10 Plants for Pollinators in Ireland and UK (and how to plant them)

When we first viewed our new home, I was surprised that the back garden was just grass. There was no fencing on one side of the garden, either, and next door’s back garden (and the one after them) were also just grass. It seems like people on our street just don’t really bother about landscaping.

Mowing the lawn seems to be a pastime here. Most of our neighbours have either a petrol mower or a ride-on petrol mower! I know our garden is large (compared to most of the ones in our price range… still not large enough to accidentally plant the wrong type of willow tree, see below) but seriously, I couldn’t imagine using petrol to mow! Most people do their front lawns weekly and their back ones every two weeks.

When I think about it, I wonder how many “new build” estate houses (ours isn’t that new but it was built in the 21st century) just have a big green blob of grass out back which people mow because heaven forbid any grass actually grow to its full height out there.

I’m looking at our grass-covered garden as a blank canvas. We’ve already completed some big projects this year, such as drainage, but mostly there’s so much that needs doing, we’re basically just getting it ready for next year.

One thing we’re both in agreement on is turning the final metre of garden into a wildflower haven to attract pollinators. One of the best things about high-pollen plants is they are usually very beautiful to look at, too.

Obviously, if you have allergies you need to plan your pollinator garden more carefully but there may still be ways to do it. For example, if you’re allergic to night pollen, plant flowers which produce more pollen during the day and avoid things like night-scented jasmine; if you’re allergic to tree pollen, give your garden height with shrubs instead of trees.

Pollinators are the insects such as bumblebees that pollinate all plants. Pollen-heavy plants attract them, but once they’re here, they will also pollinate your vegetables, fruit trees and other plants as well. And their numbers are decreasing. For more ideas about how to attract pollinators, check out this article.

With that in mind, here are ten plants that attract pollinators and how to plant them:

Buddleia (aka buddleja)

This lovely shrub grows to about 1.5 metres cubed (actually it won’t be cube-shaped, but you know what I mean) and attracts butterflies and bees. I’ve talked about it before in this article.

In many parts of the world, it’s a weed, and you might recognize it if you commute to London on the train as it really likes TfL’s railway embankments. I’ve also seen it thriving in the wild in Belfast, Donegal and Aberdeen so it can definitely cope with everything Britain/Ireland have to offer in terms of temperature/weather!

Buddleja Davidii seems to be the most common buddleia available at the moment, and it comes in several colours/sizes, but there are actually lots of other varieties of buddleia available to buy/plant. As it’s a shrub, it’s usual to buy a ready-grown shrub from a garden centre then plant it in a nice spot and watch it grow, rather than cultivating from seed. I got mine from Letterkenny Homebase and it was about 30cm when I bought it but in the past month it’s already grown to about 45cm.

How to grow buddleia:

Plant out: May-Sep

Flowers: July-Sep

Buddleia allegedly needs full sun and well-drained soil, but in my experience, it’s a very forgiving plant and can tolerate some shade and imperfect soil. If you don’t have good drainage, add horticultural grit or sharp sand to your soil and mix it in. The amount of grit/sand you need depends on the original state of your soil. Buddleia can thrive in partial shade, too, so don’t give up if you don’t have a full-sun spot for it!

Verbena

Growing up to 2m high, verbena can add height and structure to your garden, creating a layered effect when planted along with plants of other sizes. Verbena has purple flowers at the top of long, thin stalks. Visually, it can work well with lavender, sea holly and rosemary.

How to grow verbena:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-May

Flowers: Jun-Sep

Verbena needs well-drained soil that is watered regularly. It prefers full sun but, due to those long thin stalks, it needs to be sheltered from high winds–a difficult twin requirement to pull off unless you have a south-facing garden with a short-ish fence at the bottom. The best way to plant it is by the fence that gets the most sun in your garden, then plant something shorter in front, such as lavender, to protect the verbena’s stalks without obliterating your view of the flowers.

Salvia

The main variety is salvia officinalis, commonly known as the herb sage. But there are tons of other salvias available in all sorts of beautiful colors and sizes. With over 900 subspecies to choose from, some salvias can be quite fussy while others are very hardy. Some other salvias aren’t as attractive to pollinators as they don’t produce enough pollen, so do your homework before placing an order with a nursery.

How to grow salvias:

Sow/Plant out: Apr-Jun

Flowers: Jun-Nov

Salvias need to be in full sun. They also require well-drained soil. If you have heavy soil (such as clay soil) you need to add sand or horticultural grit to your garden and potentially put in a drainage system such as a French drain (named after a Mr. French, not the country). The fussiest salvias are not frost resistant, so plant those ones in containers that can be put in a greenhouse or a potting shed over winter and during cold snaps.

Lavender

With its characteristic fragrance, it’s easy to identify lavender. There are varieties in purple, bluey-purple, pink and pure white, making it easy to match lavender to the rest of your garden’s planting scheme. Most varieties don’t grow too tall, making it an ideal choice for borders. And the visual effect of lavender works extremely well when you plant a section of about 2 metres or more.

Lavender has a reputation for being tricky to grow from seed, but I’ve found it wasn’t, certainly compared to some other plants, such as echinacea. The main two varieties of lavender are English (lavandula angustifolia) which has smaller heads and overall is a more compact plant, and French lavender (lavandula stoechas), which is taller and has these odd long petals that make it look like it grew a ponytail! The French version is more fragrant but the English one is not lacking in scent, either! I’ve grown English lavender from seed this year (see picture above).

How to grow lavender:

Sow/Plant out: Sow indoors March-June; plant out June-Aug.

Flowers: It doesn’t flower in the first year. After that, it should flower Jun-Sep.

Lavenders prefer full sun but they also enjoy growing in partial shade. Their main requirements are excellent drainage alongside a constantly moist soil. In pots or planters, lavender can easily dry out if not watered frequently enough. As far as soil type, they prefer sandy soil, so if you have heavy clay, consider creating a raised bed and adding a hefty amount of sharp sand to the soil to accommodate lavender. They don’t really need extra plant feed or fertiliser. Lavender will die in waterlogged heavy clay.

Campanula Rotundifolia

One of the most beautiful sights along the Donegal coastline is the wild, natural campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell, AKA the harebell) which grows in clumps alongside the sandy paths on the way to the beach.

There are a few other varieties of campanula which you can grow (and 500 worldwide varieties in total). The Scottish bluebell variety is edible and can be used to decorate cupcakes (although the picked flowers will shrivel if left more than a day, of course). I’m not sure about some of the others, but there are other varieties such as campanula rapunculus which are also edible. You can buy the campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebell) variety in packets of seeds, but check the full Latin name of the seeds you’re buying before eating, in case you have one of the other types of campanula.

I’ve noticed Homebase and Tesco in particular are bad at not giving the full genus/species name for plants they’re selling (I have a plant from Tesco that’s just called “aloe” with nothing on the label stating whether it’s aloe vera or aloe barbadensis or something else enirely). This article from Gardener’s World outlines 10 of the most interesting campanulas to grow in the UK/Ireland.

I bought my campanulas. The RRP was €6.45 but I got mine for 50¢ as they were “looking a bit dead”. As you can see from the photo they have perked up a lot over the past two months and are now flowering!

How to grow campanula rotundifolia:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: June to first frost, so usually October in most parts of UK/Ireland

Campanula rotundifolia (Scottish bluebells/English harebells) grow best in well-drained soil, they don’t thrive in waterlogged conditions, but they also don’t enjoy 100% sand soils, because they like a bit of fertility to their soil. They are a coastal plant in Donegal and native to some of the rest of the Irish west coast, too, which tells you they like it wet and well-drained! They don’t require any pruning/maintenance, although you might need to thin them out every so often if you planted a lot of seed close together.

Erica (heather)

If you’ve ever been to the Scottish Highlands, you can’t miss the way the landscape changes from grassy, human-cultivated fields to a magical wilderness where heather takes the place of grass and suddenly the ground is a riot of colour.

Heather can work well in an ericaceous garden (surprisingly, since all heathers are ericas), alongside hydrangeas, rhododendrons and azaleas, although none of these others are especially attractive to pollinators. An ericaceous plant that does appeal better to pollinators is the blueberry bush.

How to grow heather:

Plant out: Depends on type (see below).

Flowers: Depends on type. Some flower at Christmas, due to being accustomed to the colder temperatures of very high latitudes/altitudes, while others are summer-flowering in the UK/Ireland.

Heather thrives in peaty, nutrient-packed soil with a high organic matter content, with high moisture and acidity. It won’t enjoy most clay soils, because clay is generally alkaline (not all clays are like that… test yours with universal indicator paper cheaply available from any soapmaking supplier, or a pH meter if you have cash to splash), so you would have to put heather in a specially-adjusted area of your garden, or grow it in a planter. Planters are difficult for heathers because you have to fertilise regularly to maintain the level of fertility they require, which can be effort for the busy gardener.

Snowdrop

Another plant with a billion different species, the snowdrop (genus galanthus) is a winter-flowering plant. The most common one is galanthus elwesii, and this is the one you might have seen quietly blossoming on the forest floor during a crisp winter walk.

Snowdrops are perennials, and more will grow each year. Thinning is required once a year in March or April (dig them out and plant the extra ones somewhere else) to ensure they’re not competing with each other for nutrients, water and space.

How to grow snowdrops:

Plant out: October/November

Flowers: December-March (depending how far north you are)

Snowdrops like shaded areas such as beneath trees in wooded areas, and they dislike full sun. Most pollinators are hibernating in the winter months, but those who aren’t will surely appreciate your efforts to provide them with some delicious pollen! They require fertile soil rich in organic matter (ideally humus from dead and decayed plants, so compost is a much better choice than manure for snowdrops… think of them as vegetarians). Snowdrops tolerate wet soil, but like most other plants, they don’t like being drowned during heavy rain, so a soil with at least passable drainage is best if you want year after year of snowdrops (remember that when they’re not flowering, the bulbs lie dormant in the ground for the rest of the year). Mostly, if you get the growing conditions right, they’ll take care of themselves (aside from requiring thinning as mentioned above).

Borage

A bright blue plant with distinctive, star-shaped flowers, borage is an edible plant whose flowers can be used as a garnish for dishes, although the leaves can also cause dermatitis if you’ve got sensitive skin, so be careful. Because it’s edible (and non-toxic), borage is a great choice to plant in a child-friendly garden or near your vegetable patch to attract pollinators.

Borage is an annual, so it lives and dies in one lifecycle, but it’s also self-seeding, so when it dies, its flower heads drop seeds that will grow again next year.

How to grow borage:

Sow/Plant out: Sow March-May, plant out May-June

Flowers: June-November (may stop flowering earlier depending on when the first frosts are)

Borage prefers full sun or very partial shade, but it will still survive in a bit more shade and less sun. It also needs well-drained soil. Borage doesn’t grow well in containers as it has a taproot (like carrots and dandelions) that needs at least 30cm of well-drained soil to enable it to grow to its full size, but it’s doable with a very deep container.

Willow trees

The willow tree is one most people have heard of. But did you know there are a lot of different varieties, and there’s almost certainly one which will suit your garden! The fluffy catkins attract pollinators.

Depending on what sort of garden you have, you might want to grow a salix chrysochoma, aka the weeping willow (loves waterlogged soil, but has a huge root network so needs to be about 20m from your house at its full height), or you might prefer a salix alba, the upright white willow, so-called because of its pale trunk, branches and twigs. It prefers a slightly less wet garden but still drinks a lot of water and grows very tall.

If you have a smaller garden, the more compact salix caprea (which grows to only 2m high at its tallest) or salix purpurea pendula (which reaches 2.5m high), both of which will require regular pruning to keep them from looking like a giant birds nest.

How to grow willow trees:

Plant out: All year round. Don’t plant in the middle of a hot sunny day, wait until evening or risk scorching the roots. Likewise, don’t plant out during a frosty spell, the roots might freeze in the cold soil.

Buy a sapling from a garden centre. Check the full Latin name of the tree you are buying to make sure you are getting the right type of willow tree for your garden. If you have a small garden, take care not to buy something from a supermarket that’s just labelled “willow tree” because it’s likely to be one of the tall ones (they’re cute when they’re babies but be sure you have the room for when they reach 20 metres tall).

