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Who's Growing the Next Generation of Gardeners?
If we don't capture children's imaginations while they're very young, will they want to garden - or visit gardens - when they grow up?
by Denise Cowie - 9/18/2007
Have you introduced any children to the joys of gardening lately?
Have you spelled out a kindergartner’s name in bulbs in fall so Mother Nature can magically greet him by name come spring? Or maybe planted different kinds of bulbs so that a multi-hued Smiley face can appear in the grass beneath a toddler’s window?
Simple gestures, but they can work wonders.
As a garden writer, I’ve asked numerous gardeners – both famous and backyard variety – how they became interested in gardening. Almost every one of them has pointed to a gardening parent or grandparent, or even a friend or neighbor, who sparked their youthful curiosity.
The accidental mentor might have been an ardent vegetable grower, or strictly into nurturing beautiful flowers. Sometimes the inspiration for a future gardener was as simple as pots of herbs on a window sill, or cheerful red geraniums in a window box or porch planter.
It didn’t matter. Thanks to those adults, something about the magic of gardening rubbed off on these children. And even if they forgot about it during their teenage and young adult years, the seed was planted. At some point, often years later, those dormant memories pushed to the surface – and another gardener bloomed.
A new generation of garden lovers
Gradually, as I heard variations on the same theme, I became convinced that gardeners have an obligation to pass along their love of growing things, just as they would pass along a beloved heirloom plant. And for the same reason – because they want that passion to live on even after they are gone.
That conviction has taken on a more personal tinge over the last couple of years, since my stepdaughter, Christy, gave birth to our first grandchild, Poppy. If name is destiny, surely she’s meant to be a gardener!
Gardening has been a booming business for years now, but nurseries and public gardens know that if they are to keep their customers and their visitors, they have to attract new generations of garden lovers. And it’s not easy.
How do you get kids interested?
That may be one reason Gloria Day, a board member for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association, chose “Getting Children Involved in Gardening” as the topic for one of her educational seminars at the association’s PANTS conference in Atlantic City in July.
Gloria, who owns Pretty Dirty Ladies, Inc. garden design business in Leesport, Pa., is a fellow member of the Garden Writers Association of North America; she knows I spend a day each week at the Camden Children’s Garden, so she asked me to join her. (That’s Gloria’s photo of us at the presentation, above right. Gloria’s on the left.)
But with the cut-throat competition for kids’ time and attention – ipods, video games, cell phones, television – just how do you get them interested in something as low-tech and low-key as gardening?
If you love it, your kids may, too
The same way you’d teach youngsters anything else – by starting when they’re very young and by setting an example, according to those who’ve done it. Not only might the kids be smitten by gardening, they may also learn a few lessons about healthy eating, and get some exercise into the bargain.
If you are often out in your garden, working at something you love, your children are going to want to do what you’re doing – although their interests, once they are actually in the garden, aren’t going to be the same as yours.
What do children like in a garden? Plants with bright colors. Plants with interesting textures. Plants that smell, whether they’re fragrant or – even better – stinky. Plants that grow fast. Plants you can grow and eat. Bugs, the weirder-looking the better. Water, preferably water that moves, because that means water you can play with.
Try out some fast-growing plants
Mike Devlin, the Director of the Camden Children’s Garden, has spent years watching and working with young children at this specialty garden on the Camden Waterfront.
“Kids like are things that are colorful, plants that have funny names, and plants that grow quickly,” says Devlin, whose staff members, through the national Grow Lab Program, take miniature greenhouses out into the schools of Camden to teach numerous lessons through horticulture. Children in that program, he says, “are amazed by the quick germination of radishes – within a matter of days. That’s a miracle to a child. And that’s one reason we use them.”
In your own garden, you can experiment with other rapid-growers, big plants such as pumpkins, sunflowers, gourds, corn, beans, hollyhocks, and black-eyed Susans. These are mostly pretty tough plants, too, so they can take a bit of tough love.
Beware of toxic plants, and thorns and spikes
Not all plants are kid-friendly, of course.
“I think you want to avoid plants with seeds or other parts that are toxic, as well as spiky or thorny plants,” says Devlin. It’s unlikely you can ban all plants that might in some way be harmful – you’d have very little left in the garden – so children should always be supervised in the garden. And part of any parent’s strategy should be teaching kids not to eat anything that Mom or Dad hasn’t okayed.
Make sure they know, too, that the fact that a bird eats it, or a squirrel eats it, doesn’t mean it’s safe for people. And that even some of the fruits and veggies they eat for dinner may grow on plants that have poisonous parts, such as the stems, flowers, and leaves of potatoes, or the seeds of apples.
