Little Green Thumbs
When it comes to gardening, kids can't wait to dig in. Here are some ideas to help them get growing.
Children gravitate to gardening for some very basic reasons: Dirt. Water. Hole-digging. To which I'd add, from my experience with two boys: Food. And bugs. (Not that they should ever be confused.) And they like the flowers.
Sure, kids love to see seeds sprout, then leaf out and eventually bear flowers or tempting berries or tiny tomatoes. But that takes time—and ten minutes can seem an eternity to little people with short attention spans. So if you want your kids to get excited about the plant part of gardening, look for projects with an easy payoff.
Aim for Fast Gratification
If you're going to start seeds indoors, you can create a perfect starter nursery using the bottom of a cardboard egg container (and teach a useful lesson about recycling while you're at it) and a starter soil mix. Or use peat pots—the compressed ones that expand with water like those magic sponges are a fun bonus.
Go for plants that germinate quickly, like radishes, even if you don't like them—they come up in three or four days. If you get started in early spring, you'll have to acclimate the seedlings to the outdoors for a few hours a day before you plant them; just cut the egg carton containers apart to separate the plants. Like the peat pots, the little cardboard forms can go right in the ground, where they will decompose as the plants grow.
If seeds are too slow, buy small nursery plants to give your garden a head start. Some easy-to-grow flowers include marigolds, nasturtium, ageratum, marigolds, bachelor's buttons, cosmos, alyssum and zinnias. Equally easy vegetables include zucchini, peas, cucumber, carrots, and tomatoes.
If you have space to spare, consider giving your kids their own garden plot, so you can keep yours intact. If space is an issue, plant in containers; most plants will do equally well in pots.
Try Racing for the Sky
Vines like hops, morning glories, moonflowers, pole beans, or small gourds are among the quickest growers around. Just give them something to wrap themselves around—whether a teepee made from bamboo stakes, a grid of string or wire attached to a wooden fence, or a handmade trellis of twigs tied together with twine. You can screw (or even glue) a yardstick to a garden stake and use it to track a vine's progress, just like your own kid's growth chart. Make it a race, and plant several different kinds in a row, each with its own marker. School-aged kids may want to keep a garden journal to track their planting project's progress.
Embrace the Extremes
Kids like small-fry fare that fits their fingers, like red cherry tomatoes, the grape-sized green ones, and the yellow pear-shaped ones, as well as other baby vegetables. Look for small round carrots like 'Thumbelina' and baby-finger-sized 'Minicors."
Children also delight in giants; growing sunflowers and pumpkins are classic kids' projects that are sure to impress. (While full-size pumpkins need room to sprawl, minis like 'Jack Be Littles' can be grown in tubs or containers.)
Plant for All the Senses
Grow your own tasty vegetable soup in a patch with tomatoes, beans, carrots, squash—they say kids are more likely to eat what they grow and cook. It might encourage them to try new foods (it hasn't worked in my veggie-averse house, but I live in hope). For fun, mix some rocks and pebbles into a container of soil and plant some full-size carrots. When they encounter these obstacles, the carrots will branch out into crazy shapes—great fun to unearth!
Create a pizza garden, with plum tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, bell peppers, rosemary, oregano, basil, onions and garlic. You can even plant them in a round plot, divided into triangular "slices".
Make room for some "fairy berries." These tiny alpine strawberries do well in pots and borders. Watch for white flowers that are followed by tiny tart fruits that little hands love to gather.
Don't forget a few fragrant plants, too, such as easy-to-grow scented geraniums or honeysuckle vines that have the bonus of sweet-tasting flowers—just pluck them off and sip the nectar out the back.
Satisfy the need for touch with velvety lamb's ears, fuzzy woolly thyme, soft-bristled strawflowers, mimosa (or sensitive plant), whose leaf fronds close to the touch, and snapdragons whose flowers can be gently pinched to make them "talk."
Bring on the Bugs and Birds
Place a birdbath in the garden to get an up-close look at a wide variety of winged creatures. Plant a butterfly bush to bring colorful monarchs and their cousins flittering to your yard—a sight that never fails to stop even my jangling 5-year-old in his tracks. Plus, they smell great.
Outfit your kids with a magnifying glass and jar with some holes punched in the top to collect some specimens—ladybugs, green lacewings, earthworms, even lightening bugs—for closer inspection. (With very young ones, just be sure to watch what they put in their mouths, and the same goes for plants and plant foods, too.)
Some blueberry bushes and a strawberry patch will encourage birds to stop by. Then encourage them stay. Provide them with nesting materials by hanging a mesh bag from a secluded section of fence and weave in stringy materials such as yarn, string, dried grass, even hair from your brush. Watch for them to turn up in nests nearby.
Explore the Night
Plant with an evening excursion in mind; watching night bloomers do their thing is nothing short of magical. Four o'clocks open at just about that time each day. At dusk, the evening primroses start to shiver, then pop open. Later, flashlights in hand, kids can watch the moonflowers tremble, then unfold, drawing moths to their trumpet-shaped flowers and releasing their memorable perfume.