By Barbara Perry Lawton
Gardening can be a game of magic, of learning, of accomplishment and, most of all, a game that you can share with your children, grandchildren and young friends. Plan a child’s garden together with children. While you can suggest, the young gardeners should be the ones to decide what to grow.
What kinds of plants will delight children? Bodaciously huge plants like 12-foot sunflowers or giant pumpkins are great if you have room for them. Fast-growing edibles that they can harvest and bring to the family table like radishes, leaf lettuces and green beans are sure to please. Colorful plants like zinnias and marigolds come in many sizes and colors.
Plan to offer the youngster choices. Take him or her to some seed racks in your favorite garden center. Pick out three or four kinds of leaf lettuces, then ask, “Which one do you think you’d like best?” Or select two to three and suggest that mixing them up and planting them together will give you a tossed salad ready to pick for the table. Do the same thing with radish seed packets – mix up two or three different kinds so you can discover together which ones you prefer.
Children’s gardens should be in a sunny location – you can grow so many more plants in sites that receive at least four to six hours of sun each day. Once you have chosen the location, prepare the soil well by amending it with compost or other organic material and explain that you’re doing that so the plants can develop strong roots to take in water and nutrients.
Read the backs of seed packets together. They provide lots of information – the number of days to germination, the number of days to maturity and directions for planting. Salad crop seeds can be planted in rows or scattered in a prescribed area. Once leaf lettuce is four inches tall, it is ready for harvest. Show how you can use scissors to cut the lettuce so that it will keep regrowing. Harvest every few days. Show how you pull radishes and how to pick green beans.
Plan also to offer some choices of annual seedlings. Six-packs of flowering ornamentals offer instant gratification since they are usually blooming when you buy them. Again, read plant labels carefully to learn what the plants require. At home and ready to plant, show youngsters how to scoop out a hole about the size of the rootball, place the plant and firm the soil around the plant.
Once the seeds and plants are in the ground, show how to tell when the soil is dry – moisture meters are wonderful teaching tools. Use a watering can – hoses can be such a temptation to young children that they may sluice plants and seeds right out of the garden. A watering can, on the other hand, is easy to use and the water does not have the force to displace plants.
Tour the garden with your young gardeners every couple of days to look for firsts. The first seedling to pop up. The first bud to flower. The first bean to pick. The first radish to fatten up. A garden is a wondrous place. Share and encourage that wonder with your children.
Here are a few of the many possible seed choices for a child’s garden:
- Pumpkins. Pumpkins are great for grow-your-own Halloween projects, for pies, seed-roasting and just for fun – if you have room for this vining plant.
- Bush beans. Tender and string-free, these are somewhat easier to care for than pole beans which must have supports.
- Radishes. Come in shades of white, pink and red. Easy and fast to grow.
- Leaf lettuce. There are curly and smooth leaf lettuces. They come in shades of green and red.
- Sunflowers. Come in all sizes, up to 12-feet tall and with flowers from four inches wide to over a foot in diameter.
Here are a few flowering annuals to buy in six-packs for your child’s garden:
- Snapdragons. Come in all sizes from dwarf to nearly two feet tall and in bright colors of red, yellow, white and all shades between.
- Marigolds. Few plants are easier to grow than the sunny marigolds of yellows and oranges that range from dwarf to two feet or more in height.
- Zinnias. Colorful to the nth degree are these Mexican natives with bright flowers that range from colorful 1-inch midgets up to huge double flowers six inches across. The plants range from dwarf to three feet or more tall.
- Petunias. For containers or beds and borders, few plants will give you the quick color that modern petunias can.
With luck and a bit of careful planting, you will have planted the seeds for a lifetime of enjoyment. You will have introduced young ones to the joys and accomplishments of gardening.
Barbara Perry Lawton is a writer, author, speaker and photographer. She has served as manager of publications for Missouri Botanical Garden and as weekly garden columnist for the St Louis Post-Dispatch. The author of a number of gardening and natural history books, and contributor to many periodicals, she has earned regional and national honors for her writing and photography. Barbara is also a Master Gardener and volunteers at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St Louis MO.