Monday, March 3, 2014

Age Appropriate Gardening Activities

Gardening with kids

    I want to thank my Facebook-friend Christine for inspiring this column. She posted a great list of Age-Appropriate Chores for Children, and the thing I
noticed was how few of them were gardening activities. Other than 'weed garden, rake leaves, mow lawns, trim hedges', there wasn't much to get kids outside
and active in the yard. And none of those sounded like much fun. So I thought I'd add to the list she found.
First, a couple of pet peeves of mine.
    One: if it's in the garden, please don't call it a chore.
    Two: those are all maintenance and cleanup tasks with little intrinsic reward. A clean, orderly yard is a grown-up goal (and rather over-rated, IMO). How
about 'plant some flowers for grandma' or 'put straw in the strawberry patch to keep the fruit away from the slugs'?
    The second spark for this topic was a picture I found. I've been sorting through some of my mom's snapshots, and, lo and behold, there I was at age 11,
standing on the garage roof with my 14-foot-tall sunflower plant, hoisting the 2-foot-diameter flowerhead, with a look of mild astonishment on my face.
That was probably the year my father got a real deal on a dumptruck load of manure, which prompted vigorous growth. But I did the planting and watering.
    My parents were seriously good gardeners. In retrospect, they were also very good at cultivating young gardeners. Spark an interest, let the youngster pursue it, and support it at appropriate levels.
    So here are some suggestions for the young would-be gardeners in your life. I have no background in childhood development. These are just based on my observations and experiences as a gardener and parent, and from interacting with kids at my shop and in garden projects over the years. Obviously, adult supervision is required for many of these things. You don't turn your 12-year-old loose with a string-line trimmer without safety and usage training. Or your 42-year-old, for that matter.
    Ages 2 - 4
    o Choose flower colors.
    o Collect and kill snails.
    o Harvest tomatoes.
    o Plant large seeds.
    o Water with a watering can.
    Plants of special interest: fast-growing seeds, big juicy fruits.
    The first garden 'chore' that I can remember was picking snails and putting them into milk cartons. My mother would dispatch them with salt. A few hours in
    the freezer will also do the trick, if you're squeamish. I got paid a penny for every two snails.
    Big seeds that are easy to handle and grow: nasturtiums, sunflowers; beans, peas (plant in fall), corn, squash.
Ages 5 - 8
    o Choose vegetable and herb plants.
    o Dead-head annual flowers.
    o Harvest beans and peas.
    o Harvest berries.
    o Hunt for caterpillars.
    o Make a flower arrangement.
    o Plant a color bowl.
    o Plant a terrarium or dish garden.
    o Plant flower bulbs.
    o Plant seeds in small pots.
    o Plant seedlings into the garden.
    o Pull annual weeds.
    o Rake leaves.
    o Remove spent rose blossoms.
    o Transplant young seedlings into larger pots.
    o Trim small shrubs.
    o Water with a hose and nozzle.
    Plants of special interest: annual flowers, vegetables and herbs, scented plants, flowers for butterflies and hummingbirds.
This is the golden age for gardening! Disillusionment from failure has not yet set in. When I was about six my mother let me select some flower seeds. I chose coleus for the gaudy colored leaves, and fibrous begonias. In hindsight, begonias were a pretty tricky choice: the seed is as fine as dust. But we got them started, grew them up, and planted them with care out in a side garden bed. And then I promptly lost interest in gardening.
Two or three years later, I came upon the little plants, still growing and blooming, lost among the weeds I was pulling. A couple of years is a lifetime at that age; it seemed like a tremendous thing to find. And it restored my interest in gardening.
At about 8, my daughter wanted to grow roses to sell bouquets. She chose the varieties, we planted them together. The interest passed, but the roses are still there as lovely reminders.
Fall and winter planting of flowerbulbs can be a simple project with younger gardeners. In California we are fortunate to be able to plant warm-climate narcissus that sprout and bloom right away, even indoors, so kids see quick results. After the bloom, just plant them out in the garden where they'll spread freely and bloom year after year.
    Easy annual flowers: alyssum, borage, cosmos, forget-me-nots, four-o-clocks, hollyhocks, nasturtiums, and zinnias.
  Ages 9 and up
    o Choose fruit trees and landscape plants
    o Choose plants for a theme garden.
    o Cut back herbaceous perennials.
    o Dig out perennial weeds.
    o Divide perennials.
    o Harvest melons.
    o Hoe weeds.
    o Make a bonsai.
    o Manage aphids.
    o Mow lawns.
    o Plant a tree.
    o Put in a drip watering system.
    o Repot an orchid or houseplant.
    o Start a compost pile.
    o Trim a shrub.
    o Turn soil and add compost.
    Plants of special interest: bonsai, cactus and succulents, carnivorous plants. Fruit trees, giant vegetables, herbs and scented plants.
Pre-adolescent gardeners can learn about quality and care of gardening tools. They can understand the lifecycles of important pests and beneficial wildlife
in the garden. And they are generally better able to synthesize and implement complex gardening projects than we give them credit for.
 Ages 12 and up
    o Choose trees.
    o Create a topiary.
    o Design and plant a small vegetable and herb garden.
    o Plant for beneficial insects and wildlife.
    o Prune fruit trees.
    o Prune roses.
    o Use a stringline trimmer.
    Plants of special interest: native plants, orchids, organic and sustainable gardens, special pollination adaptations, subtropical and tropical plants, unusual fruits.
    When I was about 13, my father and I built a simple windowbox. Cast-off orchids from my grandfather, dish gardens from the lady next door, and all manner of interesting tropical plants filled it quickly. It was a simple project, appropriate to my level at the time.

