On safari in the garden
“Mum, worms have special powers!” trilled the voice of my four-year-old.
“Mmmmm,” I replied – distracted because I was trying to remember which part of the allotment I grew the potatoes in last year.
“I just chopped a worm in half with my spade and both halves are still alive! It's amazing!”
Appalled as I was, it struck me that this is a rite of passage for a small boy, a ritual that is part of the voyage of discovery into the natural world. The journey begins under the feet of your mother in the garden.
Even in the middle of the city, the garden is a place we share with wild animals, often our first experience with nature. For many of us it remains, throughout our life – well into the older bits – the place where we have most of our encounters with the natural world: its seasons, plants, whims and creatures.
As spring explodes we spend every moment we can in the garden. The boys watch as nest boxes, painted through the dull winter days, now come to life with new inhabitants.
Together they turn over a huge stone and squatting, peer at the creatures underneath. I, meanwhile, relish the warmth of the sun on my skin and plant potatoes that we will dig up together. I find something reassuring in the timeless task and the feel of the soil.
I look up from the compost heap to see that my seven-year-old is wandering around with my camera, though I don’t tell him off. Instead, I watch him bend and carefully take some photos of a daffodil, then he spends a good half an hour watching the different birds on the feeder, trying for ‘the shot’, an out of focus image that will be barely recognizable as a bird but means that he can already tell a blue tit from a great tit.
These shared, unplanned days in the garden are often the closest thing we will get to the wilderness. They are days of adventure and revelation, of education and connection: not days that cost a fortune but days that are priceless - my favourites.
Top spots to take the kids on a garden wildlife safari:
Dense shrubs: Very, very carefully take a look into the very heart of your largest, oldest shrubs and see if you can spot a nest of blackbirds or robins. As long as you keep your distance, stay very still and don't touch, you can watch their antics for hours.
Wildlife towers: Stack pallets on top of each other and fill with hollow stems, wood drilled with holes, stones, slates and straw: you'll find it's quickly colonised with bees, lacewings, ladybirds and other creepy-crawlies.
Underneath things: Gently turn over planks of wood, bricks, sheets of corrugated iron or large stones to spot the vast range of creatures sheltering underneath. Woodlice, beetles, toads, and maybe even a slow-worm or two will be enjoying the cool, damp shade.
In the pond: Use a small net to go pond-dipping. Garden ponds are packed with wrigglies including tadpoles, newts, caddisfly larvae and water boatmen. Treat everything gently and put it straight back when you're done.
After dark: The garden takes on a whole different character after the sun sets. Take a blanket and a torch outside just around bedtime, and sit very still: you might spot creatures too shy to come out by day, like mice, voles or even hedgehogs.
Underground: Little boys love to dig, so arm them with a trowel and go worm-hunting. Any open ground will do – or you can look in the compost heap. Then fill a large jar with soil, pop them on top, and watch them burrow.
Philippa Forrester is a wildlife presenter and author of 'Halcyon River Diaries', accompanying her BBC TV series of the same name.