Your home landscape presents numerous opportunities to teach kids about nature and gardening in ways that are fun for both them and you. With planning, you can make the entire yard a discovery zone, with places to explore and enjoy.
This may call for rethinking your landscape. Adding native plants and increasing plant diversity while eliminating harmful chemicals (such as in fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides) helps to attract and sustain birds and mammals, beneficial insects, amphibians and reptiles, and butterflies.
Include a good, sturdy climbing tree such as a maple or sycamore. Grow cherry tomatoes, edible pod peas, carrots, strawberries, or other snackable edibles in containers or flower beds or plant a blueberry hedge.
Allow for “wild” areas, even tiny ones, where kids can dig and play in the dirt with sticks, stones, and water. Create places to hide (under a weeping cherry works well) or leave space behind a shrub border.
Children learn about and experience the world through their senses, so surround them with fun plants to look at, touch, taste, smell, and hear.
Gardens can nurture many other senses, too: of humor, of accomplishment, of beauty, of curiosity, of delight … and of connection to the living I world.
Here are some ideas to get you going:
Make Edibles FUN with …
* ‘Golden India’ edible pod peas
* red, blue, or yellow potatoes
* red, purple, or yellow carrots
* orange or purple cauliflower
* pink, mahogany, black, or ‘Green Zebra’ striped heirloom tomatoes
* purple string beans
* red kale
* ‘Lemon’ cucumbers
* ‘Sweet Dumpling’ squash
* ‘Flying Saucer’, ‘Sunburst’, or ‘Eight Ball’ summer squashes
* ‘Jack-Be-Little’ pumpkins
* ‘Thumbelina’ carrots
* ‘Tom Thumb’ lettuce
Show children what is edible–just a few flowers to start with, to avoid confusion–and make it clear that everything else is off-limits for tasting. If possible, give them their own little corner or container for growing edible flowers.
* ‘Dragon Tongue’ beans
* ‘Easter Egg’ radishes
* ‘Painted Serpent’ cucumbers
* ‘Black Cherry‘, ‘Jelly Bean’, and yellow pear tomatoes
Most of these vegetables prefer full sun and loose soil that is rich in organic matter. Many fit right into ornamental gardens or containers. Growing vertically–cucumbers, peas, and pole beans–yields a lot of produce in a small space and supplies opportunities to construct colorful trellises, tepees, or vine-covered hideaway huts.
* ‘Casa Blanca’ lilies
* “dinner plate” hibiscus
* ‘Mammoth’ or 12-foot-tall ‘Kong’ sunflowers
Grow some huge flowers in a sunny corner of your yard. These are great for show-and-tell or having kids measure the plants for record sizes.
Spark the Imagination With a Zoo Garden
Annuals And tender perennials
* bat-faced cuphea
* elephant ear
* spiny spider flower
* cardinal flower
* cat’s whiskers
* hens and chicks
* lambs’ ears
These mostly sun-loving animal-name plants are fun to group together for a playful plot. Invite kids to guess why or how the plant got its name. Use the plants to start kids telling tales of plant (and animal) adventures.
SCENTS TO SNIFF
* banana mint, chocolate mint, and peppermint
* crown imperial (skunky smell)
* katsura tree (autumn leaves have been described as smelling like baking muffins, bubble gum, burned sugar, or cotton candy)
* Persian shield (smells like dirty socks)
* pineapple sage
Whether rubbing a leaf to enjoy the scent of pineapples or dragging their feet through a bed of chocolate mint planted under a swing, kids enjoy the sensory pleasures of the plant world. Stinky plants seem to intrigue boys who perhaps wouldn’t let themselves be seen sniffing anything sweet.
Grow a Sponge
For a creative activity, grow loofah, or luffa, gourds that can be made into sponges. The plants need a trellis or fence to climb. Large yellow flowers are followed by green fruit. When the fruit is 3 to 4 inches long, it can be picked and cooked like a summer squash.
To make sponges, pick the gourds when they are about 12 to 18 inches long and have turned leathery brown. Store them in a warm, dry place until the skin becomes papery. Peel the skin off and cut off the blossom end to shake out the seeds. Rinse the sponges thoroughly in water before drying them outside in the sun.
Other activity plants to grow are bottle gourds (for birdhouses and rattles), hollyhocks (use the flowers for doll dresses), and plants with seed pods or cones (for fairy houses and holiday crafts).
Karen Bussolini is a garden photographer, writer, lecturer, and eco-friendly garden coach who lives in South Kent, Connecticut