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Great Plants for a Child's Garden

extension.org

What better way to enjoy spring with your children than planting a garden together? All you need is a little planning, a sunny location, water and a selection of plants that are easy to grow.

Planning

A child’s garden can offer many experiences that will last into adulthood, says Meredith Melendez, senior program coordinator for the Rutgers New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES) Cooperative Extension. Determining a location that will be visible and enticing to the child is key.

As you’re selecting a site, keep in mind that how much direct sunlight the garden gets will determine the plants that can thrive in that location. Most flowers require full sun, which means at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day.

Also avoid areas that retain puddles after a rainfall. “It has to be well drained,” explains Harold Taylor, a section gardener at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA. “If water sits there for 24 hours after a rain, it’s probably not a good location.”

Plan to water the garden two to three times a week, depending on rainfall, and to weed it once a week.

Prepare the soil by turning the sod over and loosening the soil with a digging fork or spade to make the top six or eight inches loose and crumbly. Do this when the soil is moist but not wet. To prevent weeds, cover the garden with straw, which is clean and will allow kids to walk around without getting muddy.

“Have the soil tested for nutrients and pH,” adds Melendez. “The soil can look wonderful, but if the pH is off or there is too much or too little of a particular nutrient, it can wreak havoc in your garden. Soil tests are easy to have done.”

How to Test Your Soil

If you’ve never planted in the area you’ve chosen for your child’s garden and are unsure of the soil’s quality, you can test it. Anyone can order a Penn State soil testing kit for $9. Kits are also available from the University of  Delaware for $10. You can buy a kit for $20 from the Rutgers NJAES Cooperative Extension. Usually in 2-3 weeks, you’ll be advised if supplements are needed to adjust your soil’s PH or nutrients.

Choosing What To Grow

These flowers, herbs and vegetables are especially fun for kids and can be planted as seeds in early spring after the threat of frost, typically after Mother’s Day. They will all thrive in full sun.

  • Four O’clocks. They open in the late afternoon so kids can see them open after school.
  • Marigolds. They have a strong scent, especially when the leaves are rubbed between fingers. Spent blooms can be dissected so that kids can see the hundreds of seeds produced by one flower.
  • Nasturtium. Their flowers are edible and look great on salads.
  • Parsley or Dill. These herbs can be used for culinary purposes, and attract black swallowtail butterflies.
  • Peas. Pick the flowers for arrangements or eat the seed pods.
  • Snapdragons.Their unique shape can be squeezed to look like a mouth opening and closing.
  • Sunflowers. They attract beneficial insects, make great cut flowers and come in many different colors, head diameters and heights. Kids really love them since they follow the sun. You can also create a sunflower house by planting tall varieties in the perimeter of the garden.
  • Zinneas. These flowers come in an array of bright colors. For a shady garden, try coleus, impatiens or begonias.

Teaching Moments

“Planting a seed and watching it grow is truly a miracle,” says Susan Barton, PhD, an assistant professor and horticulture specialist at the University of Delaware. “Kids can start with small plants and see them grow and flower. It teaches responsibility and it is fun for kids to cut their flowers and arrange them in a vase. Anything that gets kids outdoors is a good thing.”

Getting young kids into the garden is important on many levels, says Melendez. They can gain a greater understanding of the interaction between plants, insects and humans, just by spending time watching nature’s processes.

Terri Akman is a local freelance writer.

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