Today I spent time alongside other gardeners propagating strawberry plants using the classic method of inserting runners into compost filled pots. Nothing unusual there ... except if you heard our conversation you might think differently.
“See my new shoes! They SO PINK!' (lifts shoe in the air and nearly falls over)
“Me have watering can. Mine! Mine! Mine!” (gardening stops whilst UN-style negotiations begin over ownership of said watering can).
“Look! Snail!” (all gardeners crowd round snail for the next five minutes).
Yes. That's right. All my fellow gardeners are under five.
I have been running a gardening club at Hail Weston Pre-School for nearly six years now. It began when my own children attended the pre-school and, although they have long since graduated to primary and junior schools, my club has continued.
For me, pre-school gardening is incredibly important, but sadly overlooked. Whilst the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) has made huge leaps in recruiting primary schools, and even secondary schools to its campaign for school gardening, no-one appears so bothered about the pre-school years.
This seems crazy.
We all know that starting children early pays dividends – not just if you want to create sports stars, gifted linguists or concert pianists – but across the board.
There have been huge strides made in healthy eating because it's become such a focus in pre-school years. Surely growing that food should be just as valued?
Of course there are certain limitations and adjustments to be made when gardening with the under fives. But after a few years I think I have most of these sorted. In fact here are my tried and tested rules of pre-school gardening club.
The first rule of pre-school gardening club is ... you don't talk about pre-school gardening club. Sorry. Got confused there. That's Fight Club isn't it? No, the first rule of pre-school gardening club is: keep it simple. The younger the child, the shorter their attention span so it's best to do set yourself a task that is relatively quick and simple because, once you throw a few pre-schoolers into the mix, it will be neither of those things for long.
The second rule is: always try to give them something to take home. We don't exactly have much garden space but the pre-schoolers often go home with a treasured prize from their garden – perhaps a couple of small potatoes, a packet of seeds they have harvested, or even their own baby strawberry plant.
The third rule is: water is king. There is nothing the kids love more than a watering can – I give you today's argument as a prime example. Always keep watering cans out of sight or getting the children to listen will be as easy as having a conversation with your other half while the football's on.
But even with these limitations, there is an awful lot even the youngest children will pick up. By the end of the school year, my mini gardeners will have helped plant and grow a couple of dozen different crops. What's more they will understand the importance of roots and shoots, the fact that plants take their energy from the sun, what seeds and bulbs need to 'wake them up', how to propagate plants but most importantly of all they will know that gardening is FUN.
Don't get me wrong – I'm not expecting to create an army of Alan Titchmarsh wannabees (although I would just say that horticulture offers a HUGE range of careers and is one of the only employment areas where there is regularly a shortage of applicants). No, my hope is simply that there will be positive associations with gardening, a connection with nature and a nurturing of ... well ... the nurturing instinct.
Then again, it might just make them slightly obsessed with watering cans. And snails. Who knows?