BOSTON — As the weather turns cooler and gardeners trade trowels for rakes, it's time to look forward to next year's growing season.
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.
The plants with the most kid appeal are pumpkins, sunflowers, gourds, corn, berries, hollyhocks, tomatoes, and carrots, says Sharon Lovejoy of Cambria, Calif., who has written two books about gardening with children.
But not radishes, warns Jane Taylor, founder of the Michigan State garden. "They're fast, but kids hate radishes," she says from years of experience. "They take one taste and 'yuck,' they don't want them. Other crops take a little longer, but the children don't mind."
"A rainbow garden is great fun to grow," says Rosalind Creasy of Los Altos, Calif. It shows small gardeners that not all tomatoes are red, all string beans are green, or all potatoes white.
Search out Royalty beans, which are purple (don't worry, they turn green when cooked), Strawberry popping corn, Yellow Baby hybrid watermelon, and blue potatoes. These are just as simple to grow as their more conventional counterparts and will amaze friends and family. People often ask Mrs. Creasy if she has dipped her potatoes in blue food coloring.
For a hideaway, Mr. Rushing recommends placing wooden poles together in a tepee shape. When bean vines climb the poles, they create a leafy green hiding spot that's perfect for pretend play.
He also suggests the use of unusual containers. One year he placed bags of potting soil in the back of his pickup truck and planted peppers, tomatoes, and periwinkle in them to make a traveling garden. "My kids have never forgotten," he says. "They want to do that."
Other ideas that don't require much space or any digging are planting potatoes in a plastic garbage can, filling a holey pair of boots with herbs or marigolds, and putting soil and an alyssum plant in an old pair of work gloves and tacking it to a fence post to create a miniature hanging garden.
But introducing kids to gardening doesn't have to involve planting, he points out. Let children cut a squash, tomato, or cucumber open, dip it in paint, and make a vegetable print on paper. Or slice a sweet potato in half and root it in water indoors to make a lush green houseplant.
The whole idea of kids gardening is that "you want them to stop and explore, scratch and sniff, have a good time relaxing and using their imagination," he says.
Often, Ms. Lovejoy believes, you're sowing seeds of appreciation for gardening that will bear fruit much later. She recalls that after her son turned from flowers to football, she figured he was no longer interested in digging in the earth.
But one day when she visited him at college, he whisked her to the backyard to show her a small rectangle of dirt from which a few green shoots were sprouting.
"Look, Mom, I planted a moonlight garden," he said. "It will be full of sweet-smelling white plants that will glow in the darkness and attract sphinx moths like the big ones we used to watch at night."
The incident helped her realize that during years of digging, planting, watering, and weeding together, she and her son weren't growing just plants, but memories.
BOOKS AND SITES FOR THE MUDDY-SHOES SET
RECOMMENDED READING Better Homes & Gardens New Junior Garden Book by Felder Rushing, Meredith, $15.95.
Blue Tomatoes and Orange Tomatoes by Rosalind Creasy Little Brown & Co., paperback $6.95
Sierra Club Books, hardcover $15.95
Roots, Shoots, Buckets, and Boots by Sharon Lovejoy Workman Publishing, $13.95
Slugs, Bugs, and Salamanders (Discovering Animals in Your Garden) by Sally Kneidel Fulcrum Publishing, $15.95
Sunflower Houses by Sharon Lovejoy Contemporary Books, $24.95
INTERNET SITES Devoted to Kids' Gardening 4-H Children's Garden at Michigan State University http://4hgarden.msu.edu
The Great Plant Escape www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/gpe/index.html
Kids Garden www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/kids_gardening
Partners for Growing (grades 2-4), http://cissus.mobot.org/PFG
Seeds of Change Garden www.nmnh.si.edu/garden/seasons
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society