Gazette Gardener: Engaging gardens

If you’ve ever wondered about how to get young children involved in the garden, Sunnyside Gardens in

If you’ve ever wondered about how to get young children involved in the garden, Sunnyside Gardens in Saratoga Springs has enough ideas to fill a wheelbarrow.

Lea Chapman and her mother, Bonnie, designed and installed a dozen different display gardens at the nursery, located at 345 Church St., that will appeal to the young and the young at heart.

You can see how plants can be grouped in themes such as gardens meant for touching or smelling; how you can create mazes, game boards and have fun with what you grow; and how plants can be used to create terrains for creative play. For example, there is a sunflower house “constructed” by growing two varieties of sunflowers as walls in a large raised bed. This creates a room a child could enter and play inside.

Here two varieties of sunflowers — Russian Mammoth and Giant Gray Stripe — made the 6-foot-tall and still-growing walls. The ceiling is the sky, but I have seen morning glories vines trained to grow up and over the sunflowers on string to make a roof.

Field of Ideas

As you enter the field where the display beds are located, the first raised bed garden is planted to attract butterflies. The gardens are meant for children, but a “few are adult-oriented,” Lea said. This one has a combination of annuals and perennials known to attract monarchs, swallowtails and fritillary butterflies. It is bright and colorful with broad appeal.

I couldn’t help but think a garden like this would bring pleasure to a senior citizen. Not only would the plants provide visual pleasure, the comings and goings of butterflies would be fun to watch, especially this time of year.

A “zoo garden” is nearby and here all the plants have creature names. There was porcupine grass, toadflax, turtlehead, dragon wing begonia, hen and chickens, elephant ears and spider plants.

Next is a series of four raised beds each growing plants meant to stimulate one of the senses. There is a garden to touch with soft fuzzy leaves, upright stalks and arching fountain grass. Another garden attracts the eye with bright colors and unique patterns including striped petunias, spotted caladiums and papery Chinese lanterns.

In the taste garden bed, all plants were edible and tasty mints, lemon basil, corianders, marigolds, nasturtiums and lettuces were a few of the plants growing there.

Finding inspiration

When you come, bring a notebook and a camera in case you get inspired. Believe me, there’s something very engaging about these gardens. You’ll want to play. Fortunately, visitors are encouraged to explore and join in the fun.

There is a huge checkerboard where half the squares are actually planted with Irish Moss, mattress vine and sedums that can take a little foot traffic. And though used in a whimsical way here, these same plants would do well in the spaces between patio stones, Lea said. The checkers themselves are slices of logs.

The Chapmans have also planted a vegetable bed full of plants with unusual characteristics, such as a striped tomato, a yellow pear shaped tomato, Swiss chard with brightly colored stems, speckled Lima beans, burgundy colored beans and watermelon radishes that are a pale green on the outside and white to pink on the inside resembling a slice of watermelon. You can imagine the delight of harvesting such colorful vegetables as these or the purple broccoli or orange cauliflower that are close by.

There’s also a fairy garden, pumpkin patch, and many more ideas than anyone would be able to use in one garden. But having so many possibilities lets you pick and choose what you would like to do in your garden to echo the interests of the children in your life.

The plants are labeled, making it easy to jot down the names of things you may want to try, such as a “pumpkin on a stick,” a red-orange eggplant that resembles a small pumpkin.

Alphabet garden

Interaction is part of the fun and in a large raised bed, the Chapmans have planted an alphabet garden with each letter represented by a plant. A for Angelonia and Z for zinnia, for example. Part of the challenge is that the plants aren’t in alphabetical order and you have to hunt for what plant’s name has the next letter.

An easier challenge for young children is a maze of vines laid out along chicken wire walls. There you will find passionflowers, morning glories, hyacinth beans, cardinal climbers and the black-eyed Susan vines obscuring which way leads out of the maze.

The Chapmans also included a junk garden where odds and ends were used to create one-of-a-kind planters. For example, an old chairs, a rural metal mailbox, a toy wagon, buckets and oil cans were all recycled to hold a bounty of brightly colored annuals.

In another raised bed, large stones and lava rocks were combined with prehistoric looking plants such as sedums to make a garden that would certainly appeal to a young person interested in dinosaurs.

“We are adding toy dinosaurs to encourage children to play here,” Lea said.

She said the nursery likes to keep busy and try new things. “We have been talking about a children’s garden for a while and this year decided to do it,” she said.

Educational function

Through the display gardens, she hopes to promote a healthier lifestyle by educating young people on how vegetables grow, how plants are food for butterflies and through displays such as the sunflower room get young people interested in playing outside in the fresh air and sunshine.

As you walk around, ways you can bring a little bit of this fun into your garden will come to you. Lea said she welcomes questions, so ask. And maybe make a few sketches to work on this winter and be ready come spring to create something special for the children in your life.

After all, imitation is the sincerest compliment.

Happy gardening.

Natalie Walsh is a horticulturist, speaker and garden consultant. She can be reached at [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts


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