Gardening with Children

childrenbees009My friend Lawrie once designed rose gardens, heirloom flower gardens and romantic getaway gardens. But now that she has retired, her gardening skills and expertise are lavished on a small fruit orchard that surrounds her bungalow. In the middle of the orchard stands a honeybee hive for bees to pollinate her plums, apples, cherries and raspberries. She expected a steady hum of busy honeybees. What she didn’t expect was the small throng of neighborhood kids who watched her from afar, ventured in and now help her with the task of harvesting honey—complete with their own beekeeper’s uniforms.

Children who enter a rose garden can be charmed by the world of winged creatures, worms or other crawly insects. They are amazed by giant sunflowers, whimsical curling squashes, tiny alpine strawberries, or radishes the size of their thumbs. And now that many parents are putting in a vegetable patch or collection of apple trees, it’s worth designing a garden just for kids. Teach them how to grow a vegetable and they may be inclined to nibble it during dinner.

So where to start? The local library is just the place to sample a collection of storybooks that include garden themes. Find books on bees or birds, worms or ladybugs and get kids started. From there it’s a quick jump to books on plants and wildlife. A simple summer at home can slide into a seminar on nature for you and your kids. And if you’re lucky enough to have a seasoned gardener in the neighborhood like my friend, rely on that person for advice and encouragement. Here are a few ways to launch your own edible backyard.

Choose tiny plants or giant plants. Find whimsical vegetables that will catch the attention of young gardeners. Mammoth Russian sunflowers are a good start. Tall sunflowers with stalks like tree trunks hold up giant heads of seed-filled flowers. They might come from a fictional world to the novice gardener. More importantly, these are a ticket to understanding how sunflowers follow the light with phototropism. Kids will see them face east in the morning and west in the evening. And a thicket of Mammoths provides a forest of sunflowers that dazzles the eye, provides pollen for bees and screens a garden for privacy.

Colorful flowers like bright zinnias make up a confetti garden. Zinnias also offer nectar and pollen for pollinating insects. For the budding scientist, growing a pollinator’s garden is an introduction to studying the scientific world. If you’re lucky enough to attract hummingbirds, plant Scarlet Runner Beans or Sunset Hyssop—both hummingbird favorites. Sunflowers, zinnias, Scarlet Runner beans and Sunset Hyssop all grow easily from seed in a single season.

Now for tiny veggies and fruits: Alpine strawberries form a dense mat for ground cover but they’ll also provide small plants with strawberries about the size of a pinkie fingernail. Search for tiny tomatoes, miniature sweet peppers, lettuces like Tom Thumb. Purple potatoes and tromboncino (long curling squashes) are sure to please. Carrots are favorites for the young and some grow short and squat, but any carrot can be pulled at an early stage. The same is true for leaf lettuces, spinach and chard. Edible flowers like violas will decorate a salad or ice cream; fresh mint leaves from the herb garden provide mint tea for tea parties. Many seed catalogues offer small cucumbers (for pickling), baby beets, Wee Be Little pumpkins and other miniature versions that are fun to grow. Plan a garden for pizza with oregano, basil and tomatoes, a garden for salsa with peppers and cilantro, a garden for fruit salads with small watermelons and cantaloupes, a garden for birds and bees with sunflowers, coneflowers and cosmos.

My next door neighbor, aged 7, loves to build a secret garden of flagstones, umbrellas, garlands of flowers, a petal-strewn entrance and teacups on a board. With a friend and an imaginary menagerie of characters, an entire summer spent in the garden can be filled with scenes from books or make-believe. A garden forms a temporary play area to be redesigned anew each morning. If you don’t have enough backyard for a garden, consider pots. Many small edibles are pot friendly and, when grouped together, form an impressive garden on a porch or patio. Strawberries fall into this category and some, like alpine strawberries, will be decorative, too.

Most importantly, ban all pesticides from your garden. This is important for the benign pollinators you wish to attract but even more important for the health of your children. For more information on the effects of pesticides on the health of children, go to the website of the American Academy of Pediatrics: and search for pesticides. You’ll be linked to the most current research about these dangers.

Books recommended by three gardening moms:

  • The Year’s Garden by Cynthia Rylant
  • Bear and Bunny Grow Tomatoes by Bruce Koscielniak
  • On One Flower, Butterflies, Ticks and a Few More Icks, by Anthony D. Fredericks
  • The Dandelion Seed by Joseph Anthony
  • Carlos and the Squash Plant
  • There’s a Hair In My Dirt—A Worm’s Story by Gary Larson
  • The Garden is Open by Pamela Pease
  • The Tiny Seed, by Eric Carle
  • How a Seed Grows by Helen Jordan
  • Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney
  • The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss
  • Planting Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert
  • Round the Garden by Omri Glaser
  • The Gardener by Sarah Stewart
  • Mrs. Spitzer’s Garden by Edith Pattou
  • The Pea Blossom by Amy Lowry Poole
  • How Groundhog’s Garden Grew by Lynne Cherry
  • Yucky Worms by Vivian French
  • Cecil’s Garden by Holly Keller

Mail-order sources for kid friendly gardens: