Watching their garden grow

So maybe your daughter didn’t bat an eyelash at the kaleidoscopic wildflower garden you cultivated l

So maybe your daughter didn’t bat an eyelash at the kaleidoscopic wildflower garden you cultivated last year, and perhaps your son showed his enthusiasm for your prized rose bushes by blasting the life out of them with his water gun and smearing the fallen petals across his face like war paint.

Children and gardening, it has been said, mix about as well as ferns in full sun.

But Marcia Eames-Sheavly, youth program leader for the Cornell Garden-Based Learning Program in the Department of Horticulture at Cornell University, said this is nothing more than a misconception.

The problem, she maintains, is not that children and gardening don’t go together; it is simply that parents generally don’t have a good grasp on how best to make gardening appealing for both little hands and big imaginations.

Interest takes root

“From my perspective, the most important thing is engaging their interest and decision-making right from the outset,” she said. “Base it on what they want to do and are interested in, and it will be a much more positive experience.

“Maybe they want to grow flowers, or maybe they want to grow food plants. Maybe they don’t want a formal garden, but rather a small, secluded hiding place in the backyard. There was a really neat study done that showed the most exciting features in a garden from a young person’s perspective are water features, hiding places, brilliant color, being able to pick, harvest and eat food crops and an opportunity to engage with small animals,” said Sheavly.

Barbara Richardson, editor of, a site of The National Gardening Association in Vermont, said every child can learn to appreciate and enjoy sowing seeds and caring for crops. All it takes is some preparation and a few fun ideas to get started. It’s also imperative that parents set aside expectations about aesthetics and the end product. To foster a true sense of ownership, children should be allotted their own little parcel of land.

When it comes to fleshing out the details, brainstorm with your child or children.

“Try to use some part of everyone’s ideas — even if your kids claim they want a three-story treehouse and a pond that has a cave you can only get to by swimming underwater — all on your 30-by-30-foot suburban lot,” Richardson said. “Maybe you compromise a tad with a delightful 5-by-5-by-10-foot playhouse with vines growing up three sides and a circulating waterfall from the top deck to a pond below,” she said.

Once you have your basic shape, sketch it out on graph paper with one square equaling one foot. First add paths, followed by structures. Perhaps a theme will dictate your design. Choose the plants last.

Choosing a theme

Planning a garden is a lot like planning a party. Just as one might choose a theme for a special occasion, one can also do so for a garden. Here are some examples from The National Gardening Association:

Outer Space. Grow vines up a rocket fashioned of bamboo canes and hang some handmade stars and planets from the canes. Think cosmic when it comes to plants: cosmos, rocket flowers, moon flowers, moon and stars watermelon. The sky’s the limit.

July Fourth. Plan ahead for your local Independence Day celebration and you’ll be properly decorated. You may even have a float for the town parade if you plant your garden in a mobile little red wagon. Let red, white, and blue flowers abound. Include a sweet alyssum border, geraniums, lobelia, cosmos, begonias and impatiens. For the finishing touch, add American flags.

Tea Time. A small tea garden featuring plants surrounding — what else? — a large old teakettle. Try planting German chamomile, calendula, lemon verbena, peppermint, alpine strawberries, bronze fennel, dwarf German sage, lemongrass, anise hyssop and lemon balm. Install a bench and table, and let your little ones host a garden tea party.

Sweet Chocolates. Scour catalogs for “chocolate” varieties of plants — usually those with a scent slightly reminiscent of the sweet stuff. Sometimes, chocolate is just in the name. Group Chocolate veil huechera, “Chocolate Soldiers” columbine, chocolate cosmos, chocolate-mint scented germanium and chocolate mint. Don’t forget to mulch with cocoa beans. And remind kids that not all that smells like chocolate is actually edible.