Willows will mostly take care of themselves but you do need to ensure they have enough water, either by watering them yourself or (better) only planting them if you have a soil that’s damp most of the year around. Prune them in October (it’s illegal to prune trees during bird nesting season which lasts March-September).

Poppy

Another plant with many different varieties to choose from, the poppy is a beautiful wildflower native to the UK and Europe. The most recognizable poppy for anyone who grew up in Great Britain is the red Flanders poppy, which the cardboard November 11th Remembrance Day poppy sold widely in Britain is modeled after. Poppies are easy to grow and some seed companies even do children’s grow-your-own varieties.

Aside from the Flanders poppy, there are also poppies in different colours and sizes to choose from, such as the Himalayan blue (which has the hilarious Latin name meconopsis), the great scarlet poppy, or the bridal white poppy, which in recent decades has become an increasingly-popular symbol of peace in the UK. There’s also the orange Californian poppy and the yellow Mongolian poppy. Really, look at the range on a seed site like Thompson and Morgan and you’ll be amazed at just how many different poppies you can buy!

Be aware that not all poppy seeds are edible, and some can be toxic. Poppies are where the old-fashioned drug opium came from and some countries ban them completely because of this (you cannot get poppy seed rolls in China, for example), so be sure not to try flying with a packet of poppy seeds!

How to grow poppies:

Sow/Plant out: March-June

Flowers: May-July

Some poppies are a little longer-lived than others, but like most summer-flowering plants, they’re best sowed between March-June (although if you live in the Highlands of Scotland or Ireland you might get away with planting them into July). They thrive in almost any soil type (except waterlogged) and prefer full sun or partial shade depending on the variety.

Allium

A tall, gangly plant with a long, thick stalk (like a daffodil’s) and a globe-shaped flowerhead, allium is actually a flowering variety of onion. In fact, if you’ve ever tried growing your own onions, you may have had a couple that flowered instead of becoming onions. If you plant a supermarket onion that has sprouted, it will flower, too (I tried this once).

Alliums are gaining popularity amongst gardeners because they are a structural, geometric-looking plant which is great for pollinators. They’re also fairly easy to grow and can tolerate most soil types.

How to grow allium:

Plant out: Sow directly into the ground in Oct-Nov.

Flowers: May-June

Alliums will grow best in a well-drained soil rich in organic matter, but they’ll tolerate almost every soil type. They are planted in autumn to “overwinter” which means the bulbs will lie dormant in the ground until springtime when they will finally start to grow (much like autumn-planting onions, shallots and garlic, which they’re related to).

Alliums are annuals and I haven’t yet managed to get them to self-seed. The usual advice is to dig them back into the garden (mulching) once the leaves have died.


Read next:

5 ways to attract pollinators to your garden

Bees have been in decline for about the past 15 years. I believe it was 2006 when David Tennant uttered the immortal line on Doctor Who: “Why are the bees disappearing?”

It was a question they never answered. Because no sonic screwdriver, no TARDIS, no noisy battle with the Daleks could fix the problem. The bees ARE disappearing… [read more]

Weekly writing prompt challenge: Average

This week, write 100 words about something average. How do you describe something that’s not big or small, not light or dark, not loud or quiet… just… average?

This is an area I need to work on in my writing. Whenever I need to describe something average, I often find myself staring into space trying to think of some powerful words for a state that has no power. It’s just average. Is average bland? I don’t know why it becomes so dull when I try to write about it. Most things are average. Why doesn’t our language have more ways to talk about them?

Here’s how to take part:

  1. Write a post, including your 100-word response to the challenge, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  2. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  3. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Thursday, I will post the next challenge!

Fussy toddler? 10 easy ways to feed them healthy stuff!

If you listen to some people, all toddlers only eat alfalfa, olives, hummus and organic homemade raw vegan baby recipes that take only ten hours to make. Mine isn’t like that. He likes fish fingers and biscuits.

It’s been pretty easy to get into bad habits this year, as budgets have been squeezed beyond breaking (I earned €6000 last year BEFORE tax due to a toxic combination of factors. For comparison, in 2018, I had several months where that was my monthly earnings), and children get cranky when they’re bored because everywhere is closed and there’s only so many times you can play with the same toys.

One day, I realized I was stuck in a rut with toddler food. My baby had eaten everything and anything when he was a baby, then 20 months hit and BAM just like that he woke up one day and decided to be a fussy eater. Or was he?

In our efforts to get nutrition into him, we would often serve him two or even three different meals to ensure he’d eaten something. After a week of this, I grew deeply worried. How long would it take before he learned that all he had to do was refuse a meal and we’d get him one he liked, instead?

I searched the internet to learn about this and found lots of advice saying basically “If he’s hungry, he will eat,” and “don’t keep changing his meals” but also “don’t deprive him of pudding if he doesn’t eat his dinner.”

A lot of the advice, however, although it said it was aimed at toddlers, absolutely couldn’t work for us because it depended on the toddler being verbal. Ours is a late talker and is still mostly nonverbal. He has no functional language and can’t make himself understood through words. Reasoning with him is impossible.

So I took what I could from other advice but struggled to get it to work. I started putting things in front of him that I knew he would eat. I was scared of letting him go hungry, but was trying to follow the advice that it was bad to keep giving him alternatives if he didn’t like something.

Some nights, the only part of his dinner that he ate was his yoghurt.

My repertoire became more and more limited.

Three weeks ago, I hit breaking point. He refused one of the three things he’d currently eat. I left it on his high chair tray and left the room. I couldn’t participate in this circus anymore. Nothing about this was okay.

I felt inadequate. I was scared of stupid things like him getting rickets. I wanted to cry but most of all I was frustrated. Why won’t you eat? I screamed inside my own head, unable to speak the words because I didn’t trust myself not to shout.

I realized he was eating more variety of things at nursery than at home. So what were we doing different?

After a discussion or three with his nursery keyworker and some hefty research, I came up with a plan. It didn’t involve me becoming a stay-at-home-chef or spending a fortune, it was based in reality, where I don’t have loads of money and spend a lot of my time earning the money I have.

And it worked.

