Baroness Floella Benjamin is an icon of kids’ TV and an RHS Vice President. Here she shares her advice on how to help children love gardening
Baroness Benjamin came to the UK in 1960 from Trinidad and began presenting Play School in 1976. She has received an OBE for services to broadcasting, a damehood, joined the House of Lords as Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham and, in 2022, was awarded the Order of Merit. She’s also vice president of children’s charity Barnardo’s.
How did you get interested in gardening? My mum was the most incredible natural gardener. We grew up on the beautiful Caribbean island of Trinidad. In that warm sunny climate you could plant just about anything and it would spring up and flourish. She grew all sorts of plants, including fruit and vegetables, and the garden was always full of beautiful flowers in bright colours, swarming with butterflies and bees. Everything she touched seemed to flourish and blossom. I would run around all over the place and climb the mango trees – there was such a sense of freedom in those days, that’s why I love nature so much.
What inspires you most about gardening? I love the sheer, simple beauty of creation – flowers can be so intricate and yet so simply put together. I’m a bit of a photographer too, so I’m always taking photos of them. In particular I love blossom time. It’s such a special time – I’m in heaven – until the wind steals all the flowers from the trees! They give me such a wonderful sense of excitement and joy, and a refreshing feeling from head to toe.
How did you encourage your own children to love gardening? We live in south London with a good-sized garden. We’ve lived here 42 years and from the outset I insisted that both my children each had their own little patch to look after. We built them a tree house so they could have their own adventures – just as I used to climb the mango trees! When their friends came round to play they would squeal with absolute delight and rush to go and play in it. In 1981, when my son Aston was born, I planted a deep, ruby-red rose bush for him; then when my daughter Alvina came along seven years later I planted a delicate pink one for her. Since then I’ve measured what’s happening in their lives by the way their roses are blooming and blossoming! Those roses are very precious; everything in my garden has some sort of significance.
What can parents do to inspire children to try gardening? If you have a garden, delegate a small patch to growing food so they can learn where vegetables come from, connecting the earth to the food on their plate. Grow herbs, salads and vegetables – anything that you can bring to the table. I love growing herbs and have lots of fragrant thyme, rosemary, basil and lemon balm that I use regularly when I’m cooking. If I’m doing a nice curry I’ll just pop into the garden and grab a few handfuls of thyme. It tastes delicious. Plus a fun activity to do, if you have a left-over onion, carrot or potato in the cupboard that’s too far gone to eat, is to try planting it and then wait to see whether anything comes up.
Are there any easy-to-grow plants you could recommend? Good plants to grow are daffodils and busy lizzies – they’re easy and you get a beautiful abundance of flowers and colours.
Which hands-on activities are good for getting kids interested in plants? You can encourage children to press their favourite flowers as keepsakes. I discovered a pressed flower in an old schoolbook recently. It was such a lovely treasure to find and brought back all sorts of memories. I was really excited about the children’s picnic held at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show. I’ll never forget how my mum would take us for a picnic and we’d sit on the grass eating peanut butter sandwiches! Picnics are a great idea, and making daisy chains. These activities are especially good if a family doesn’t have much money. Simple little things are often the most memorable.
What can families do if they don’t have their own garden? If you live in a flat you can still grow tomatoes, runner beans, herbs or peas on a balcony or windowsill; just do what you can. The magic of sowing from seed is that plants don’t just grow for rich people with acres of land; they grow for everyone, which leads to a really wonderful sense of empowerment. Nature is free! I remember visiting a school in north London where the teacher had dug up a corner of the playground to show the children how to grow vegetables. Just seeing their excitement as they told me ‘We grew potatoes!’ was an absolutely amazing experience.
Why is this subject so close to your heart? I’m really passionate about encouraging children to take up gardening – it helps to give them ownership of their wellbeing, improves mental health, reduces anxiety, teaches them patience, beauty and where their food comes from. I’d love for other people to experience the joy that I feel when I’m gardening.
The interview originally appeared in The Garden August 2023