How to hook kids into gardening

Posted: July 13, 2013

Special to The Winchester Star

Squeezing the sides of a snapdragon flower causes the mouth to open to show the “dragon’s teeth.”
The individual flowers of larkspur look like rabbit heads with collars. These are often used for a children’s garden.

Many of us who love gardening would really like to find a way to get our children excited about plants and nature, too.

But in an age of video games, cell phones and television, how is the garden supposed to compete?

Well, I have found that when a child is introduced to the amazing details of nature, nature always wins over technology.

When I was small, my mother employed several methods to hook me.

First she let me plant seeds. In the first grade, I had an egg carton which we planted with marigold seeds in school. They sprouted and, amazingly, she allowed me to plant those scraggily little fellows in the main perennial bed in a location of honor.

Now you have to understand, commercial annuals back then mainly consisted of pansies, marigolds, impatiens and begonias. And my mother was not too fond of any of them. But of them all, she really, really disliked marigolds.

Furthermore, these plants would never be allowed such a distinguished location as the main perennial bed, where they would rub shoulders with the oh-so- elegant phlox, peonies and roses. They were too modern for our old beds.

But she cleared a spot and patiently showed me how to plant them. I watered and weeded that spot all summer and was astonished that such plants could have come from such strange seeds. I was so proud.

But in addition to the way they looked, Mother also had me smell them and compare the odor to some of the other plants in the garden.

We also planted vegetable seeds each year. I still remember hovering over the rows, waiting. I will never forget the thrill I got when I saw the first green points coming out of the ground. I still get that same feeling of awe even after all these years.

Mother also took the time to show me some special plants, and she carefully pointed out some details that she knew would catch my attention.

The first was another annual allowed in the garden. It is called larkspur and reseeded each year from way back in the 1940s when my grandmother sprinkled the first seeds. I remember looking up at these three-foot-tall spikes of blue, white or pink. Each spike was made up of lots of individual flowers. Then she showed me that each flower was shaped like the head of a rabbit with a collar around its neck. My child’s mind immediately labeled them “Bunnyheads” and I still have to think twice before I can remember the real name for them!

Snapdragons were another early introduction. They grow easily from seed and come in colors of every spectrum and hue of the rainbow. However, for a child these plants are fascinating because they require audience participation. They look like simple flowers but a gentle squeeze on each side will cause the “mouth” to gape open revealing the “dragon’s teeth.” Upon release, it snaps to a close. I confess, there were very few dragon flowers that survived that first summer as my clumsy child’s fingers tried to master the technique.

The third plant she showed me was the common impatiens. My grandmother lived beside us and she loved them in a box beside her patio. This plant has many colors in varying hues of purple, orange, pink and white. It loves moist shade.

But from a child’s point of view the fun comes later in the season. As the seed pods ripen, they become sensitive to touch and will explode to release the seeds. It has a common name of “Touch-Me-Not” to describe this reaction.

I was instantly addicted and checked the plants each day to see if more had ripened. And then, an amazing discovery of my own: Other plants, which unfortunately for my mother were mostly weeds, also display this characteristic. Can I just say we had quite an epidemic of noxious plants that next year.

So spend some time outside with your children. Show them the pillbug and how it curls up in an armored ball to play dead. Peer deep into the flowers in search of assassin beetles and under leaves for monarch caterpillars. Touch foliage and be wowed at the soft down of lamb’s ear and the stickiness of the comfrey. Smell the lemongrass and the sweet annie, the agastache and the lavender.

See how many fragrances they can detect in the different plants. Examine the detail and intricacy of the poppy and iris petals. Stop talking and listen to the call of the many birds, the buzz, clicks and whirs of the insects.

Each of these experiences will open up a vast and wondrous world to your child. A world that never fails to fascinated and amaze, no matter how old you are.