Here’s everything I did to get my fussy toddler to eat:

  1. Start with what he will eat. He liked eggs, and they’re fairly nutritious, but I wasn’t cooking them very often because washing up after scrambled egg is a nightmare (our dishwasher can’t seem to clean it off, and our tap water doesn’t get very hot or high pressure, so it’s a hard scrubbing job every time). So I decided to try boiled eggs. They taste similar but are faster to cook and require less cleanup. They have similar nutrients to scrambled egg, when served with buttered toast. I tried this and it was a big hit. Eggs are cheap and healthy. I feel way less bad feeding him an egg than giving him fish fingers.
    Working with what he will eat is especially important for toddlers with texture issues. If your toddler won’t eat specific textures, find the ones he’s currently eating and try and find similar things. For example, mine likes fish fingers, so vegetable fingers also worked for us. I thought battered chicken nuggets would be a great next step, but he didn’t like them at all (wrong texture, it has to be breaded for us, we learned). But don’t get disheartened! Each food refusal helps you narrow down which specific textures/tastes your toddler will eat.
  2. Find or cook choices with hidden veg. We don’t ever feed him chips, but he does like potato waffles. A healthier option is ASDA’s mini-waffles with hidden carrot. Carrots have lots of B-vitamins. Those Roots cauliflower bites are another way to sneak veg onto his plate. Both of these are easy oven food but healthier than the usual options.
  3. Ban biscuits. Sugary, over-processed snacks can actually restrict your palate! That’s why at fancy restaurants they serve dishes with wine rather than fizzy drinks. The sugar in fizzy drinks (soda/pop) wreaks havoc on your taste buds. The same is true for toddlers. By letting the flavoured, sugary yoghurts run out and also insisting my husband feed NO MORE BISCUITS to our toddler for a couple of days (ignoring the tantrums), our little one’s mouth got a chance to reset and he was willing to try more stuff. My husband was in the habit of giving the toddler half a biscuit whenever he asked for one. Including while I was cooking dinner. This then affected Jellyfish’s taste buds so he didn’t like what he was served.
  4. Swap unhealthy snacks for healthy ones. Some ideas include veg sticks (carrot, cucumber or red pepper), chopped fruit (apple, mango, halved grapes or halved cherry tomatoes), raisins or other dried fruit (apricots, bananas).
  5. Bake your own. There are recipes for healthy, savoury muffins and biscuits on lots of sites across the internet. When you cook your own snacks, you take control of the ingredients; for example, you have the power to swap sugar for other sweeteners.
  6. Change white bread for wholemeal. I was scared to do this, but our toddler actually prefers wholemeal because it tastes like Weetabix. So now he eats more of his toast, and that toast contains more fibre. Try it with pasta and rice, too.
  7. Keep offering things he isn’t eating. This also unsettles me. It feels wasteful. I grew up in a house where we didn’t have much money. But by prepping and serving fruit and veg even when he won’t eat it, you’re giving him the option to change his mind and try it.
  8. Don’t eat rubbish in front of him. Chocolate, crisps, biscuits, cake… eat them during his nap or after he’s gone to bed. Toddlers copy you because they want to be just like you. You’re their parent and therefore they think everything you do is amazing. If you or your partner are turning your nose up at veg and expecting the toddler to eat it, what message does that send? If the toddler never sees you eating chocolate, he will never know it’s in the fridge, and he’ll never be moved to try it.
  9. Meal plan. If you sit down and plan in advance what you’re feeding him, you are less likely to come home from work feeling like you’re on the back foot, which leads to reaching into that freezer and pulling out the chicken nuggets (or in our case, fish fingers; we can’t get him to eat chicken). Tied into this, be sure to rotate things. Toddlers get bored of the same thing day in day out. Try and have a weekly rotation so he’s not eating too much of the same food each day.
  10. Change the drinks. Fruit juice is healthy for toddlers, right? Sadly, not. Even fresh fruit juice should be watered down with 4 parts water to 1 part fruit juice for a two-year-old. It’s also bad for their teeth. Milk (or Alpro Growing Up Milk if you’re dealing with CMPA without a soy intolerance) contains calcium, vitamins and minerals not found in water or fruit juice. One issue we’ve had with Growing Up Milk is, it’s super-sweet, especially compared to cow milk, which exacerbates the issues I mentioned in point 3. Now, we give him cow’s milk during the day and Growing Up Milk for night feeds (he stopped breastfeeding two months ago) so he gets his milky nutrition.

Bonus tips for getting fussy ASD/ADHD toddlers to eat:

  1. Change the cutlery. This can make a big difference for us. The wrong spoon can really put our toddler off eating. Sometimes, the best cutlery is none at all. Other times, he insists on attempting to eat toast with a spoon and won’t accept this isn’t going to work until he’s tried it.
  2. Change the container. Sometimes this can work, too. He likes eating off some bowls/plates more than others. His favourite, however, is no bowl, so finger food placed directly on the high chair’s tray can work well on particularly hard days.
  3. If they like something, say the name of the food (as simply as possible) when you give it to them, so they associate the word with the food they like. So I say “egg” when he’s enjoying scrambled or boiled egg.
  4. Let them see it in a way they understand. I found pulling the boiled egg out of the egg cup to show him it was an egg made the difference when he first refused a boiled egg. Another thing that helped was dipping his toast for him so it came out with yolk on it. At first the egg looked all white inside because of where the yolk was, but when he saw the yellow, he remembered it was something he likes.

One important thing we’ve learned since our little one started acting like a toddler is how much his behaviour feeds off the attention he gets. He’s still very impressionable, and he can’t talk very much to express himself, so sometimes we can accidentally teach him the wrong things.

When he started throwing himself on the floor and having tantrums every time he didn’t get his own way, at first we tried hugging him and reassuring him. This meant he did it more, because he got attention and cuddles. When we realized, we employed the one-handed clapping method.

One hand can’t clap. We walk away now and pretend to be very busy with anything else at all (I’ve been known to pick up a box of tissues and start reading the label to make it clear I’m not paying any attention to the toddler). The tantrums very quickly stopped.

Don’t make dinner into a show. Some toddlers can accidentally become performance eaters, where dinner turns into a huge drama. This can feed into a bigger issue. If mealtimes are the only times your baby gets your undivided attention, he’s going to eat slowly, refuse to eat so you pick up the spoon and coax him, and do anything else he can to get that one-on-one time to last.

