The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Developing a child's interest in gardening

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
Extension Educator, Horticulture
slmason@illinois.edu

"The love of gardening is a seed once sown that never dies." -- Gertrude Jekyll

Give the gift of gardening to a child near you. Gardens can be captivating whimsical worlds for kids, but also opportunities to learn about nature. It's an instant party when wiggly worms, roly-poly bugs, and fluttering butterflies are discovered. Plus kids will more likely eat vegetables they planted and picked fresh out of the garden.

A few ideas for kid-sized gardening:

  • Involve the child in planning. Start by going through garden catalogs together to select plants from the colorful pictures. Popular vegetables are golf ball sized 'Thumbelina' carrots, sugar snap peas, 'Sweet Baby Girl' cherry tomatoes or lettuce mixes. Flower possibilities include hollyhocks, lamb's ear, sensitive plant, bells of Ireland, snapdragons, money plant, nasturtium, pansy and zinnia. For little kids with little hands look for large seeded plants such as sunflowers or beans.
  • Try something weird and wonderful such as spilanthes (the eyeball plant), wishbone flower with its tiny wishbone, blue potatoes, purple beans or the brightly colored stems of 'Neon Lights' Swiss chard. If you have space, a patch of strawberries is an easy treat.
  • A theme garden is always stimulating. Look for ideas from the child's favorite books. Perhaps the theme could be Alice in Wonderland or Peter Rabbit. Or an ABC garden of plants from asters to zinnias.
  • Kids love extremes from very tiny to very large. Try 'Little Finger' carrots, large gourds and giant sunflowers. Plant a circular maze or fortress of giant sunflowers. Or a pole bean teepee for Jack and the bean stalk.
  • Pizza is a favorite kid food. Design a round pizza garden with one slice cut out for easy access. In the pizza wedges grow oregano, basil, tomatoes, peppers, wheat and onions. Plant yellow marigolds around the pizza to represent the cheese. At harvest time have a pizza party.
  • Butterfly garden could be shaped like a butterfly with butterfly nectar plants such as verbena and lantana planted in the outstretched wings. The body could be the path. Don't forget the antennae made of bamboo poles and tennis balls.
  • Have a jungle theme with banana trees and tiger lilies. Look for plants with the child's or a family member's name such as 'David' Phlox or 'Sophia' marigold. Plant a rainbow garden with areas for red celosia, orange and yellow marigolds, green 'Envy' zinnias, and blue and violet petunias. Have the rainbow end with a pot filled with 'Golden Nugget' marigolds.
  • Sense of ownership is important to all of us, including kids. Gardens should be more than forced weeding labor camps. Personalize the garden by having the child paint a sign with their name on it. Make a unique stepping stone. Let the child write their name alongside their handprint in the wet concrete.
  • Treat the garden as a petting zoo of plants. Kids should be encouraged to touch and smell. Include plants with fragrant leaves such as lemon verbena, basil, lemon balm and lavender.
  • Make a tunnel from garden netting and PVC pipe. Let morning glories ramble over the top to make a "secret" place in the garden.
  • Be sure to include pint sized chairs, tools, fences, trellises or watering cans.
  • Let kids get wet and dirty. Learn to bite your tongue when the rows are crooked, the weeds are growing and the flowers don't match. No "no" signs allowed in a children's garden. I think we all could learn a lot from gardening like a kid.

Join us this season at the Champaign County Master Gardener Idea Garden on south Lincoln in Urbana to see the children's garden as well as all the other delightful areas.

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