Share your passion for gardening with your kids while teaching them responsibility and patience. Here are some of our favorite ideas to get you started.
Help children pick a place that's all theirs. Keep it kid-sized so the garden doesn't get overwhelming. Set them up for success -- make sure it's a sunny, well-drained spot that's in easy reach for watering. Let the gardeners-in-training mark their plot with a low decorative border they can paint themselves.
Sunflower houses provide great getaways -- especially on hot summer days. And with some help from Mom or Dad, they're easy to make. Start with a 4-foot by 8-foot rectangle in freshly prepared soil. Plant sunflower seeds -- towering varieties like Russian Mammoth -- every 12 inches along the rectangle, leaving a two-foot opening for the door. Place morning glory seeds next to each sunflower seed. (Eventually, they'll twine around the stalk and grow taller than the sunflowers.) Then loosely tie lengths of twine just below the heads of the tallest sturdiest sunflowers on opposite sides of the rectangle.
Native Americans called corn, beans, and squash the "Three Sisters" because, like the best of siblings, they support each other. Explain to budding gardeners that the corn stands tall and holds up the pole beans, which add nitrogen to the soil, while the squash vines act as living mulch. Who said gardening couldn't be an educational activity?
Garden-fresh toppings make pizza taste even better. Kids can grow plum tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, bell peppers, onions, garlic, and herbs like basil, rosemary, and oregano. If space permits, they can even design a pizza-shaped garden outlined with stones to resemble crust. Divide the pizza into individual planting sections that look like slices.
A garden is a great way to teach kids where food comes from. Harvest basil and throw a pesto-making party. Or help them whip up spaghetti sauce, gazpacho, or ratatouille from the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants they grew. You could also help them throw an ice cream party with daylily blooms substituting as edible cones.
Small spaces aren't an obstacle for small-fry gardens. Most flowers and vegetables are happy in containers as long as there's a drainage hole and enough room for the roots to breathe. Almost anything, from a worn-out boot to a doll carriage, can be a container. You can even use Mom's old purse, an out-of-date hat, or an abandoned tire. You'll be surprised with the unexpected ideas kids will come up with.
Kids won't get discouraged with proven winners like bright and pretty marigolds, zinnias, nasturtiums, and poppies, or fast-growing veggies like radishes, lettuce, and carrots. Radishes, for example, are ready to harvest in only 25 days.
Younger children can learn to tell time with flowers that open and close according to an internal clock. Morning glories open when the sun rises and moon flowers blossom in the evening. You might not be able to set your clock by them, but passion flowers seize the day around noon and evening primroses debut at six in the evening.
Let kids etch their names in young pumpkins with a ball-point pen (or with a nail) and watch what happens. Or stencil the letters of a child's first name in a prepared bed and sow with marigold seeds. It's one way to get a big name in the garden.
If you have the space, try growing your own garden giants. We love yard-long pole beans, cucuzza squash (it grows as long as baseball bats), super-sized pumpkins like Dill's Giant, or walking-stick cabbages with 7-foot-tall stems -- great for making walking sticks in the fall. Kids will love tracking the growth of their gentle giants with photos, blogs, or good old-fashioned journals.
Younger children will like babysitting tiny vegetables. Try baby beets, silver dollar-sized patty pan squash, sweet Parmex carrots (just 1 inch in diameter), cherry tomatoes, baby lettuces, Bambino eggplants, and Batwing pumpkins--no bigger than a softball.
Grow many varieties of the same vegetable like red, pink, black, and yellow tomatoes. Beets aren't just red -- there are candy-striped Chioggia beets and Golden beets. Cauliflower comes in a rainbow of colors -- green Emeraude, orange Cheddar, and lime-green Gitano. You can even find purple carrots, yellow cucumbers, and pink corn for popping.
Lure butterflies with lots of sun-loving nectar plants, from spring-blooming pinks and lilacs to fall-flowering asters and ironweed. You can also try lantana, pentas, black-eyed Susans, verbena, red valerian, yarrow, purple coneflowers, and the aptly named butterfly bush. Hummingbirds have a thing for many of the same plants, but also love monarda, fuchsia, and red-hot-poker. Buy field guides so children can go on a backyard safari and catalog the garden's winged visitors.
Plants have best friends just like people do. Marigolds help tomatoes and roses grow better. Nasturtiums keep bugs away from squash and broccoli. Petunias protect beans from beetles and oregano chases them away from cucumbers. Geraniums keep Japanese beetles away from roses and corn. Chives make carrots sweeter, and basil makes tomatoes even tastier.
Luffa gourds grow into, well, luffas. Sow seeds in compost in the spring and give plants a string to climb. When the gourds ripen in the fall, cut them open and scoop out the seeds. What's left will wither into a sponge. Rub-a-dub-dub.
Don't expect perfection. Listen to your children's ideas and let them experiment. Make sure projects and tasks are challenging but age-appropriate. If the young gardener asks a question you can't answer, look for the answer together. Don't leave young children unattended in the garden. Make it a rule that they don't eat anything without permission -- even tomato leaves are poisonous. Hats, garden gloves, and sunblock are essential. And go organic -- the earth will thank you and so will your kids.