We nip this in the bud in two ways: First, we give him the food and the spoon/fork then step back and focus on something else. Your own food, if you’re eating beside him, or your knitting or something. Second, we make time earlier and later in the evening to sit with him and play in a constructive way to ensure he gets the extra attention he needs (this also works for tantrums). Step back when he demands negative attention and ensure he is getting positive attention for other things.

Hopefully this article has helped you with some easy ideas for how to get your fussy toddler to eat more healthily. Every baby is different, however, and what works for one might not work for others. If I find the magic bullet that transforms fish finger fiends into quinoa-lovers, I’ll be the first to write about it.

Super-fast vegan pasta salad

This healthy and nutritious vegan recipe takes fifteen minutes at the most including pasta cooking time. Perfect for a busy family’s midweek dinner or weekend lunch.

When I was at univeristy, I had a friend from Catalonia who had a completely different view of cooking to me. When I went vegan for the first time in 2008, it wasn’t really something people had heard of. My family were very critical of my decision and made it difficult to eat because of the constant criticism.

In hindsight, I think I must have hit a nerve and accidentally unveiled their own insecurities surrounding their food choices, because I don’t naturally evangelize and never have, I’ve always wanted to be left alone to eat what I want and not to be forced to eat something just because someone else thinks I ought to.

My friend and I went to stay with my dad for a couple of weeks in Edinburgh and he nonstop went on and on (and on, and on) about how veganism was stupid and pointless and the only way to eat was to be vegetarian (he brought me up vegetarian until my mum left him when I was 5).

My friend was a meat-eater but she always defended my decision to eat whatever I wanted. One day we went to the supermarket and I was stuck for ideas, she suggested I make a pasta salad. I confessed I had no idea how to make one. She told me that where she grew up, pasta salad wasn’t the same as here. It was literally pasta and salad, with dressing over both.

From that one comment, I came up with this delicious pasta salad which has been a staple in my lunchtime repertoire for the last 12 years.

Ingredients:

Leafy vegetables of your choice. My favourites include iceberg lettuce, baby spinach, rocket and watercress. You can also buy ready-made salad bags with these things in them from the supermarket.

Pasta: Allow 80-100g uncooked pasta per person. I usually do it by eye these days.

Vegan soft cheese such as tofutti, scheese, violife (not as flavoursome as the others) or you could make your own homemade vegan soft cheese. Alternatively, you could use hummus, vegan pesto or something similar.

30g sunflower seeds (or other seed/nut of your choice. I like sunflower specifically because they’re high in calcium as well as protein)

Method:

Put the pasta on to boil. If you have a pinch of fresh thyme or oregano, add it to the pot!

When the pasta is cooked (8-10 mins, taste test if you’re unsure; it should be firm but not crunchy), drain and mix in a large dessert spoon of the soft cheese or hummus. Add more if you like your food saucier!

In a serving bowl, put your salad leaves, then add the pasta, and finally sprinkle the sunflower seeds on top.

Serve.

Add more veg: Chopped tomatoes go well with this.

Recycled sensory wall for babies

This was a great fun project to do and you probably already have everything you need for it as it’s 100% recycled. I did this project in September 2020. We were living in rented accommodation last year and one of the issues is you can’t attach anything to the walls (pretty standard rule in rented houses in the UK, where we lived at the time).

Senses: Touch, vision, sound.

Skills: Helps refine baby’s motor skills.

Baby age at time: 13 months old.

Cost: £0

Time to make: About 30 minutes.

Start off with a big piece of cardboard. We used one of the boxes that Jellyfish’s cot (US English: Crib) came in. We had been using the box as a fireguard (we didn’t use the fire at our old house as it was a real smoke fire and I don’t think they’re great especially around babies).

For a few months I’d saved empty packets of wet wipes with the plastic clasps (rather than the flimsy sticky lids many of them have). These are great for a peekaboo wall. Using a pair of scissors, I cut out the clasps, leaving a decent-sized square of the packaging around the clasp so there was something I could tape down.

I taped the clasps to the cardboard on all four sides. Next, I got some old leaflets and packaging out of the recycling. I chose ones with brightly-coloured pictures and I cut them out. I taped the pictures behind the wet wipe clasps and also put pictures on top to ensure Jellyfish knew these were something interesting.

I also got some multicoloured rainbow washi tape from Amazon and used it to attach empty toilet roll tubes to the sensory wall so he could have fun pulling them off again.

Baby’s verdict: He saw the pictures of cars on the clasps and immediately went to play with them. He pulled the clasps open and found more pictures behind them! He had a lot of fun with these little “mystery doors”. It took him about two or three weeks to rip all the pictures off the wet wipe packets. I stuck them back on a few times. When we moved to a new country, however, the sensory wall was no more, but his motor skills did improve from playing with this toy regularly and he was able to open other things more confidently.

It’s a super-simple toy but he’s had a lot of fun out of it! I was sad to finally consign this to recycling when we moved to our new house in Ireland.

Weekly writing prompt challenge: Giraffe

Write 100 words on the theme of “giraffe”. Interpret any way you wish.

Here’s how to take part:

  1. Write a post, including your 100-word response to the challenge, any words of explanation or inspiration you wish to share, and a link to this challenge page.
  2. Comment on this post with a link to your page so others can see your contribution.
  3. That’s it! Super easy.

This challenge will stay open for one week, then next Thursday, I will post the next challenge!

Our 12 favourite books for babies and toddlers under 2

I bought loads of books for Jellyfish before he was born. We were living in China at the time so every time I flew to the UK or America on a business trip, I would stop into a bookshop and pick up more baby books.

I really wanted our bundle of joy to have the gift of reading. He had other ideas. He’s a wiggly, mobile, bouncy baby on the move who has turned into a toddler who prefers to play outside rather than being indoors, and doesn’t really sit still for a story very often.

He likes books that do something. They need to be more than just words and pictures, otherwise he just wants to do something else.

He listens to stories standing up and needs time to move around the room between pages. Often, he doesn’t let me read all the words on the page before he turns the page to see what’s next. We abandoned the idea of putting him to bed with a story when he started trying to climb out of his cot and play at bedtime. I honestly never expected babies to do anything other than sit and watch the pages turn when a story was read to them, it never occurred to me that there were other types of people in the world, but here we are, and I love my wiggly baby very much.

