A is for Apples,
B is for Blueberries,
L is for Lamb’s Ears,
P is for Pussy Toes
What are your earliest memories of gardening? Who introduced you to the pleasure of sucking the sweet nectar from honeysuckle flowers? When did you marvel at the twin wings of radish sprouts popping through the soil just days after you planted them? Where did you pick armfuls of golden rod and daisies to bring home and surprise your mom?
Introducing children to gardening is a grand and frustrating adventure. The memories of my mother’s gardening are full of mishaps and funny stories. She insisted on repotting her house plants in the worst outdoor garden soil which immediately turned to cement. She adored the bright colors of zinnias, but it was my job to pick off the Japanese beetles so I’ve never grown zinnias since. And she loved the tough sprawling nasturtiums which I now do as well. My mother was not a gifted gardener, but she persisted every summer with her drifts of petunias, marigolds and, of course, zinnias. My sister has her own stories of my mother’s mishaps, but the upshot is that we both became ardent gardeners to our own children’s amusement and stories, I’m sure.
My sons have now admitted to using my endless tomatoes for batting practice. They were required to weed the vegetable garden for their allowance and found a way to repay me for feeding them squash-sized green beans and baseball bat-zucchini. But my fondest memory is one of them returning home from his paper route, a handful of wildflowers in one hand for his mom. Both sons now have their own gardens. The former tomato batter is rescuing his trees – once a former nursery - from the devastation of bittersweet vines. The other is adding his voice to reclaim Florida from the invasive pepper bush.
Capturing a young child’s imagination and directing it to the fascinating diversity of a garden before s/he discovers the computer is certainly a challenge these days. Why not take the garden to them by planting the swing set/outdoor gym structure. It is certainly not the most decorative equipment in the yard, but it’s probably the largest. Try surrounding it with an informal hedge of fruit. Dwarf apple trees in at least two varieties on the four corners, connected by blueberry bush hedges, create a distraction for the eye and provide color in spring and fall. Add a groundcover beneath of ever bearing alpine strawberries and you have an array of easily available “nutritious” snacks. How more perfect can that be?
Children like to have their own hideaways. Try building a teepee of bamboo poles. Then plant morning glories, pole beans, or bird’s nest gourds to climb the poles. Perhaps a tent would be more inviting. Try stretching bird netting (the kind you use to cover the blueberry bushes) over a bamboo frame in a tent form. Sugar peas or sweet peas or nasturtiums or cucumbers can grow over the netting. Wouldn’t you like to hide inside and pick those treasures hanging over your head? These structures can be part of the children’s own play areas – inside the fruit hedge. There’s no need to worry about tender plants in your own garden getting trampled. This harvest is all for fun. If things get forgotten or stepped on, it’s not a catastrophe. Why not try pumpkins. They are just about childproof and you can use them for furniture in your fort.
Another way to capture a younger child’s interest is in plant names. Young children love funny names and sounds. Pussy Toes – Antennaria, soft gray fuzzy-leaved plants that look like their name, just as furry gray Lamb’s Ears – Stachys, look like theirs. Then there’s prickly pear for contrast, a cactus that can grow here. You could pick some Balloon Flowers – Platycodon, for a party. Bleeding Hearts, Coral Bells, Fairy Bells and Forget-me-nots are beautiful and so easy to grow. Beware the enticing Foxgloves – Digitalis, Lily of the Valley – Convallaria, and Monkshood –Aconitum, they are dangerously poisonous - the wicked witches in the garden. But there are always Hens and Chickens – Sempervivum, Jacob’s Ladder – Polemonium, and Lady’s Mantle – Alchemilla, holding a diamond in its center after a rain, to bring a smile. A wagging finger can direct the flowers of Obedient plant – Physostegia, one way and another, while the flowers of Rose of Sharon can be transformed into miniature tutus for a blossoming ballerina.
A young child’s sense of smell and taste is acute. There’s an array of wonderfully scented plants such as Lavender and licorice-smelling Hyssop in blue, spicy Dianthus, sweet Peonies and Phlox in pink, warm-smelling bed straw – Galium in white. A strawberry pot with multiple openings on its sides could provide a home for mints which now come in diverse smells and flavors, including chocolate, pineapple, apple, and plain old spearmint. Of course, there is a host of fragrant old fashioned shrubs such as lilac, viburnums and the Spirea, Bridal Wreath, which I sat under as a child, shaking its white confetti-like petals down on two pretend brides beneath.
For something quite adventurous, why not plant an African grassland - a corner of the backyard given over to six to eight foot tall grasses and clump bamboos. It would make the best-ever safari-hunting, dinosaur-habitat, bad-guy-hideout. In fact, if the property is large and sunny enough, why not turn the entire back portion into meadow. You would be quite ecologically correct as well, and it will become a butterfly and bird magnet to boot. Plant it with a low growing grass species and local wildflower species from seed or small plants. Don’t waste money on meadows in cans, they don’t work. Lay out pathways through the meadow, and keep them mown during the summer to entice the small game and smaller hunters to venture out into the wilds. Mow once a year to keep the jungle at bay.
Another memory comes to mind … a giant machine coming through the meadow behind my house one summer long ago. It was snorting and ripping up all the daisies I liked to pick with my little invisible friend, George. I think I was three at the time, and the memory persists to this day. Gardens and flowers are tied to some of our most early sense memories which are very powerful indeed.