When my daughter was 5, she and I built a tepee for her at the edge of the tomato patch. She had been helping in the garden since she could toddle out, but I wanted to draw her in rather than demand, to win her heart to the enterprise. Chores don't do that. Shared creative projects can.
"Making a garden with children -- regardless of their age -- offers parents and children an opportunity to spend time together collaborating on a project," says Denise Magnani, author of Discover Enchanted Woods: A Fairy-Tale Garden at Winterthur (Winterthur / University Press of New England, $7.95) and the forthcoming Fairy-Tale Gardens: Creating Enchanted Landscapes for Children. "It also gets kids away from the TV, the computer, and the snack foods, and out into fresh air using their bodies."
"And in growing things, kids see that they can make a difference," adds Ellen McCarthy, family garden manager at the New York Botanical Garden. "Planting, tending, watching the garden grow, and harvesting shows that what they do personally -- or don't do if they neglect it -- makes a difference that they can see."
A defining theme
Though a child's garden can be as simple as a couple of bean plants climbing up a trellis or a frothy favorite-colored petunia in a hanging basket, a slightly larger one can rely on a theme to help define it. A favorite song, movie, poem or story can offer immediate possibilities.
"One year we had a Harry Potter Garden with black pansies and things out of the Harry Potter books in it," says McCarthy.
A Native American garden could be planted with the "Three Sisters" -- corn, beans and squash, Native American staples -- with some Rudbeckia 'Cherokee Sunset' thrown in for pickability.
An Animal Garden can be filled with things like hen and chicks (Sempervivum tectorum), spider flower (Cleome), lamb's ears (Stachys), zebra grass (Miscan-thus sinensis 'Zebrinus'), and cockscomb (Celosia).
A Candy Garden can sport candytuft (Alyssum), Cosmos 'Chocolate,' 'Peppermint Stick' zinnias (Zinnia elegans), and 'Starburst Lemon' sunflower (Helianthus annuus).
A Picture Garden, where different flowers create a picture, can run the gamut from an American flag made of red, white and blue petunias to a flower "quilt," like the one inside an old bed frame sunk to its rim and mounded with soil at the Family Garden at the New York Botanical Garden.
"We also had a Pizza Garden that is shaped in a circle and each piece has something different," says McCarthy. "One piece is peppers, another is tomatoes, and it's surrounded with a border of onions."
For a child who loves to pick flowers, help create a plot of fascinating (or big or weird) blooms that he or she can clear-cut at will. Or, simply plant cast-off boots, worn-out tennis shoes, Tonka trucks or old toys.
Do's and don'ts
Do gear the garden to the child.
"Talk with them, ask what they'd like to have in their garden. Or take them to different gardens and watch what they tend to gravitate to," notes Magnani, who is also curator of landscape at Winterthur Museum.
If they seek out hideaways, make a tepee or garden house. If they, like Ferdinand the Bull, simply want to smell the flowers, help plan a fragrance garden.
Don't get overambitious. They can always build on it year after year so it grows and evolves with them. Don't spend too much money. Even the best-tended garden can have failures. A hard life lesson, but the blow -- if it comes -- will be softer if the financial loss is minimal.
Avoid poisonous plants if you have young children or indiscriminate tasters.
Don't take over the garden. And, don't nag.
"This is not a place to give homework," cautions Magnani. "It's supposed to be fun, creative. It's not about perfection."
Winterthur, Del. 19735
3535 Jarrettsville Pike
Monkton, Md. 21111
American Horticultural Society
7931 E. Boulevard Dr.
Alexandria, Va. 22308
New York Botanical Garden
Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road
Bronx, N.Y. 10458-5126