Gardening With Children

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I predict that virtual reality (VR) goggle headsets will be a big seller this season. VR is an immersive experience in which head movements are tracked in a three-dimensional world. While this technology is undoubtedly a fascinating way to put you somewhere else through the power of computer-generated simulation, I advocate for the “real reality” experience. Especially providing that experience to children. I’m reminded of the 2005 observation by author Richard Louv, from his book Last Child in The Woods:

“For a new generation, nature is more an abstraction than reality. Increasingly, nature is something to watch, to consume, to wear—to ignore”.

It’s a concern because there are direct links from the lack of nature in children’s lives to the rise in obesity, attention disorders and depression.

As your mailbox fills up with colorful and exciting seed and garden supply catalogs this winter, think about the young people in your life and consider gardening with these children. Often the experiences that made us avid gardeners today came from our own early memories of spending time with our parents and grandparents in their gardens. We found out that gardens are magic places with miracles to be discovered shimmering in the sunshine, buzzing in the breezes and dancing in the dusk.

When gardening with children plan for some give and take, so that wherever possible children can feel in control of the garden and begin to think of a section as their own. Together create parts of the garden designed to each young person’s unique interests and natural curiosity. With the spirit of exploration in mind, employing a few of these tried and true kid-friendly techniques will push the power of persuasion way up.

Grow Weird Plants.  A sure thing to stir a child’s gardening interest is to have a few unusual plants around. Kids love gross stuff and the dripping red liquid oozing from the root of the Bloodroot plant (Sanguinaria Canadensis) is a winner, pretty little white flower and all. The weirder the plant, the bigger the draw.

Grow Funky Forms. The balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus) is a neat surprise. It’s named from the unopened buds which bulge prior to opening and resemble little hot-air balloons. The silver dollar seed pod of Lunaria annua still intrigues me. We called it the “money plant” when I was a kid because it looks like a pearlescent colored coin. From the carnivorous purple pitcher plants (Sarracenia purpurea) to Romanesco broccoli, unusual forms fuel the imagination.

Grow Large Plants. What can be more fun than growing giant sunflowers in a circle, then tying the enormous heads together at the top for a living kid-sized tepee? The sunflower “Giant Titan” (Helianthus annuus) can get over 10 feet tall. Cleome hassleriana, or spider flower can get 4-5 feet tall, blooms in different colors and is so easy to grow. Nothing spurs interest better than a little success, and these are easy-peasy performers.

Grow Plants That Attract Insects and Animals. Does your child love butterflies? Hummingbirds? Song Birds? Consider growing plants that attract these pollinators. “Butterflies in Your Backyard” has wonderful information on NC butterflies and the native plants that attract them. Visit the local library and encourage your child choose books about the wildlife they want have come visit, then let them choose which plants to put into the garden for their favorites’ food and shelter.

Grow Plants That Smell. Pleasing or Putrid. Kids get a kick out of both. From the stink of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) to delightful smell of Sweet Annie (Artemisia annua). From Sweet Alyssum (Lobularia maritima) to the beautiful but brimstone smelling, rodent repelling Fritillaria, those smells make a powerful impression they’ll remember.

Remember that your goal is to interest your young person in gardening. Think about the positive experience and the memories you want this special child to have of you and of gardening. If it’s fun, even if it’s not fruitful at first (there is always growing compost from the failures!) the desire to grow things, plus a part of your interest and affection will go on in this young person. Keeping reality real in the growing spaces and green places.

For more information and ideas about children in the garden, take a look at,  and

Minda Daughtry is Horticulture Agent for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.