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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

In a previous post on theme gardens for children, I promised to dig up (ugh!) some relevant books. I finally got a chance to put them together.

Here are two of our favorite gardening books:

Jack's Garden by Henry Cole

This lovely book is a retelling of the nursery rhyme “This is the House that Jack Built,” using a gardening theme. It starts with tools a gardener would use, then critters you would find in the soil, all the way to a mature garden with birds and butterflies. Even though it is a picture book with few words, the illustrations are so rich it can be used with almost any age. Wonderful book!

Pumpkin Circle: The Story of a Garden by George Levenson, Shmuel Thaler (Photographer)

When I lent this one to someone and never got it back, I knew I had to go out and buy another copy. This book is really one of a kind. The photographs are exceptional. (Although they do have a flower fly identified as a honey bee. This is a common mistake.) The website has good information, too.

(If you are in the mood for more books about apples and pumpkins for fall, check this list of fall-inspired books from the MissRumphiusEffect Blog.)

Books on Theme Gardening with Children by Categories

1. ABC Gardens:

Garden Books with Alphabet Themes

A Cottage Garden Alphabet by Andrea Wisnewski

Centered on a garden, the book goes through the alphabet: A is represented by an arbor; C is a cottage; I is iris; Z is zucchini. The pictures, which look like woodcuts, are actually hand-colored paper cuts and the author discusses how she makes them.

Alphabet Garden by Laura Jane Coats

A Gardener's Alphabet by Mary Azarian

Patty's Pumpkin Patch by Teri Sloat

Follow the progress of a pumpkin patch through the seasons while finding items from the alphabet. For example, in the field where the pumpkins are being planted, “a” is for ant and “b” is for beetle.

2. Rainbow Gardens:

Blue Potatoes, Orange Tomatoes by Rosalind Creasy, Ruth Heller (Illustrator)

If you are interested in planting a rainbow garden this book could be a helpful resource. Ruth Heller is definitely one of our favorite authors and illustrators.

Planting a Rainbow by Lois Ehlert

This beautiful book lists many flowers of different colors.

3. Animal Gardens

Waiting for Wings by Lois Ehlert
I already mentioned this one in the butterfly/moth book post, but it is definitely worth mentioning again here. This is a lovely book, full of good information.

Bird and Wildlife Garden Books for Adults

The Bird-Lover's Garden: Creating a Backyard Haven for Songbirds and Hummingbirds by Margaret MacAvoy, and Pat Kite

The Audubon Backyard Birdwatcher: Birdfeeders and Bird Gardens by Robert Burton and Stephen Kress

The Wildlife Gardener's Guide (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide) by Janet Marinelli, Steve Buchanan (Illustrator)

4. Food Themes

Grow Your Own Pizza: Gardening Plans and Recipes for Kids by Constance Hardesty, Jeff McClung (Illustrator)

The title says it all for this fun book.

Gardening with Children by Beth Richardson

Tells how to grow a pizza garden, among other things.

5. Story Books

Linnea in Monet's Garden by Cristina Bjork, Lena Anderson (Illustrator), Joan Sandin (Translator)

If you are interested in art, artists, Monet, nature, gardening or traveling to Paris, this is the book for you. Definitely inspires me to want to grow a “Monet Garden” of my own. Beautiful, sweet, and informative, I keep our copy with the art books, but it wants to be with the nature and gardening books, too.

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Tasha Tudor (Illustrator)

6. Heritage/Cultures

Corn Is Maize by Aliki

This book is part of the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science series. It has a wealth of information about many aspects of corn, including how it was first domesticated by Native Americans.

For Adults:

Buffalo Bird Woman's Garden: Agriculture of the Hidatsa Indians by Gilbert L. Wilson

Amazon review (edited): This book is rich with useful gardening lore, including tools and structures, and detailed descriptions of the different kinds of beans, corn, and squash that the Indians grew. Plus, there are native recipes you can try. Okay, I put this on the list so I will remember to get it ☺

7. Forts/Huts

Sunflower House (Books for Young Readers) by Eve Bunting (Author), Kathryn Hewitt (Illustrator)

A young boy plants the seeds in a large circle to grow a sunflower house. When the plants are tall enough, he invites his friends over to play in it. The text is written in rhyme.

