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Planning a children’s garden can be done any time of year, but right now is a great time to get started. Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of the seed catalogs that would arrive in the mail in the late winter. The snow would still be deep outside, but my sister and I would go through them all, making lists of all the wonderful things we wanted to grow. Of course our paper gardens far exceeded our space, energy and funds. But boy, was it fun to dream.

children's garden

Planning a garden isn’t just enjoyable, however, it also can be a wonderful learning experience. By giving your child the freedom to design his or her own space, a budget to work with and a few simple tools, you can have a project that builds a lifetime of skills and memories. Over the next few weeks, let’s cover several fun gardening activities. We’d love to hear your suggestions for projects or resources (Links edited 2/2014)

Types of Gardens
First help your child decide on the type of garden he or she would like to plant. Does your child like vegetables? Then a kitchen garden would be perfect. Other types of gardens might be flower gardens or herb gardens. You might want to check our previous posts on theme gardens and theme gardening books for ideas.

Planning
Your local Cooperative Extension office is likely to have information about gardening with children. For example, the University of Illinois Extension has a Planning My Garden area for kids with information on how to grow different plants just a click away. The Colorado State Cooperative Extension has a friendly Gardening with Children website with a section on planning a garden PBS has information/ideas about gardening with children and KidsGardening.org has a wonderful article about how to plan a garden with children.

If you want to be part of an organization, take a look at the Cooperative Extension's Junior Master Gardener Program. They have curricula for sale and links to gardening books that have been reviewed and recommended.

Gardening Curricula

If you have had gardens in the past and want to expand your learning experiences even more, now is the time to plan garden activities, too.  These days there are a number of websites and organizations devoted to gardening with children and often they have free curricula. For example,  Kidsgardening.org has a wonderful Pollinator curriculum.  (Apparently this is no longer available - see Creating a pollinator garden instead). While you are there, take a look at the article: Turning Kids On to gardening, as well.

If you want to have the seed catalog experience, here are some links to seed company websites. Most are still willing to send a paper copy of their catalogs, if you want one. These are just the first few that came to mind, no endorsement is implied. Many of these websites also have a wealth of information about gardening. Hope you spend a few minutes and do a little garden dreaming, too.

Botanical Interests

Burpee

Gurney’s Seed and Nursery Company

Johnny’s Seeds

Park Seed Co.

Seeds of Change

Seed Saver’s Exchange

bean seed

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After the cold weather, isn’t it time to think about spring? Bring a “springy” feel into your home with flowers. Children will benefit from the opportunity to observe plants and flowers up close, as well as enjoy their colorful beauty.

Houseplants
One way to have flowers during the cold months is by growing houseplants that bloom. I still remember the way my grandmother’s Christmas cactus erupted into a riot of red blossoms every winter, even though it was over thirty years ago. She also grew African violets in a wide variety of colors. She often took the leaves that had been knocked off or trimmed and started new plants by dipping the stems in water. You can use fallen African violet leaves as an opportunity to teach about plant propagation.

Our family has been watching one of our orchids for the last few weeks. It put on buds and then a few days ago the first flower opened. Since we had been babying the plant for over two years, we felt a sense of accomplishment. We learned that orchids have very different requirements for growth than some of our other houseplants.

orchid

Bulbs
Another way to bring spring inside is to grow bulbs indoors. A great favorite are the amaryllis. I often buy them after holiday sales when they are cheaper, making sure the bulbs still look firm. They grow fast, so they are a good project for young children who are impatient for results. Here in Arizona they can be set out into the garden to grow and bloom another year.

amarylllis

To add some science to the project, have the children measure the plant every day or every other day and record their results. Try to find out where amaryllis plants are found in nature, and what their natural environment is like. Plant several bulbs and grow them under different conditions to see which they prefer. Finally, you can get bulbs that are different colors and see if they grow any differently under the same conditions. We’d love to hear what you find out.

Other bulbs that can be grown indoors are tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, narcissus and crocuses. Most of these bulbs need a cold period before they will bloom, so make sure they have been properly chilled before planting.

Cuttings of Outdoor Plants
Bringing in branches of flowering trees and shrubs and putting them in a vase is another wonderful way to have some early spring flowers. Wait until a day when the temperature is above freezing and then cut a few branches from your forsythia bushes, pussy willows or fruit trees. Try to get branches with nice plump buds. Remove any side branches at the base that will be under the water level and then place the cut ends in a vase of warm water. Keep the vase filled with enough water, and you should have flowers in about two weeks. This is a quick project that doesn’t require a lot of effort, but that result in a lot of enjoyment.

Maybe this video of forsythia will inspire you.

Other activity suggestions:

  • gather an assortment of different plants and learn about differences in plant families and their flower structure
  • draw the flowers for an art project
  • study plant parts (anatomy) by identifying the stems, leaves, roots, etc.
  • explore plant propagation techniques

If you would like more details on any of these, please let me know. Hope you have fun!

The rain we’ve been having lately has popped a bunch of seedlings in our yard.

lupine seedling

I’m always excited to see these seedlings coming up, because I know in a few short months the seedlings will grow into showy flowers called lupines.

lupines
Lupines are fun because they self-seed readily. I first planted these over 15 years ago and they have come up every year since. On the other hand, they have not spread aggressively to other areas; they stay right where I put them.

The name lupine is thought to come from the idea that lupines were like “wolves” (lupus) eating all the nutrients out of the soil, because they always seem to grow in poor soil. Now people have realized that these members of the pea family can make their own nutrients in conjunction with bacteria found in nodules on their roots.  Thus lupines can grow in soils that are too poor for other plants rather than causing the soil to be poor. I’m not sure what that says about our yard. ☺

lupine seedling

Lupines are fascinating to children because the hairs on the leaves catch raindrops and leave perfectly round droplets of water shining like gems.

lupine seedling

Down side:  If you are thinking of planting lupines, be aware that the foliage of some types are poisonous.

Check the color of these flowers.

lupines

Now look at the centers of these.

lupines

Are they a different species? No, lupine flowers change color when they have been pollinated. Bees are attracted by the white centers of un-pollinated flowers, but ignore the red-centered ones (bees don’t see red). Lupines “talking to” bees, cool!

The sight of the lupines coming up always reminds me of the book Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney. In this popular book, the main character spreads lupine seeds so that the flowers bloom everywhere. So check out a copy and you can enjoy the beauty of lupines any time.