Garden Muse

Gardening with Kids

Story by Paula Steers Brown, Contributing Columnist. Photos by Bill Sherrod.


A fun and creative garden project is a "wearable harvest" bracelet: blossoms and berries collected and artfully arranged on the sticky side of duct tape.

When school lets out for the summer, children have time and boundless energy that can be channeled into a fun and healthy hobby: gardening a pint-sized plot of their very own.

When I was little, my mother helped me prepare the soil in a three-foot circle and gave me packets of easy-to-grow seeds such as zinnia, marigold and nasturtium to plant. We christened it my garden and every day I anxiously ran out to see what miraculous changes had occurred.

Nature provides countless hours of amazing entertainment for free. Wise parents will take advantage of it as the best possible babysitter and teacher. Let kids get their hands dirty, explore, experiment. For these few years of your child’s youth, try to be not as concerned with aesthetic perfection in your landscape as with promoting his or her interaction with the earth.

The best gardens for children are interactive. Constantly in motion, kids love to run along paths. Stepping stones or paved paths can provide a track for running and biking as well as a canvas for sidewalk chalk art. If you are lucky enough to have ample yard space for a grassy recreation area, consider letting it grow a little long after a rain, then mow base paths for a softball diamond and call in the neighborhood.

Paths can almost magically become enticing tunnels if skyscraper perennials such as hollyhocks or sunflowers shoot up on each side of a walk. A simple circle outline of shrubby plants (after they get a little height to give a feeling of enclosure) becomes a great hideout. A circle of boxwood we let grow to three feet became “The Bat Cave” in our yard, the designated conference area of resident Superheroes. A planted circle can take on the dimension of a puzzle if an inside design is added to form a maze. Another shelter effect can be achieved by tying angled stakes at the top to form a teepee, and planting at each support a fast-growing vine such as bean, miniature pumpkin or gourd.

Weeping trees also give a sense of secret enclosure, but almost any large tree with low branches for climbing is a kid magnet. Magnolia trees look their best when they skirt the ground; leaving their close-together limbs intact down low creates an accessible living ladder. A tree house can be the hub of outdoor recreation, but even a simple swing suspended from a sturdy limb brings hours of pleasure and stirs a welcome breeze in hot summer. Nestle evergreen ferns around a wide swing in a freestanding frame to anchor this focal point in the cool shade. Turn a garden shed into a playhouse for a few years. Children grow up so fast that, all too soon, you will get back your space.

Animals in any form make great garden additions. A rabbit hutch in the center of the garden has storybook charm, but also provides eco-minded parents a way to show children that manure is practical and highly prized over chemical fertilizers. A shallow pond or creek brings endless fascination as a home for fish, tadpoles, frogs and turtles. A re-circulating pump can be installed into a slope of rocks to give a creek-like effect. Along with the standard birdhouse or feeder, place a birdbath in the garden so children can fill their feathered friends’ swimming pool with water when they fill their own.

Cosmos grows easily from seed to attract goldfinches. It and other open-faced flowers such as daisies and coreopsis attract ladybugs  — the good bugs that eat the bad bugs (aphids and mites). Buddleia is a must for drawing in butterflies; include also brightly colored Asclepias (butterfly weed), a great food source for monarch caterpillars. Earthworms not only interest children for their squirminess — they provide a terrific science lesson as the best soil builders anywhere. They aerate by burrowing and their castings enrich the earth with nitrogen, phosphates and potassium as they digest and deposit valuable elements. Ladybugs and redworms can be purchased online and added in quantity to start benefiting the garden.

Sensory elements add an interactive quality to the garden. Wooly lambs’ ears, pussy willow, and grasses with soft catkins lend tactile sensations. Visually, kids respond to bright colors and unusual shapes in the garden — grow giant alliums, which look like Paul Bunyan’s purple lollipops. In fact, unusual sizes of flowers or fruits get plenty of attention, be they mini or mammoth.

Taste tests of harvests are ever-popular, so grow cherry tomatoes and popcorn. Sample aromas of herbs such as mint, sage or rosemary and use for cooking; grow aloe vera to demonstrate plants as practical first-aid ointment. Since kids love surprises, plant a few surprise lily bulbs (Lycoris squamigera), pink beauties that pop up overnight in August. Really, any unexpected bulb is fun, especially snowdrops and crocus, which sometimes poke their heads out so early it is through snow.

Morning glories, four-o’clocks and moonflower are fun to tell time by. Chinese lantern (Physalis) is great to grow for its showy red-orange paper lantern shapes. They are almost too pretty to tear open, but do open one to show a child the surprise orange “light bulb” inside. Money plant (Lunaria) is interesting for little hands to open, too; rub the tissue-thin filmy discs off to expose seeds and the silvery “coin” inside. The harvest affords gorgeous materials for crafts as well as free seeds for next year’s small miracles.

© Paula Brown is a freelance writer and lecturer on gardening topics. She lives in Richmond, Va., where she runs her design business, Imagine That.


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