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How to get your kids off screens and into gardens

You know the struggle. Chilling with the laptop/TV/tablet for company is always tempting — but getting a kid outdoors can be that bit easier, thanks to these five expert tips.

It’s getting cold, school’s tiring, and there’s every reason to chill inside with the laptop/TV/tablet for company — but getting a kid out in the garden/ park/ allotment is always going to be a win.

To help get kids interested in plants (hey, maybe even growing them!) we’ve enlisted the expertise of uber plant geek, and University of Oxford botanist, Dr Chris Thorogood. His new book, When Plants Took Over The Planet, features insect-eating plants, pre-historic dino plants, and ones with healing properties. It’s fascinating stuff.

Between his gorgeously-illustrated book and the little experiments he suggests to engage kids (aimed predominantly at the pre-school through to mid-primary-school age group), there’s a few little gems to ponder.Find out how to win a copy of the book, below, and read on for an extract about ideas for involving kids in the garden.

PLANT A TREE FOR THE FUTURE

The trees you see growing around you all started as tiny seeds, many years ago. Just as you enjoy trees planted by people long ago, you can plant your own tree that others will enjoy in years to come. Isn’t that amazing?

Here’s what you need to do:
1. Find a few tree seeds. There will be lots lying on the ground in the autumn. Acorns, conkers and sweet chestnuts should be easy to find.

2. Plant three of the seeds in a large pot full of compost. Push the seeds down to the depth of your little finger.

3. Keep the pot damp and check for signs of growth in the spring. If all three sprout, weed out the weaker two to leave one strong seedling.

4. Once the sapling is as long as your arm, it is time to plant it in the ground. With an adult, find a space where the tree will have plenty of room. You will need to water it often in its first year after planting.

THINK HIGH AND LOW

Many local parks contain living fossils in the form of conifers. A stroll down your street can be a glimpse back even further, into the Permian: ginkgos are often planted on roadsides and these trees date back 270 million years! Remember to look down as well as up, to find miniature forests of mosses and liverworts at your feet. They are relatives of the very first plants to have conquered the land some 470 million years ago.

PLANT A FOSSIL FOREST

Why not plant your own prehistoric forest? You can grow plants that ruled the Earth long before the first dinosaurs on your windowsill!

What to do:

1. Collect a handful of moss – look in the moist, shady places in a garden. But don’t take moss from a wild habitat (such as a forest) and make sure you ask for permission if you’re collecting it from someone else’s garden.

2. Wash the moss carefully with rainwater, or with water that has been boiled and left to cool.

3. Find a clean glass container such as a large jam jar and fill the bottom few centimetres with a layer of clean pebbles or marbles.

4. Add a thin layer of potting compost and place the moss you have collected on top.

5. Put the lid on the jar and place it in a light position out of direct sunlight, such as a north-facing windowsill. Then watch your magical moss forest grow!

PRESSED FOR TIME?

Cut plants will wilt and eventually rot. Botanists (scientists who study plants) preserve specimens by pressing and drying them. The specimens are stored in vast collections called herbaria, which keep a record of which plants were growing in a given place and time.

Why not press your own specimen? Find a leaf or flower and place it on a piece of board or thick paper. Cover with a piece of paper, then place something heavy and flat on top, like a large book. After 3–4 weeks, your leaf should be completely dry and ready to mount.

CREATE A SEED BANK

Banks save money for the future. A seed bank saves plants for the future! Seeds from many different plants are stored in seed banks. The seeds are stored at freezing temperatures in vast underground vaults protected from the outside world. If they are needed in the future, they will be able to grow. Why not create your own seed bank?

Remember, some seeds are poisonous! Do not eat any seeds and wash your hands after handling them.

1. Gather your seeds. Most plants will produce seeds in late summer and autumn. Put them in dry paper envelopes and label each one with the name of the plant, or a description of it, and the date.

2. After two weeks, check that the seeds are dry inside the envelopes. Then put them in their long-term home: a big glass jar is perfect.

3. Keep the pot damp and check for signs of growth in the spring. If all three sprout, weed out the weaker two to leave one strong seedling.

WIN A COPY OF THE BOOK!

To celebrate the changing season, we’re giving away FIVE copies of sweet new children’s book When Plants Took Over The Planet, by Dr Chris Thorogood (a botanist at University of Oxford) on our Instagram.

About the Author

Dr Chris Thorogood is a botanist at the University of Oxford, and an illustrator and public speaker.

About the Artist

Amy Grimes is a London-based illustrator who graduated from Camberwell College of Art. Amy is inspired by nature and this is reflected in her bold illustrations, botanical motifs and leafy landscapes.

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