Kids and gardens are natural together. And why wouldn't they be? Combine a child's innate curiosity with a hankering for the outdoors, and horticulture supplies all of the essential ingredients kids need to love gardening.
With some minor adjustments.Forget sophisticated color schemes, plants that take forever to mature, leaf rakes. And spinach.
Concentrate instead on things that make gardening fun for kids, like pint-size furniture and tools, fast-growing vegetables and someplace to "hide" among the flowers. An early introduction to gardening could lead to a lifetime of enjoyment. It might inspire a passion for this rewarding hobby, perhaps even a career. And if it doesn't, at least you and your child have shared some quality time together outdoors.
To build child-friendly green spaces, tailor gardening activities to your child's level. Difficulty can always be ratcheted up as your child's interest and abilities develop. Be sure to plan tasks together.
Here are some horticultural garden features that turn most kids on:
- Garden hideaways: Not tree houses, necessarily, but secret places that kids can enter and be "hidden" from the rest of the garden.
These can be as simple as bean teepees - four poles lashed together and covered with a canopy of scarlet runner beans - low walls, berms or just shrub enclosures. Spaces need not be large. Most kids, in fact, would prefer "kid-size retreats that adults can't easily fit into."
Furnish your child's special niche with small chairs and a table. These can be specially crafted, but children seem just as satisfied with "found" objects, such as rustic furniture made from short log sections turned on end. Or, construct a low bench out of bricks and scrap lumber.
- A kid-designed plot. If space permits, let your child have a small piece of ground all his own. Give guidance when asked and maybe some help digging, but for the most part, let him do whatever he wishes within its boundaries. Start with a sketch and a plan - good "life lessons."
Be sure the size is easily manageable. For little tykes, a plot two feet wide by five feet long may be adequate. Let them choose plants from your garden (then propagate or divide them) or take the child along on a buying trip to a local nursery.
Rarely will children pick large or expensive items - you'll see. They'll more likely set their sights on a six-pack of colorful annuals, a packet of baby pumpkin seeds or a cherry tomato plant.
As the season progresses, try not to nag too much about maintenance. If the plants aren't watered, they may wilt and die: an unweeded patch will be messy and unproductive. Those are important lessons, and nagging is the quickest way to turn gardening into "work." Offer to help your child weed, to teach the difference between good seedlings and undesirables.
- Edible and fragrance gardens: The list of possibilities and formats is endless. Fast-growing vegetables like lettuce, radishes and bush beans are generally appealing (just no spinach), as are special gimmicks, like growing potatoes in tubs filled with a mixture of compost and straw.
Sweet-tasting vegetables like carrots and sugar snap peas may not even make it to the kitchen (keep pesticide sprays to a minimum of kids are likely to eat their harvest out-of-hand).
Fruits are fun, but warn your kids that most take a long time to mature. Start with a strawberry tower (they'll pick a few berries the first summer), while waiting for raspberry and blueberry bushes to bear fruit.
Apples and other tree fruits are a long-term proposition, of course but don't discourage a dwarf fruit tree if space allows. I would avoid grapes, however. To a child, "grapes" are seedless California table grapes - very hard to grow in other climates. And almost impossible without pes-ti-cides.
Plant herbs with fragrances kids will recognize and like. Pineapple sage, lavender and chocolate-scented geraniums are favorites. If your child likes pesto, save room for at least a six-pack of sweet basil plants. And if your family pet is a cat, what better herb than catnip?
Other kid-pleasers and tips for gardening with youngsters:
- Use the science of gardening to keep kids learning and involved, but keep lessons age appropriate. Four-year-olds can grasp that spring bulbs planted in fall "sleep" over the winter and that plants need food to grow. Five-year-olds find seed germination fascinating; start some seeds between layers of damp paper towel to demonstrate the germination process. Seven- and 8-year-olds may be ready for an explanation of male and female plants, like hollies, and why leaves turn color in fall.
- Big anything is better. Large varieties of sunflower, mallow and dahlia are willing to oblige.
- Tell plant stories to make flowers more fun, like how narcissus got its name (don't know that one? - shame on you - go look it up).
- Choose plants that attract birds and butterflies. Start with butterfly bush, purple coneflower and ornamental milkweed. Many types of Virburnums have berries that are especially tasty to birds.
- Grow flowers with weird forms or unusual characteristics: obedient plant, magic lilies, snapdragons, bleeding hearts, money ("silver dollar") plant and gas plant. Find the faces in pansies, make candied violets, sprinkle nasturtium petals in salads . . .