Cultivate a Child’s Love of Gardening
Fun and learning sprout when kids discover how plants grow.
by Claire Yezbak Fadden
The Morris Arboretum, 100 Northwestern Ave. in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia, continues its Garden Discovery Series on the first Saturday of each month, 11am-3pm, with these May and June events:
• A Bug’s Eye View, May 5. While exploring the garden, collect materials to make unique microscope slides, then observe the colorful differences in pollen grains, the intricacies of fern spores and the beauty of lichens and mosses.
• Ladybug Lift-Off! June 2. A single ladybug, known as the gardener’s best friend, can consume as many as 5,000 aphids in a lifetime. Learn how to use these good bugs to get rid of bad bugs, then release some at your favorite spot in the Arboretum.
Before you pile the family into the car to make a trip to the local nursery and buy seed packets, mulch and a new hose, consider a few points to increase your odds of success.
Decide Where and What. Walk around your backyard to determine the best place for your child’s garden. Choose a spot with enough space for kids to walk through without accidentally trampling plants.
“The most important thing is to keep it simple,” says Susan Newman, author of Little Things Long Remembered: Making Your Children Feel Special Every Day (Crown, $14.95). You can do this by planting vegetables your children like to eat.”
Do Your Homework. Before digging that first hole, get information about what you’re planting. Look through gardening books to get ideas. “Even hard-to-grow plants can be easy if you learn a little about them before planting. Use this time as a way to learn together,” says Vincent Drzewucki. Jr., author of several gardening books.
Ask for advice when you go to the garden center or nursery. To get off to a good start, try plants that grow quickly. Radishes are a good choice and once they’ve matured, kids love to pull them out of the ground. Other colorful choices include green beans, tomatoes, carrots and peppers.
Buy a kid-size wheelbarrow, shovel, rake, hoe, gloves, watering can and gardening bag or tote.
• Don’t allow younger children to handle sharp gardening tools.
• Do allow older children to use pruners and snips under the watchful eye of a parent.
• Keep insecticides, weed kil-lers and other chemical fertilizers out of reach.
• Always supervise children when they’re around water.
Like any other activity, gardening needs time set aside for it. But remember to keep your sessions brief. Gardening for short periods of time with frequent activity changes will help keep kids engaged.
Remember Who’s The Gar-dener. “Let children help and be involved, even if it’s just in small ways at first. Don’t make it boring chores but brief fun things,” says Drzewucki.
“Enlist kids of all ages to weed as much as their capabilities and attention span will allow,” suggests Cheryl Dorschner, a former editor for the National Gardening Association. But “don’t expect kids to do all the watering and pest patrol,” she adds.
Focus on Fun. Children need to think of gardening as fun, not work. Don’t insist that your kids weed the vegetable patch each Saturday without sharing the fun of picking a bouquet of daisies or measuring how much the sunflowers have grown.
Dorschner says one way to focus on fun is not to expect to accomplish a lot. “We move mulch. We catch toads. We pull a few weeds. We blow the fuzz off dandelions,” she says. “If a child wants to plant last night’s dessert watermelon seeds we do just that. Leave room for good old-fashioned digging. Holes are a highly popular landscape feature.”
Once you’ve gotten your children interested in how things grow, hold their interest with fun activities.
• Plant a garden of items you’d find in a salad or on a pizza.
• Entice butterflies by planting daisies, zinnias, petunias, parsley and dill. “Wild plants are the
diet butterflies expect,” says Dorschner. To lure ladybugs, add plants that provide pollen and nectar, such as blue cornflower or fennel. Humming-birds are partial to hollyhock, snapdragons, gladiolas and honeysuckle.
• Make a scarecrow.
• Create your own salsa from homegrown tomatoes.
• Experiment with the senses. Sweet peas are colorful and smell great. Geraniums, lavender and rosemary are also fragrant. Bedding plants such as lamb’s ears are soft and woolly to touch. Chocolate mint is an easy-to-grow herb.
• Grow something big or tall. Plant sunflowers, pumpkins, watermelon or beanstalks.
• Decorate and design labels for the plants in your garden
• Become botanists or entomologists. Discuss the miracle of germination, soil chemistry and the bug-eat-bug world of beneficial insects destroying their prey.
• A more challenging project is to plant an alphabet garden with everything from asters to zinnias.
The important thing to remember is that you’re spending time together. Focus on the process of gardening and not on the final result. “Making a few mistakes is part of the learning,” says Drzewucki. “Even experienced gardeners lose a plant or two once in a while. Don’t worry if a few plants die. Look at it as an opportunity to try something else that might work.”
Claire Fadden is a freelance writer.
The site includes a column by Denise Cowie, long-time gardening writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Visitors can narrow their choice of gardens by type, features, amenities or location.
A clickable calendar lets visitors search for garden events by date. www.greaterphiladelphiagardens.org
With more than 200 color photos by Rob Cardillo, the book organizes gardens geographically, making those near you easy to find. In addition to each garden’s features, Levin lists hours, fees, time needed for a tour and other details. The book includes community and private gardens and a section on how to visit a garden.