The books that have grabbed his attention:

That’s Not My Bus

We have had to buy this twice, now. The first book got played with until it fell apart, over the space of a few weeks. The second time, I bought it in French to expand our bilingual library. I don’t like the weak design of the “that’s not my…” series, and judging by Amazon reviews, I’m not the only person who thinks these books could have been made a bit more robust, but Jellyfish loves this type of book so we have to keep bending over and paying for more of them. We also have That’s Not My Tractor, Car and Giraffe. Each one has slightly different textures/explanations but the basic structure remains the same.

Amazon US (Bus isn’t available in US yet, link for That’s Not My Tractor)

Amazon UK

Rabbit’s Nap

This was a surprise winner from Grandma. When it first arrived, Jellyfish wouldn’t even let me open it, the book went straight in his mouth and he had chewed a corner out of it before I could say, “can you believe what the baby is doing?” We put it on a high shelf for a couple of months and when I brought it back out, Jellyfish was ready for the story. He likes that the lift-the-flaps coincides with onomatopoeia, such as “rat-a-tat, who’s that?” (accompanied by me knocking on the book while saying “rat-a-tat” because every good story needs sound effects), and he has learned several new animal names from this book, as well as the word “bike” and the fact bikes go “ding-ding” when you ring the bell.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Red Car, Green Car

This was an instant hit from Grandma. You pull the flaps and the cars change colour. There’s no real story but Jellyfish doesn’t care. He just wants to watch the cars change colour. It’s quite a robust book but he’s still managed to pull one of the pages apart and remove the part that makes the car change colour.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

The Gruffalo board book

I felt a bit decadent buying this when we already had the full-sized picture book version, but it found its way into the trolley at ASDA anyway. It’s got a very shortened version of the original story, which rhymes at a shorter interval, meaning Jellyfish can focus on it easier. And he loves pulling the tabs to get the different animals to move as they flee the Gruffalo.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

What’s Up Crocodile (With Flaps)

We borrowed this from the library and then had it all over lockdown as the library was closed. It doesn’t have pull tabs or lift-the-flaps, but each double page is actually a folded down triple-page-spread so you can unfold the third page to get the next part of the story which Jellyfish really loved. This was where he first encountered skiing and cycling. We would get to the end of this book and he’d close it then turn it over so the front page was facing me, then he would push the book into my hand to ask me to read it again. I was quite sad when we finally returned it to the library 9 months after we first borrowed it, when we moved away from Belfast.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Little Tikes Little Baby Bum Singing Storybook

This was another instant hit. This one has no stories, but each page has a push-button which sings one of the songs from the TV show. Jellyfish was so surprised the first time he heard Five Little Ducks and realized it was coming from this book, not from the TV (which was off at the time).

Amazon US

Amazon UK

1,2,3 (With Squeaker Surprise)

This is a very simple bath book about counting to five. It tells you to press the squeaker as you count the animals on each page, culminating in the dramatic climax of five quacking ducks (press the squeaker five times). The squeaker isn’t positioned for little hands so he’s never been able to squeak it by himself but he loves when I read it to him and he has pulled it out of the bathroom several times and brought it into his bedroom to ask me to read it when it’s not bathtime.

Amazon US (out of print but if you see it secondhand for about $5 it’s great)

Amazon UK

Noises

This was Jellyfish’s first book and we’ve probably read it several hundred times. It’s a cloth book and two of the pages crinkle when you scrunch them up. It was also the book that elicited his first smile, on a car ride when he was three months old.

Amazon US (out of print but should cost about $5)

Amazon UK (out of print but if you see it for about £3-4 grab it)

The Very Hungry Caterpillar

He’s only just getting into this over the past couple of months but he likes the last page with the butterfly (I wiggle the pages to make it look like it’s flying, which he really likes). I don’t think he’s old enough to care about the story at all, yet.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Listen to the Birds

This one has a push button on each page where it plays bird sounds. The sound quality is really good and Jellyfish loves it, but he got a little too enthusiastic about pulling the pages apart so we have to keep this one on a high shelf and only let him have it under adult supervision.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Little Green Frog on a Log

I wrote this one specifically for Jellyfish, because he went through a phase where he thought frog pictures were the funniest thing ever. He likes simple stories and as he was a late talker, I wanted something that started with a very basic sentence structure and built on it. I couldn’t find anything like this so being a professional author, I wrote it myself. The construction is standard Amazon paperback and so he pulled the pages away from the cover over the space of a few weeks, but I didn’t mind because I bought it for him specifically.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Who’s on The Farm: What the Ladybird Heard

This was a surprise hit. He didn’t like it the first three times I tried it, but one day he found it and brought it to me to read. Now he likes me to read it over and over to him. He’s ripped a couple of the flaps off, but overall it seems to have withstood his interest.

Not available on Amazon US

Amazon UK

The books we thought would work but didn’t:

Where’s Mr. Lion

He liked this one the first time we read it to him, but the very next time, as soon as I read the title, he took the book off me, turned to the last page and pulled down the flap. Because Mr. Lion is right there. On the last page. He’s never anywhere else. And that answers the title question, so as far as Jellyfish is concerned, the case is closed. We really liked the baby-proof felt flaps though.

Little People Big Stories series

Look, it’s really cute as an idea to have stories about famous people (mostly) and I was all over these when I saw them, but toddlers just don’t get it. So the board books are a bit pointless. Tell your preschoolers about Marie Curie, by all means. There’s really not a lot of point reading about her to a seven-month-old. Or a twelve-month-old. Or a two-year-old. The pictures aren’t engaging enough for this age and the book has no flaps or textures.

The Gruffalo (the full-sized version)

My husband loves this book and really enjoyed reading it at bedtime but eventually we realized he was getting a lot more out of this than the baby was, so we left it. Little jellyfish isn’t really the right age for big picture-books yet so he prefers the board book of the Gruffalo with an abridged storyline for small attention spans and moving parts for wiggly hands to play with.