Adult nonfiction books for gardening with children:

Gardening Wizardry for Kids by L. Patricia Kite and Yvette Santiago Banek

Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together with Children by Sharon Lovejoy

This is the classic book on gardening with children. As you can tell from the title, Lovejoy has many fun and creative ideas about gardening.

A Child's Garden: 60 Ideas to Make Any Garden Come Alive for Children by Molly Dannenmaier

The hardcover copy I have says “Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents.” Enchanting is the right word. Mixed with informative text about how children play and how important it is for them to play outdoors, are photos of fairytale settings for children to play in. On pages 158-159 is a photo and list of the plants in the George Washington River farm alphabet garden.

Are you looking for activities that the whole family can take part in? Then consider growing a theme garden. Not only will your children learn about plants, they will also learn about soil, water, weather, decomposition (ecology), wildlife, and many other aspects of the natural world, while they sharpen their observation skills. They will benefit from the opportunity to play outside and get some healthy exercise, too. More and more people are planting gardens as part of the green movement. And, with any luck, you can all eat the results of your efforts.

Thinking that this is not the time of year to plant a garden? In many parts of the Northern Hemisphere your garden is probably growing full tilt by now, but our growing season starts in the fall. We can start to plan what we will plant in September, believe it or not. Also, you can still do a lot with containers no matter where you live, so don't give up on gardening just because it isn't still spring.

If you can't grow outside right now, how about picking a theme and researching a garden for next year? Theme gardens can inspire you to try new things and children love them. To get you inspired, here are some popular children's garden themes:

1. ABC garden: Can you find a flower or vegetable to represent every letter of the alphabet? Plan the garden in the shape of letters. Make letter signs out of craft sticks to mark each plant. Make letters out of recycled materials (junk) to decorate the garden. Don't forget to plant bulbs for spring color, too.

2. Rainbow gardens add color and can be planted in a rainbow shape. Try to find unusually colored vegetables, like yellow beets and blue potatoes. Or pick one color and find plants to make a single-colored patch. Do you have an artist in the family? Then you have to try a color wheel garden.

3. Animal gardens can go way beyond the traditional butterfly garden idea. Have your children pick an animal, from an antelope to a water buffalo, ant to zebra finch. Research what the animal eats and then grow some of those plants. Choosing local animals will ensure success because you can find local plants more easily, but creative substitutions can make an exotic animal garden fun too. Ever tried growing peanuts for an elephant garden?

4. Food themes are enjoyable for gardens. Try a salsa, soup, herb or pizza garden. Herbs are often easy to grow and add another dimension to the garden through odors and textures.

5. Pick a favorite story or book that talks about vegetables or other plants and then try growing some of them. The Bible is a traditional favorite, but many books lend themselves to be garden themes. If I get a chance I'll add some examples later on.

(Edit: Theme Gardening with Kids Book List here.)

6. Research your heritage and plant some of the plants from your ancestors' culture or cultures. Or pick a culture you have been studying. Growing and eating plants of a given culture makes the learning experience many times richer.

7. Use plants to make forts, huts, and other places to hide. Tall plants, such as hollyhocks and sunflowers are easy to grow under a variety of conditions. Building a structure and covering it with vines is another option.

We recently saw a number of great theme gardens at the National Arboretum. Some of them might not be as appropriate for small children, but older kids are likely to be interested in plants used for dyes, medicinal plants and plants that produce materials used in industry. Be sure to check out their virtual tour of "Power Plants" on the website. These are crop plants with potential as renewable fuel sources in the future.

When it comes to developing a theme garden, all you need to do is to use your imagination and have fun.