at this time. To give them a better start, you can make a child-friendly cloche to help raise the temperature a little.
Smaller seeds are tricky, particularly for the younger children, so it's worth pouring them onto a white plate so they can be seen more clearly.
Weeks 7 & 8 Sow tender crops – We don’t have a greenhouse, so are limited by the space on my windowsills at home although you could construct a cold frame from old window, replacing the glass with perspex. Try cucumbers, courgettes, peppers, sweetcorn and aubergine and, of course, tomatoes - this year we are growing some tumbling tomatoes which will eventually go into our hanging baskets (a useful resource when space is so limited).
Weeks 1 & 2 Divide clumps of perennial herbs – We have both mint and chives which are easily divided and can even be potted up for the children to take home for their own container herb gardens. It’s also a great way to learn about roots, shoots, bulbs and plant dormancy.
More sowing - this time courgettes, sweetcorn, runner beans and climbing beans started under glass or on windowsills. You can also sow lots of herbs directly such as borage, parsley, dill and chamomile. This is also a good time to plant seed potatoes. If you don't have beds, almost all vegetables and herbs will do just as well in containers - although the rule here is 'the bigger the better'.
Weeks 3 & 4 Sow a mini wildflower meadow – And when I say ‘mini’ I mean ‘mini’ as we will be sowing our in a couple of large containers. These not only look wonderful but are a good way to bring beneficial insects into the garden.
Sow sunflowers - You can let the children start off sunflower seeds in pots to take home and then award a prize at the end of the summer holidays for the largest flower grown. You could also plant a sunflower alley either side of a pathway as a fun means of linking different areas of the garden and a great way for the children to really appreciate the giant blooms.
Weeks 5 & 6 Sow tender crops directly and plant out those raised inside - as long as frosts have passed you can plant out or sow crops such as tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and courgettes. If you have the space you could create a climbing bean wigwam, or, if you have a tiny space like us, you could grow them over an archway instead.
Weeks 7 & 8, 9 & 10, 11 & 12 These last few weeks of the summer term involve a lot of the same jobs...
Watering - this is vital and it's worth investing in large water butts and lots of small watering cans as this is undoubtedly the favourite job of any pre-school gardener. It is also a good way to teach children about rainwater harvesting and the need to value this precious resource.
Weeding - when the weather is dry, it is easy for the older children to use hand tools to get rid of weeds. In general, it is better to avoid giving this job to the tiniest tots as they find it hard to differentiate between weeds and precious young plants.
Sowing - it is a good idea to sow seeds regularly, especially for fast croppers such as lettuce so you can avoid the glut and famine pattern.
Harvesting - we pick and pull as many crops as we can before the end of term so the children have the chance to taste what they've grown. We also use as much produce as possible for part of an end of term picnic or party, or even let the children take fruit and veg home to share with their families.
If you do want help designing and setting up a pre-school gardens, please do visit my website to find out more.