Geoffery Cape is Executive Director of the Evergreen Foundation which has pioneered truly effective schoolyard gardens. They?ve had the best chance possible to see what it is that drives kids in the garden. Their conclusion: the most important is to involve them in the process, let them make decisions and take responsibility for the life or the death of their gardens.
One of the ideas that Evergreen suggests is a Pizza Garden: let kids decide what they want in the garden by basing it on what they like to eat in a pizza: tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, hot peppers even strawberries. It may look a little chaotic but who cares. When children make the decision Evergreen find they don?t get impatient and are very observant about what?s growing and how.
In Geoff?s own garden his two kids, Thomas, 3 and Ben 1 find their pleasure not in the sandbox but in the hole dug for a pond. They can dig, get dirty. He?s adding stones and rocks small enough for them to move around.
In the garden: Space is the first thing you want to allot a child, but don?t overwhelm them with too much of it. Hunker down mentally to a kid?s concept of what?s big, look at it from their point of view. Even a raised bed two feet by two feet would be enough to grow something in. Since you want a child to take responsibility for the allotment make sure it isn?t choc-a-block with weeds. Dig down about four inches and let the little one dump good top soil into the hole. This might actually be enough for very small children. But the odd seed or fast growing perennial will give it more of a garden-y feeling.
In a container: It can be a big old cast off pot, a terra cotta container or a window box. Kids love to muck about with soil. Let them make up a container mix: one part compost or manure, one part ground up leaves one part good garden soil ought to keep them happy. It will be easy to use and seeds or plants will be easy to plunk into it. Make sure they are watered well on planting and checked for watering every day early in the morning and late afternoon. Containers can be moved around, they can be put in secret places, which is important for most kids.
Mulching is major fun. Save bags of leaves in the autumn, grind them up ready to be tossed about. This doesn?t have to be a perfect science in spring, just make sure exposed soil will be covered. Explain that this is like a blanket against both sun and cold.
Composting: our grandsons love to screen compost and pick out the worms to toss back into the compost pile. A bit of screening over a container is all you need for this. It?s the kind of thing a 3-year old can spend a lot of time poking about and they lose all squeamishness about handling worms. Most children of my acquaintance are enchanted by the idea that worms feed plants with their poo. Fits right in with humour.
Pre-select packets of seed in favourite colours, stuff that will grow quickly. Give them too much choice and you?ll line them up for failure because they inevitably will choose plants that take too long to germinate, won?t grow in the space or light.
For sun (at least 6 hours a day): The all-time winner is scarlet runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus). The seeds are large enough for small hands to manage. They have bright red flowers (there are white cultivars as well), will produce beans in 65 days and then long string beans good for eating. You can train them to run up bamboo stakes to make a tent to hide in. Sunflowers (Helianthus) win hands down in the non-veg department. There are varieties that reach four to five feet high. Put in a line of sunflowers, then weave morning glory through it you can form a natural fort by August.
For Shade: I?d recommend buying plants for the shade instead of seeds: hostas are big and leafy, columbine is so lovely no child is less than enchanted and daylilies are indestructible.
Don?t discount seedlings you see popping up everywhere. We know one kid who gathered up all the maple seedlings planted them in rows to bring them along and learned how to bonsai with bits of coat hanger and string. His mother calls it plants in bondage.
There are great tools scaled to small hands and talents. A small trowel is a must. There are also tiny garden gloves that 3-year old Madeleine loves.
One thing our kids also like to do is to decorate the garden. I have a collection of treasures garnered from barns, garbage dumps and the like: it?s up to them to find secret places for them. Garden growth means that they?ll have fun later on trying to find out where they put, or make me find them. This is when I find that they will stop short to look into the face of a plant. It doesn?t really matter if they smush them in the process it?s the looking that counts. Plants that feel good: lamb?s ears (Stachys lanata) and lavender are both unkillable and smell good as well.
It?s important to acquaint kids with the bugs of the garden and appreciating how important they are to the whole system. A decent magnifying glass is an absolute must piece of equipment.
Get them a good book on bugs. I constantly refer to the Kids Can Press Book of Bugs.
The book I like best is The Kids Can Press Jumbo Book of Gardening by Karyn Morris. It?s a treat and filled with great suggestions especially about making a native plant garden. Superb for children who can read and are self-motivated. For adults: a must.
Take kids to visit a children?s garden or a playground in your city or town to see what other kids have done and steal some creative ideas. In Toronto the Teaching Garden at The Civic Garden Centre (777 Lawrence Ave West, free parking or you can approach from the Bridal Path behind the CGC) is an amazing and intriguing design. They have great summer programmes for children of all ages.
Many cities have schoolyard projects. You can get a mass of information for both home and school projects from the Evergreen Foundation.
Originally published: 2001. Globe & Mail.