Fairy Lure. Think small. Choose plenty of low-growing, tiny-leafed plants and those with hanging bells and cuplike flowers (after all, that’s where the fairies hide). Carpet their floor with thymes and mosses. If you’re not wary of poisonous plants, foxgloves and Solomon’s seal form a comparatively tall forest. A shallow pool or fountain is a bonus. Add a hollow stump with a hole doorway at the base.

Pizza Anyone? It’s difficult to find a child who doesn’t love pizza. So what about planting a pizza garden? The best part is it’s easy, and all the plants are hardy.

For the garden, plant tomatoes, green bell peppers, basil, oregano, garlic and chives, preferably in a round, pizza shape in the garden.

You can even go so far as to divide the “pizza” into slices, using stepping stones or one of your plant varieties, such as the basil, as dividers.

Depending on the size of the garden, plant one tomato plant and one pepper plant per “slice” and fill in with the garlic, chives and herbs.

In a few months, it’ll be ready to pick the yummy goods and make a real pizza.

The Nose Knows. Fragrant plants transport the imagination. If you grow them now, your child will always remember the scents of heliotrope, mignonette, roses, peonies, and lilacs. And if you show them which plants to rub between their fingers, they’ll never forget lavender, pineapple mint, lemon balm, rosemary, basil and scented geraniums.

Colorful edibles. They’re pretty and delicious. Kids will feel like they’re digging up buried treasure when they pull up carrots (yellow, red, purple and orange); radishes (white, pink, purple, red), and potatoes (yellow, blue, purple, red and pink). Rainbow chard (red, yellow, purple, white and orange) is another good one.

Growing edible crops is great, but Richardson warns that kids love to eat produce straight from the garden and are apt to snatch a strawberry or cherry tomato to eat on the spot. So avoid toxic pesticides. Safe and natural methods of controlling destructive insects include picking them off by hand, washing them off with the garden hose and introducing beneficial predator insects such as ladybugs or praying mantises.

Fun amenities

Richardson said children can marry a love for crafting with their budding interest in gardening by building scarecrows or creating steppingstones from concrete or plaster of Paris decorated with hand and footprints. Collected stones, marbles or other trinkets can also be used.

To fully surround yourself with nature, place a water source in the garden to attract birds and butterflies. It could be a birdbath or small fountain.

If your child loves forts, help him erect a “sunflower house” simply by marking out a shape in the prepared soil, such as a square or triangle and planting sunflowers around the perimeter, leaving a gap unplanted for a door. “As the sunflowers grow, they form walls — a great hiding place and fort,” Richardson said.

Another fun option is to make a tepee by tying 6- to 8-foot bamboo poles or long branches together at the top and securing them in the soil. Plant all around the poles with pole beans (scarlet runner, or purple, yellow and green beans), cucumbers and climbing nasturtiums. Again, leave a gap unplanted so kids can enter their hiding place.

For a crawl tunnel, Richardson suggests using hogwire fencing to create a space tall enough for little crawlers. Then plant it with melons, squashes and cucumbers to create the roof.

What to plant

When it comes to little ones and gardens, pickable plants get two thumbs up. “While mom’s landscape may be off-limits for bouquet gathering, children should have free reign over certain cutting gardens. Cosmos, snapdragon, salvia, zinnia, coleus, and celosia are just a few that produce more vigorously if picked,” Richardson said.

Besides those high-performance plants, parents shouldn’t overlook the stalwarts of the nursery trade. Common annuals or tender perennials are common because they bloom reliably all summer long. That’s what kids want. So include those hard-workers in the mix, she added.

Reaping the rewards

Once the garden is established, visit the site with your children every day to make sure you don’t miss its many surprises: opening flowers, the first pumpkin, fresh strawberries, the buzz of honeybees and the whir of hummingbirds.

“You and your children will naturally tend the garden as you inspect plants for discoveries. Thin a few carrots, explaining that this gives the other carrots room to grow,” noted Richardson.

“The more time you spend together in the garden, the more your kids will feel like the garden is truly theirs and the more they’ll take care of it,” she said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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