Plant a garden with a child to teach nature’s lessons

Last Updated: 
June 17, 2010

PORTLAND, Ore. - Remember your childhood days when a backyard became a ranch complete with horses and outlaws? Or an old tree became an airplane? Try planting a garden with a child.

"Environmental attitudes are formed at the pre-school age," said Ray McNeilan, horticulturist emeritus with the Oregon State University Extension Service. "Kids need to understand how important plants and the environment are to themselves and everyone else. They will carry these attitudes and this knowledge into their adult lives. Through gardening, learning about the environment can be lots of fun."

"When you plan a child's garden, plan for the imagination," he suggested. "An adult may have a vegetable or herb garden, but a child might think of it as Alice in Wonderland's garden or Peter Rabbit's garden. Think about the stories your child has heard or read to get ideas for their garden. A beanpole teepee can be a Jack in the Beanstalk garden or Cinderella's garden can have pumpkins and lady slippers. Or an A-B-C garden might be fun – if large enough, everything from asters to zinnias could be planted."

A sense of personal ownership in the garden is important to a child.

"Adults may want everything in neat rows, but kids don't care, and the things don't have to be that way," he said. "What is important is that the garden belongs to the child, and the child should be involved in the planning of it."

Children should be encouraged to go into their garden and to visit it often. There should be no "NO" signs or negative attitudes.

"A child's garden should not be a forbidden place that is entered only when there is work to do," said McNeilan. "Kids want to caress a purple eggplant, feel a shiny tomato and smell the first sweet pea."

What do kids want in a garden? Vegetables yes, but no radishes, according to the National Gardening Bureau.

"Almost every book on kids' gardens tells you to plant radishes, mostly because they grow fast," said McNeilan. "But do your kids like radishes? Usually they take one bite and 'yuck,' they don't want them. Other crops such as carrots, pumpkins, tomatoes and sweet corn will take a bit longer, but they are worth the extra wait.

"Consider the senses when planning for the child's garden," he added. "Think of how it is to touch the tubular leaves of green onions, feel the ferny tops of carrots or smell the sharp odor of a crushed tomato leaf.

"The child's garden could also be a flower garden. Make a rainbow garden with broad stripes of different colors that end in a pot of golden marigolds.

"Or consider an all green garden," suggested McNeilan. "How about a 'Kermit the Frog' green garden with lettuce, spinach and chard?"

Author: Carol Savonen
Source: Ray McNeilan