A fun and inexpensive way to encourage outdoor exploration is with a simple garden you and your children grow together. An added bonus — you don’t even need to know how to garden. Here are few tips to get you started.
Talk up the idea. To begin your child’s adventure, build her interest in flowers through storybooks, a trip to grandma’s garden, a walk through your own bed of flowers, or a visit to My Big Backyard at Memphis Botanic Garden. Notice how plants come in all shapes and sizes, from tiny, pea-sized buds to giant, elephant ear-sized leaves.
Give him his own tools. All kids love to feel grown up, playing with bubble-blowing lawn mowers and kid-sized weed whackers, so be sure to equip your budding gardener with his own set of tools. Grab old forks, spoons, and spatulas — anything that makes a good (and safe) digging tool — and let him know those items are his own special tools for digging in the dirt. You may want to include an old, thin pair of winter gloves to add to their stash.
Find the right spot. Some plants, like sunflowers and marigolds, require full sun (six to eight hours of direct sun each day). Others, such as impatiens and coleus, prefer shade, especially during the hottest part of the day. To determine which plants you can grow, take a walk with your child and consider where your yard has more sun or shade (and when). Talk about the different needs of plants — sunlight, water, and dirt — while telling your child he’ll get to play in the sunshine and dig in the dirt as he cares for his garden.
If you have a fairly level part of the yard that gets full sun and doesn’t hold water after a rain, it might be perfect for fast-growing, dinner plate-sized sunflowers and giant elephant ears. However, if your space is more on the shady side, consider impatiens and coleus. Both make lovely, kid-friendly choices that thrive in shade. Impatiens come in pink, white, red, coral. Coleus, while not grown for flowers, provide vibrant foliage, with striking leaves and variegated color patterns. The best ones for catching young gardeners’ attention are the pink or green polka dot varieties, readily available at most garden centers.
If you lack a backyard, you can still grow a child’s garden on a balcony or stoop. Just cut drainage holes in the bottoms of a sturdy container (like an ice cream bucket) and fill with good quality potting soil. It will work for impatiens, coleus, marigolds, and caladiums. Since containers dry out fast, water every few days.
Seeds or transplants? Once you’ve determined the perfect spot, it’s time to purchase plants. Marigolds, coleus, and impatiens are best started with nursery starts. Since seedlings take time before flowers appear, that slow growth can result in disappointed kids who lose interest.
However, you can start sunflowers from seeds. My kids prefer the giant ‘Mammoth’ variety. These reach dinner plate-size in no time and grow nearly six feet tall. To keep interest alive as sunflowers develop flower heads, plant marigolds around the border. These provide bright colors closer to a small child’s eye level and last long after the sunflower heads have begun to fade.
Get planting. Once you’ve made your purchase, clear sod away with a shovel or tiller and work the soil until light and fluffy. Adding an inch or two of compost or topsoil is a good idea to help aerate soil and feed plants. Tuck seeds or transplants into soil and water well. Keep soil moist, but not soggy, throughout the growing season.
Watch your garden grow. Take photos as your child discovers his very first garden. Shoot a video of your crew digging in the dirt. Press flowers. Take a selfie of their first bouquet. Get down on your belly with your child and observe the myriad creatures living in the garden. You will be amazed how much your children learn by growing a flower.