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Top 10 Plants for Children's Gardens

Overview of best plants for children's gardens


Kids at farm
Kids on farm image from IGT Kid Issue

By HC Flores

One of the best places to connect with children is in the garden. Gardens are full of wonder, and wonder is what leads to knowledge.

I remember the first time I gardened with my friend Jasper, who was two at the time. He was sitting next to me, playing in the warm, spongy soil while I weeded a thick patch of overwintered carrots. It was a warm day in early May, and I noticed the edge of a plump young carrot bulging out of the ground. I asked Jasper to watch, and I yanked on the stem. The brilliant orange root burst from the soil, and Jasper’s eyes nearly burst out of his little face as he exclaimed, “Carrot!” The next ten times I saw him, he wanted to eat carrots, and by the time he was four, he was working in the garden by my side, planting and weeding carrots of his own.

The first time a child eats vegetables fresh from the garden, their connection with food changes forever. Even a small garden can be a mini adventure park to children, where their imaginations can run wild. In my experience, children who visit and participate in farms and gardens are much more willing to eat a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and of course this improved diet leads to a whole lifetime of better physical and mental health.

When children are included in ongoing garden projects, they blossom right along with the flowers, and are soon contributing new ideas and garden designs of their own. Children are often more open to a deep connection with nature than adults, and you may find that your children are teaching you far more than you are teaching them. Children can help to bridge the gap between adults and nature. They can be the ambassadors of the plant world, helping us to renew our connection with nature, and reminding us of the childlike mind we once enjoyed.

By no means an exhaustive selection of great plants for children to grow, the following plants offer a great place to start. They can all be direct-sown, grow quickly and easily, and are fun to harvest for food, cut flowers, or seed.

1. Turnips - Maybe it doesn’t seem like turnips would be a hot item in the children’s garden, but many varieties grow to be quite large, and can be carved and stuffed for a delicious baked meal.

John Sundquist grows fat purple turnips every year, thousands of them. He plants them in the summertime and then in the fall, busloads of school children—sometimes over 50 at a time—come out and harvest. The kids go nuts over the turnips and everything else on the farm, and I always wonder how else in the world any of them would otherwise come across such a magical and splendid turnip—let alone bring one home to the dinner table. Gaia knows, I certainly never saw one like that until John showed it to me. Fresh turnips smell truly wonderful, are an excellent source of fiber, and are known to reduce cholesterol.

2. Corn - Popcorn is always a huge hit with children of all ages, and many varieties grow well in a home garden. Sweet corn is another option, and nothing compares to a fresh ear right out of the garden as a refreshing snack on a September day.  I recommend Painted Mountain. It is so colorful, so easy to grow, and an important variety to teach our children about.

3. Nasturtium  - The leaves, flowers, and immature seeds of nasturtium are edible, and they also repel certain insect pests, which make them a great companion plant. Trailing varieties are a nice addition to a bean teepee or sunflower house, and the bright flowers are a delight to children and adults alike.

4. Scarlet Runner Beans - Jack and his beanstalk are legendary to many children, and while there are no boy-eating giants at the top of most beanpoles, runner beans are fast growing and produce brilliant red and orange flowers. The seeds are large and speckled purple, and can be eaten, replanted, or used for a variety of craft projects, like beads or mosaics.

5. Potatoes  - Because potatoes can be grown by just throwing them on the ground and tossing some straw on top, they are great fun to grow with children. Also try planting them in a bag or crate: Just fill it one-third of the way with soil, toss in some spuds, and cover with leaves or straw. As the shoots emerge, add more mulch, and in a few months you will have a bag full of fresh, sweet spuds to eat.

6. Pumpkins  - Large or small, pumpkins and other squash are a favorite for children of all ages. Giant varieties, such as Dill’s Atlantic Giant, can grow up to 200 pounds, and make excellent Jack-o’lanterns. Smaller types are more manageable for small hands, and can also be carved or used to make pie, stew, or bread. Some varieties are grown primarily for their seed, which is a healthy snack and has been known to prevent intestinal worms. 

Try making pumpkin tattoos! Use a nail to scratch children’s names or little drawings into the skin of immature pumpkin fruits. Be careful not to go too deep—just scratch the surface. When the fruit is mature, the name will appear as a healed scar on the surface. You can also scratch in designs or funny faces, and the finished product will last months longer than a carved pumpkin.

7. Gourds  - Small gourds grow fast and dry easily to make rattles or small bottles and containers. Large gourds need a longer growing season, but are a truly magnificent addition to the garden, and can be dried and made into birdhouses, bowls, and musical instruments.

8. Sunflowers - They seem to come in every color; yellow, orange, white, red, tiger-striped and leopard-spotted. Tall or short, large or small, sunflowers are easy to grow and a must for any children’s garden. The cut flowers last several days, and seeds provide protein and amino acids for young bodies and wild birds alike. Plant them in a tight circle and make a living fort.

9. Tulips  - Give a child a small shovel and a bag full of tulip bulbs, and when spring comes you will have a yard full of surprises. Tulip flowers are edible and quite delicious, and they help attract beneficial insects into the garden. The general rule for planting bulbs is to bury them twice as deep as they are long, with the pointy end up.

10. Zinnias  - Last but far from least, zinnias come in every color of the rainbow, and are one of my favorite plants of all time. They bloom when about three feet tall, just the right height for young eyes and noses to enjoy. One of the many beautiful gifts from Mexico to our gardens, as cut flowers zinnias are excellent, and can last weeks if you change the water every few days.

Heather Coburn Flores is the author of "Food Not Lawns, How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden and Your Neighborhood into a Community".

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