If you are creating a garden for young children, stick with the tried and true, such as anything on the “Top 20 Plants for Kids” list drawn up by children’s author Sharon Lovejoy – whose books, especially Roots, Shoots, Buckets, & Boots, are wonderful, fun introductions to gardening for kids.
Sunflower houses and pizza gardens
As Lovejoy – and many others who work with children – suggest, you can get kids to join in some creative games involving plants. One favorite is the sunflower house. A few years ago, Burpee owner George Ball had a wonderful sunflower “fort” growing at Fordhook Farm in Doylestown. As I recall, it contained many, if not all, of the giant sunflowers in the Burpee catalogue. But you don’t have to be quite that ambitious.
“Kids like hiding places, and parents could put up stakes and string and grow sunflowers and climbing edible beans [pole beans],” says Devlin, with the sunflowers forming the walls and the climbing beans creating the top of the tent, or house. Others have suggested using morning glories twining across string “rafters” to form the roof.
You can also make an easy plant teepee by sticking a few wooden stakes into the garden, lashing them together at the top, and planting fast-growing beans, peas, and flowering annual vines at their base. You’ll soon have a vine-covered hideaway.
Or you could plant a pizza garden, Devlin says, especially with older kids. Just create a circular garden as your “pizza,” then mark it off into slices. In each garden slice, grow something that goes onto a pizza – tomatoes, of course, plus peppers, basil, oregano… whatever you can dream up that might taste good on a pizza.
Try a tunnel…or butterflies
Kids also love tunnels, or anything they can crawl through. (Check out the Camden Children’s Garden exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show – there’s almost always a kid-size tunnel made from plants.) In your garden, you can create a “tunnel” by festooning a short arbor with vines, or pinning flexible branches into a tunnel shape.
“I think any kind of motion is good in a garden – it gets children’s attention and draws them in,” says Devlin, who has watched hundreds of kids screaming in delight as they dart in and out of the squirting water jets in one section of the Camden Children’s Garden. “A small water feature that is not deep – so that it is safe – with little bubble fountains, for instance. It doesn’t have to be a big feature – you could even put a bubble fountain in a water trough.
“Or, you could have a wildlife section in your garden, and put out bird houses and feeders. Encourage children to watch butterflies, and learn about the different aspects of the life cycle by planting butterfly plants such as milkweed, parsley and dill, and nectar plants. They may see monarchs lay their eggs on the milkweed.”
Chores, maybe…but don’t forget the magic
Should gardening for children be all fun and games, or should they give a hand with the chores as well? That depends on the parents’ philosophy. Too many rules are sure to turn kids off. But you can buy child-size tools and gardening gloves, as well as small watering cans, all of which can make kids eager to help. And some organizations, such as Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com), sell a “children’s garden collection” of seeds that are sure to capture a child’s imagination and make them want to nurture the plants themselves.
Don’t put children to work doing too much weeding, though – unless your macho kid really enjoys wrestling dandelions from the earth. And never use gardening chores as a punishment, or as something nasty the kids have to do to earn the right to do something more fun, such as watching television or having friends over. You want gardening to be the fun thing they want to do.
So if, like me, you have a new child in your life, get going… introduce him or her to the wonders of gardening.
Come spring, somewhere in South Carolina, maybe a little girl will look out of her window and be enchanted to see “Hi, Poppy!” spelled out in grape hyacinths.
Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots by Sharon Lovejoy
Sunflower Houses by Sharon Lovejoy
Hollyhock Days by Sharon Lovejoy
Creating a Family Garden by Bunny Guinness
A Child’s Garden: Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents by Molly Dannenmaier
Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
Designing Outdoor Environments for Children: Landscaping Schoolyards, Gardens, and Playgrounds by Lolly Tai, Mary Taylor Haque, Gina K. McLellan, Erin Jordan Knight
Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert
Eating the Alphabet: Fruits and Vegetables From A to Z by Lois Ehlert
A Seed Grows by Pamela Hickman and Heather Collins
Handbook of Poisonous and Injurious Plants by Lewis S. Nelson, Richard D. Shih, and Michael J. Balick
www.camdenchildrensgarden.org is the site for the Camden Children’s Garden, the first garden in the region to be dedicated to children. Several public gardens in the region also have children’s gardens on their grounds.
www.seedsofchange.com sells a “children’s garden collection” of seeds for plants that are sure to capture a child’s imagination
www.forsmallhands.com offers a range of supplies for budding gardeners
www.kidsgardening.org/family.asp has kids’ tools and gloves, books, themed seed collections, and advice on kids’ gardening
http://journeytoforever.org/edu_garden_link.html has many links for parents, children, and teachers