    Ages 15 and up
    o Build a raised planter.
    o Control pests.
    o Install, repair water systems.
    o Maintain a lawn mower.
    o Rototill a garden and amend soil with compost and fertilizer.
    o Stake a tree.
    Plants and practices of special interest: hydroponics, medicinal herbs, plants used in food and beverage production (olives, hops, grapes, tea), symbolic plants, unique growth habits, weird plants from strange places.
 At 15, my parents ceded a whole portion of our yard to me to do with as I liked. A special gardening allowance - not much, but enough to merit a monthly visit to a garden center - was established. My father and I built a simple greenhouse (mom wouldn't let me use hers), which filled up quickly. At 16, my son developed an interest in Norse traditions, so we planted a special group of trees with that theme: birches and yews. Seven years later, it's a lovely stand that has special meaning to him.

    Please, never refer to gardening as a matter of luck -- good, bad, or otherwise. All plants need four things to live: light, air, water, and nutrients. Some need protection from pests or weather. Learning to garden is simply learning how individual plants vary with regard to these basic needs, and providing them. It's really that simple.
    o Cactus like dry soil, ferns like moist soil.
    o Carnivorous plants can't tolerate water that contains salts.
    o Azaleas need a low soil pH, so they don't grow well in Davis.
    o Tropical plants will die outside in the winter if they aren't protected.
    o Snails will eat your hostas before they'll eat your lobelia.
    And so on. Good gardeners have accumulated a lot of information from their experiences. You can acquire that knowledge from books, mobile phone apps, the folks at the garden center, that lady down the block with the incredible yard, or your parents. Or trial and error (empirical research, we call that).

Buy a bag of manure, plant some sunflower seeds together, and see where it leads!

A blurry snapshot from 1968, saved by my mother. Standing on our garage roof next to my fourteen foot tall sunflower plant. The flower head measured more than two feet! 

Flower seeds that are easy to grow make gardening successful and fun for younger gardeners at very low cost. Borage is an herb plant with a pleasant cucumber smell. It's grown as much for the flowers as it is for the leaves; the pretty blue blossoms continue nearly year-around and draw honeybees. The plant reseeds happily throughout your garden beds.

Direct-seeded or transplanted into warm soil, cosmos is one of the easiest summer flowers to grow. Very suitable for young gardeners. Ferny foliage, bright flowers; the blooms start in mid-summer and continue until frost. Just wait until about May to start planting cosmos.

Save this project for next fall or winter. Members of the tazetta group of narcissus are easy to grow. Unlike other bulbs, they sprout right away when planted, even indoors in a sunny window. The powerfully fragrant flowers show up 8 to 10 weeks later. When they're done flowering, you can just plant them in any sunny place in your yard. They'll multiply freely. Shown here is the variety that is called Chinese Sacred Lily. 

Starting plants from seeds can be done with young gardeners with some supervision. Use larger seeds with the youngest kids. One note of caution: some of the soil amendments used for seed-starting can cause skin irritation. It's important to train gardeners of all ages to wear gloves when handling soils.

As gardeners grow in age and sophistication, they can plan and plant gardens toward specific purposes. Two popular themes are attracting butterflies and hummingbirds, and there are lots of very easy-to-grow plants for each. Shown here is a swallowtail butterfly alighting on a Butterfly bush (buddleia). New dwarf buddleias (including varieties that don't reseed) make this a simple choice for smaller yards, or even containers. 

Lots of kids get interested in carnivorous plants, but they do have special needs. They need pure water, you never fertilize them, and they require special soils. And you need to understand their lifecycles, including winter dormancy. There are easier carnivorous plants than the well-known venus flytrap. But, as with bonsai and orchids, a little homework and consultation with experts can lead to success.

That interesting school project your child pursues can lead to beautiful landscape changes. The birches and yews we planted several years ago in response to my son's studies of Norse traditions have now grown to create a lovely little sanctuary on one corner of the property. Beautiful fall color! You never know where your child's gardening interests may lead.