Imagination grows in Children's Gardens
As the weather turns cooler and gardeners trade trowels for rakes, it's time to look forward to next year's growing season.Skip to next paragraph
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Many parents and grandparents, as well as teachers and youth workers, would like to introduce children to the enjoyment of gardening: the wonder of a tiny seed sprouting into a colorful flower or vegetable, the faces in Johnny jump-ups, and snapdragons that pop open when pinched.
Instead of planting a kids' garden on the spur of the moment in the spring, it's better to take time during the fall and winter to plan one that's sure to be a success, says Norm Lownds, curator of the Michigan State University 4-H Children's Garden in Children and adults tend to take different views of gardening, he points out. Grown-ups value tidiness - planting in straight, neat rows and banishing weeds.
Youngsters see gardening as fun, an opportunity to mess around in the dirt, play in water, and come eye-to-eye with a wriggling worm or darting dragonfly. They may find weeds such as dandelions and Japanese honeysuckle more attractive than the flowers and vegetables their elders prefer.
That's why anyone who wants to garden with children should let them help plan the plot and have the final say on what goes into it.
This has been the guiding principle from the beginning at the 4-H Children's Garden, the country's most famous children's garden. At the insistence of first-graders, for instance, dandelions are among the featured flowers in an "animal garden," where plants with animal names grow.
When designing a garden that will appeal to youngsters, "you have to be able to think like a kid," says Dr. Lownds. "Look at the details, not the vistas."
When an adult creates a garden, he stands on the edge of the deck, gazes out, and admires how the project looks. Children don't do that. Focusing on what's close, rather than off in the distance, they bend down and investigate a bug crawling on the deck's railing.
A good way to get ideas is for adult and child to spend several hours at a nearby public garden that has a kids' section. Among the best known are the Everett Children's Adventure Garden at the New York Botanical Garden, the American Horticulture Society's children's garden at its River Farm headquarters in Alexandria, Va., the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania.
As garden planners at these gardens talk with youngsters to find out what they like, one thing they've all discovered is that theme gardens are a hit. A moon garden can feature plants that bloom at night - four o'clocks, evening primrose, and moon vine, for instance - as well as white flowers that show up well in the moonlight.
One area of the 4-H garden that is a big hit is the pizza patch. It's shaped like a pizza with one slice cut out so the kids can step into the garden to care for it. In each wedge is a different "ingredient": tomatoes, oregano, peppers, onions, garlic. In a whimsical touch, marigolds masquerade as cheese around the edge. At harvest time, boys and girls can pick the produce and help make their own pizza.
Other popular themes include Peter Rabbit's garden, plants that attract butterflies or hummingbirds, fragrant plants, and an alphabet garden.
Felder Rushing, father of two and author of "Better Homes and Gardens New Junior Garden Book," suggests a Roy G. Biv garden for elementary-school kids.
The unusual name helps children remember the colors of the rainbow in their order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.
According to Patricia Sullivan, who teaches children to garden in Connecticut and at the New York Botanical Garden, a successful kids' garden contains six key elements.
Kids want water (especially running water); heights to climb; hideaways; a place where they can run, play, twirl, swing, and slide; sand to dig in; and a feeling of ownership.
"It's very important that little ones have their own space,'' she says.