Imogen’s eyes light up as she spies the bright green watering can in the shape of a frog.
She hastily dusts the soil off her fingers on to her dress in her eagerness to claim her amphibian prize.
Next to her, gardening centre worker Victoria Middleton shows my two-year-old how to carefully sprinkle water over the seedlings she’s spent the last few minutes potting with her tiny trowel.
She listens with wide eyes as Victoria explains that, very soon, the tomatoe seeds will start to bear fruit. She eyes the pot in wonder and I can see her brain trying to connect these small green plants with the big red tomatoes in our fridge back home.
And that’s exactly when National Children’s Gardening Week is all about - sparking an interest.
“It’s so important that we start engaging children in gardening while they’re young,” explains Victoria, of Dronfield, who has worked at Ferndale Garden Centre in Coal Aston for the past three years.
We don’t want to end up with a generation that doesn’t know how to grow plants
“It’s like cooking, it could easily become a lost skill unless we make the effort to inspire a passion for it in our children. We don’t want to end up with a generation of adults who don’t know how to grow and look after plants - then where would we be?”
It’s this very thinking that inspired Ferndale’s managing director Neil Grant to launch National Children’s Gardening Week last year, with a series of activities at the Sheffield centre to encourage a whole new line of gardeners. The seeds he planted with that first event really took hold and, this year, more than 50 gardening centres around the UK have joined in to celebrate National Children’s Gardening Week.
“It’s fantastic the way people have embraced it,” says 57-year-old Neil, who has managed the family-run gardening centre for 34 years.
“We helped 400 children pot plants in the first two days of half term this year, so we’re expecting more than 1,000 children through our doors by the end of this week. It’s wonderful that something that started as a small local event has now become a national campaign, connecting us with families and communities and getting children growing and eating vegetables.”
And there’s a reason Neil chose this week: “This is the perfect week for gardening in the UK,” he explains,
“We’re past the last frosts and can give children a tomato plant and know that it will grow perfectly in their garden without the need for a greenhouse or any special heating.
“Children are so excited at the possibility of growing something that they can actually eat, it’s amazing to them. We had one customer this week who told us his son would never touch vegetables until he started helping to grow them in the garden. Now he loves to go out and pick them, help his parents to cook them and has gotten really adventurous trying all the different things they’ve grown; it’s perfect.”
“Schools have also really started to embrace gardening in a big way, and lots of them have gardening clubs and small allotments, as there is all sorts of additional things that you can get out of gardening at an educational level - everything from maths to learning about life cycles.
“When my own children were young, my wife and I were big believers in teaching them about gardening and, to this day, they’re all really keen gardeners.”
As well as potting tomatoes in hanging baskets, staff at Ferndale have been working with children all week to grow their own popcorn, paint bird boxes and even create their own mini fairy gardens.
Neil says: “We wanted children to be able to try their hands at seed sowing, but we also thought it was important to introduce them to bird boxes. In recent years, our gardens have become much less attractive to birds, with far too much focus on concrete and driveways, and birds do a good job of eating a lot of nasty things, so there’s a real need to use things like bird houses to attract them back into our gardens.”
And Neil says it’s not just the practicalities of gardening that make it so important.
“A massive amount of research has revealed gardening is great for relaxation,” he confirms.
“It’s a great way to reduce stress and take some time out to create something useful, something beautiful, it’s beneficial on so many levels.”
Victoria adds: “Ferndale’s always has a focus on children’s gardening and it’s great to see children running around, playing hide and seek in among the plants, asking questions and treating it like a secret garden. That’s what it’s all about.”
Ferndale is running two competitions over the summer, to inspire young green-fingered gardeners to give growing a go. Everything you will need can be collected from Ferndale this weekend, when staff will be on hand to offer their assistance as part of National Children’s Gardening Week.
* The longest trailing petunia competition: children can pick up a trailing petunia for £1 and grow it any way they like over the summer.
* The tallest sunflower competition: pot up a sunflower seed in your free pot, take it home and grow it in your garden. Both competitions will be judged on September 10.
Ferndale Garden Centre for more details.