Preserving the onion harvest: 3 easy ways

I have been growing onions as one of my main crops this year. Finally, over the past few days, they’ve been showing signs that they are ready to be harvested. Onions can last about 7 days in the ground once they’re ripe, so I tried to time the harvest to avoid the abundance of stunning rainstorms we’ve had this week (I love watching the rain).

Since I lifted such a good amount of onions from the raised bed this week, it seemed like a good time to talk about what we actually do with them after they’ve been dug up. Onions are very easy to grow and they tolerate very poor soils, as I’ve learned this year from experimenting with where I planted them.

You don’t need to make much effort to grow onions, they are zero-maintenance, and not especially vulnerable to any of the major garden pests. Once they’re ready to harvest (when the stalks go floppy and fall over), it’s also quite easy to store them so you can have a decent supply of onions throughout the winter.

Onions are a good choice for self-sufficiency as they can be used to make French onion soup which is a traditional meal to help fight off colds during the cooler part of the year. They can also be used as a very versatile way to add depth and flavor to a variety of dishes such as spaghetti bolognese or lasagne (aka lasagna in the US).

You can plant onions in Spring or Autumn but the difference between harvest times seems to only be 1-2 months so your decision to plant autumn onions should depend on whether you have any other overwintering crops (such as broccoli) that need the space or whether you need to replenish the soil (such as by planting green manure crops e.g. clover).

Onions require regular rotation so don’t just plant them in one area every season or you’ll mess up your soil.

You can just store them in a cool, dry, dark (very dark) place on wire racks and they will last a couple of weeks, just like store-bought onions.

However, if you’re homesteading, you probably want your onions to last a bit longer than that, because you’ve probably grown rather a lot of them, to see you through winter. So here are three easy ways you can get them to last longer:

1. Canning

Canning works best for tiny onions. To can onions, you need to take care to treat the onions so they stay preserved. You can’t just put them in a can with some brine and expect them to store.

First, you need to peel the onions. Soak them in boiling water for 20 seconds, drain, rinse with cold water and the skins should come away easily. They should be showing their white all the way around the onion before you start preserving them, and they should be clean.

Next, place them on a plate or on a tray and sprinkle the onions with salt. Every onion needs to be salted so don’t pile them too high. Cover with Saran wrap (cling film) and leave to work for about 24 hours.

The next day, rinse the onions well to remove all the salt, and put them in a big glass canning jar. Cover the onions with hot vinegar, leaving the minimum air gap possible, put the lid on and seal the jar using a pan of boiling water.

Let the onions mature for at least 6 weeks before eating.

2. Freezing

If you have a freezer and a reliable electricity supply, freezing your onions probably makes the most sense. It’s also the easiest method for preserving onions.

Simply peel your onions, chop them (I tend to dice mine) and put them into freezer bags. Write the date on the freezer bag and seal, then place into the freezer. The freezer will smell… pungent for about twelve hours, until the onions have reached the correct temperature and fully frozen.

The beauty of freezing onions specifically is that, if your electricity supply is disrupted later down the line, you can always remove them from the freezer, defrost them, and dry them following the steps for method 3, below. Even with a prolonged powercut, frozen onions can be easily saved.

3. Drying

You can easily dry onions using a dehydrator and they will last a very long time. Drying your onions removes all the water from them, so there’s nowhere for bacteria to live or reproduce. You can then reconstitute the onions at a later date by soaking them in boiling water before cooking with them. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your dehydrator as temperatures and timings may vary between machines.

If you don’t have a dehydrator, you could lay out the diced onions in a thin layer on baking paper on a big oven tray, and heat at 65 degrees Celsius (150 degrees F) for 4-5 hours. It should be obvious when they’re done, they’ll have turned papery.

Once your onions are fully dehydrated, decant them into a storage container such as a Tupperware-style sandwich box (the ones with the clips around the sides are especially good) or a sealable ziplock bag. Write today’s date somewhere on your container of onions so you know when you dried them.

So those are my three very easy methods for preserving your onions throughout the winter. Now I just need to figure out if there’s any use for the onion stalks, or whether I should just throw them into the compost.

How will you preserve your onions? Do you have a method I haven’t thought of? Let me know in the comments!

5 Foods to Forage in August: Ireland

One of the most wonderful things about living out in the country in a large village is the abundance of wildlife all around me. I love seeing the birds every day as the coal tits come to my bird feeder followed by the ravens, who usually grab some of the pest bugs from my vegetable garden while they’re here.

I get excited when the blackberries appear, green at first, then red, before turning that barely-black shade that means it’s time to pick them. And I always smile when I see the rose hips starting to form at this time of year, looking like dewy pink rosebuds again, as nature gets ready for the transition into Autumn.

August is the month that many berries are ripe for picking. These are usually full of vitamins (especially vitamin C which boosts your immune system among other things) and preserving these berries through making jams, jellies, wines or cordials is a traditional way to ensure you have a healthy winter.

The earliest of the nuts appear at the end of August, too, although most taste best when harvested next month or even October. If you can find hazelnuts to pick, you’ve hit the nutritional jackpot this month!

Here are my top 5 foods to forage in August if you live in Ireland:

Blackberries

ripe blackberries
Ripe blackberries… totally different to blackcurrants (but everyone thinks they’re the same thing).

These are native and you’ll find their distinctive brambles all over the place.

My grandma used to say never to pick blackberries from by the road because the toxins from petrol cars would get into the berries and make you ill. She was a district nurse/midwife so probably knew what she was talking about. She lived in an era where car fuel contained lead, but she also grew up in rural Ireland at a time when there were significantly fewer cars on the roads, so I’d still heed her advice because we know a lot more about the toxicity of other petrol fumes these days.

I wanted a reliable source of blackberries as I adore blackberry jam, so since April I have been growing my own blackberry bush in a container (to stop it taking over the garden… it’s already trying haha). If you’ve a blackberry bush, it should fruit in the second year.

Ironically, it turns out there are also blackberry brambles in the little spinney at the bottom of my garden, and they have grown through the fence, so it looks like we’ll be inundated with my favourite berries next year! I always had a great crop of wild blackberries growing in the hedge at our old house in York, England (despite my mother in law’s attempts to remove the bramble “weed” when she visited), so I can’t wait to have them in my garden again.

Choose ripe blackberries which are a dark purple (almost black), and avoid ones which have been pecked at by birds or eaten by insects. If they have brown damage to the berries, leave them for the birds, too. Absolutely never pick mouldy ones (these will have green fuzz on them).

Remember, it’s better to leave some behind than to pick everything then throw it away, because other animals depend on naturally-growing fruits for their survival.

The best thing to do with blackberries you’ve foraged is to make my grandma’s blackberry jam recipe. If you don’t have time to do it immediately, freeze your blackberries until you can make them into jam.

Raspberries

My other grandma was Scottish. She lived near an abandoned railway line where canes of raspberries grew in late summer and her freezer always had a little supply of them ready to be made into her delicious pies with homemade pastry. Aside from the berries, raspberry leaves can be harvested, dried and made into tea which tones the uterus and helps stimulate labour contractions for pregnant women (avoid when pregnant until the end of your pregnancy).

To harvest the berries: Pick them when they are a pinky-red colour. The berries are delicate so store in Tupperware-type containers. You can either eat them as-is (or as an ice cream topping), freeze them, or make them into pies or jam. Avoid fruit that is damaged or looks like old lady skin, or has gone a strange colour. Also avoid unripe fruits.

To harvest the leaves: Pick them when they are green. Avoid ones with holes in them or ones which have aphids or other insects living on the back (or front, but usually insects colonize the backs of leaves). At home, wash them thoroughly then put on an oven tray. Bake at 65 degrees Celsius (150F) for 4 hours to dry them and put them into small muslin bags or tea filters when you want to make raspberry leaf tea.

Elderberries

Elderberries are a versatile natural fruit berry growing in Ireland in August. The berries are small and round, a deep purple that looks black, with a shiny surface.

There are a few other plants that have berries that look similar, including deadly nightshade (not a tree, but it can be parasitic around trees and I’ve seen it reach heights of 10 metres or more when entangled around a tree), so if you’ve never picked elderberries before, do consult a plant or tree identification guide to be sure you’re picking elderberries.

Elderberries can be used to make jam, cordial, or wine, depending on what you prefer.

Hazelnuts

Finally, a source of protein! Hazelnuts are supposedly native to Ireland in some areas, although I’ve never seen any myself. I’d keep an eye out because they’re the jackpot when it comes to foraged nutrition.

They’re hiding in little papery structures on hazel bushes, and they’re reddish-brown when they’re ripe (don’t pick green ones)

You can roast them and salt them, or even pickle them to preserve them!

Crab apples

Crab apples are a lot smaller than regular apples. They look a bit like rose hips, and are a similar size, except crab apples are perfectly round, not rosebud shaped. If you’re familiar with the plant where you’re picking them, you should know if, earlier in the year, it had dog rose/wild rose flowers (either white or purple with a yellow centre) or whether it didn’t, and that’s a good clue, too. Don’t worry at all if you get them confused. Both are edible.

Crab apples are best used to make crab apple jelly to be served alongside chicken as a condiment (like cranberry sauce for turkeys, but more European).

Swimming adventure

Yesterday, we had a little swimming adventure at Finn Valley Leisure Centre in Stranorlar.

We waited until after jellyfish had finished his afternoon nap, and took his new UV protection swimsuit (a €3.49 bargain I spotted in Lidl yesterday after ordering reusable swim nappies for him from Jojo Maman Bebe the day before, which probably won’t arrive for a few more days).

The swimsuit has a top and shorts and I really bought it for splashing in the sea but I think it’s a bit déclassé to take a toddler swimming in just a swim nappy, especially since ours look small on him despite him still being in the right weight category for them.

When we arrived, we took it in turns to take care of the toddler, so I got changed while my husband changed Jellyfish, then we swapped and I held onto the wiggly toddler and inflated his floaty things while my husband got changed.

The pool here is amazing for little ones. There is a separate toddler pool with its own lifeguard. The water hits 0.45m max. It starts off at paddling pool depth so Jellyfish was able to quickly feel confident and in control of the water depth. He loves water anyway so this was just like going to the beach for him. When the water got to his chin, he got a bit worried so we put him in his big orange baby seat and whizzed him around, which he enjoyed last time we swam, before Christmas.

This time, however, we alternated putting him in his seat with letting him experience the water without it (he kept his armbands on). He enjoyed being able to wiggle and kick, and even started trying to move in specific directions to say hello to other babies in the pool.

I really liked how engaged the lifeguards were with the swimmers. I’ve never seen lifeguards actually helping children to swim before, but with enough lifeguards on duty, one was able to give their attention to a disabled child and enable him to experience swimming.

We spent 45 minutes in the water then showered off poolside as Jellyfish is a bit scared of showers. He liked being able to run out of the way of the stream of water and that helped us actually get him showered for a change (usually at home he baths rather than showers and he cried last time I tried to take him into our shower).

We hurried back to the changing room at this point and dried off. I undressed Jellyfish and my husband got his clean nappy on while I got dressed. The changing rooms are unisex with the option of both cubicles or open plan, which made it easy to find space to change Jellyfish and ourselves.

Overall, we all had a great, stress-free time and our little one was able to feel confident in the water which is really important to me as I’m not much of a swimmer (I failed swimming several times in primary school due to my asthma not being controlled, and I’ve never really been confident because of that).

From my own experiences, I wanted our little one to start swimming when he was a tiny baby, but this wasn’t possible. I was very upset that I couldn’t get Jellyfish into baby swim lessons last year, but that’s the trouble with having post-birth complications and a baby who was a few months old when lockdown began.

Like many other new parents last year, we lost so many early baby experiences I’d planned in the years before we got pregnant, so many chances for him to interact with other people and experience things out and about in the big wide world, and it was hard to deal with losing those important developmental opportunities, so hopefully we can make up for it all in the months and years to come.

I drove us home from the pool feeling happy that Jellyfish had enjoyed exploring the water and splashing around, and seeing other babies his own age doing the same. I would recommend this pool if you’re local in the County Donegal or Strabane area and looking for things to do with your baby or toddler, as the toddler pool is such a nice area to swim with a baby or toddler. I’ve honestly never seen such a nicely-designed public swimming pool before, and it’s definitely worth the €6 entry ticket per adult.

There’s free parking on-site and the toddler leisure swim is available 10am-6pm Saturdays and Sundays.