Remember the Magic With a Children's Garden

Don't you love frogs?

One of the best gifts my father ever gave me was a treehouse. While this split-level treehouse (which made use of 4 smallish trees) might not be exactly a "garden," the impact was the same. It gave me an entirely different viewpoint on the plants around me. It let me get to the level of the birds. And it gave me a sneaky observation point from which to study all the winged life zooming past. For a midwestern Yankee kid plopped into deep South Georgia, it was a life saver. And obviously (after 3 years of blogging), it has been a life-long inspiration point.

Now I'm an adult. And I really think that adults are just big kids. Nobody ever really forgets the joys of childhood, we just reach the point where we think we're supposed to be more...refined. In the privacy our gardens, however, we can delight in mud and toads and flowers and birds. Which is as it should be. If you can't feel at home in your garden, where CAN you?

"Boring" coneflower, per author. 

That said, I believe we should deliberately install some plants with some "magic" to them in our landscapes. (And a treehouse!) Especially if there are young humans in our neighborhoods or in our homes. This type of planting should engage the senses--not only our eyes, but our noses, our fingers, our tongues and even our ears. A garden should be a place to touch and smell, as well as a visual delight. The diversity of offerings should remind us that not all leaves are simple, not all flowers look like coneflowers, not every smell is sweet, nor is every taste. No offense to coneflowers, of course. I'm a

devotee

. Observation is the first skill of scientists, however, and if there are no differences to be observed, how do you hone your skills? Right?

In that spirit, I submit my (somewhat) short list of Wonderful Things for your consideration. I've tried to keep it brief, but had to include some edibles -- and of course some pollinator favorites. And I confess some of these may have been included for sentimental value. We'll see if you have similar prejudices! Please add your own additions in the comments!

Strong, square stems are one of the features of Lamb's Ear.

Lamb's Ear

:

What I like about

Stachys byzantina

, first and foremost, is that it is fun to touch. So soft! So fuzzy! I also like the color--its soft, silvery gray creates a nice contrast next to more typically green foliage. Next great thing--bees love it. While many landscapers will prune off the flowering parts of Lamb's Ear, I prefer to leave it in place. Too many pollinators love it. While this plant is native to Turkey and Iran, it is not invasive in the habitat sense, nor is it difficult to "control" in the home landscape. As an herb, it has of course been used as a medicinal plant, and in recent testing has shown anti-microbial activity against "staph"infections. It also has antiseptic and anti-inflammatory properties. Deer, rabbit and black walnut resistant, there's a lot to love about this plant. Plant it where it will get a little shade--or even a fair amount of shade--for it's "best look." Avoid soggy areas, however, as this is not a wetland plant, at all. The leaves will rot off. In humid climates, it's best to keep

Stachys

in full-sun situations. It is drought tolerant, and also handles pollution well. Lamb's Ear blooms in late spring or early summer.

This cultivar is a glorious repeat-bloomer.

Strawflower:

Strawflower  (

Xerochrysum bracteatum

) is another tactile delight. One of its more interesting features for children (besides the way that it feels) is its habit of closing up during cloudy periods and reopening when the sun comes out. This species is native to Australia, but has been in cultivation so long you'll find it just about everywhere, in every type of ecosystem. The part of the flower that has the papery, dry feel is actually the bracts--their form in strawflower is very petal-like. These bracts are made up of dead cells, and are therefore very long-lasting--hence strawflower's other name of "golden everlasting." Dead-heading of strawflower will promote bloom production, and since that's about the only thing this plant (which you will probably only find as a cultivar) is likely good for on this continent, you may as well go for it! Some butterflies may make use of the nectar, but don't delude yourself that this is a "habitat" plant. However, as a way of making children delight in diversity--it's a winner. Plant it along the edge of a path where it will get sun.

Sweet 100 starting its takeover.

Cherry Tomatoes:

I probably don't need to explain this to anybody, but just in case--they're bite sized! They get huge! OK, that may need some explanation. The typical cherry tomato plant is indeterminate, meaning that they keep growing until either wilt or winter takes them out. They are VERY easy to grow, with the only real trouble being that...they keep growing. So choose the largest tomato cage you can find, or build them a wall-size trellis that you can tie the vine to--in the image at left, I actually used commercial "grid panel" for trellis. This product is used in retail for display--you can order some online or pick it up at a salvage store as I did. For a children's garden space, do NOT plant a dwarf variety--the skins tend to be tougher and the fruit not as sweet. Besides, the large size of this summer delight will be part of the fun for kids. If you use long pieces of bamboo for staking, you can plant one on each side of a path and let them crawl towards one another over the bamboo--surrounding your youngster with orange deliciousness!

French Marigold, replete with bee.

Marigolds:

Plant

Tagetes patula

for quick growth and built-in pest protection next to the cherry tomatoes. The smell of marigold is not a sweet smell, but it is clean and memorable. Kids will be able to watch these grow up in short order, and they can save the seeds for planting the following year! French Marigolds, like the one shown at left, tend to grow densely, crowding out weeds and shading the soil. This is not a bad thing anywhere in your yard--no mulch needed! They do need at least part sun. No, they are not native. But they aren't invasive, either. And given their "clear out the bad guys" reputation, you should definitely plant marigolds if you have a vegetable garden. The French marigold, in particular, is very effective at clearing out nematodes, so many gardeners plant a swath of them one year, and plant a crop in that swath the next. I like to do both, planting a swath and interspersing new marigolds the next year amongst the vegetables. They bloom for a good long time, especially if you "dead head" the blooms. This is also an easy activity to share with your kids--just make sure they know the difference between a "spent" blossom and a fresh one!

Chives can look kind of delicate. Don't let them fool you.

Chives:

These little wonders are a favorite of my bumblebees. And they are delicious minced onto baked potatoes, for your foodies out there! 

Allium schoenoprasum

exhibits a small, purple blossom at least twice a year if the plant is harvested in the spring. This plant is unusual in that it is native to the vast majority of the northern hemisphere. It is another plant great for repelling undesirable insects,

including Japanese beetles

. (Anything that drives away Japanese beetles is a friend of mine.) Chives do well in pots, so just about anybody can enjoy these with their kids, even apartment dwellers! They only grow a little over a foot tall, so they can be tucked in just about anywhere. The spread, but at an only average pace, so you will be able to share this plant with others in your circle. Chives are terrific planted along pathways, where they are always accessible for easy harvest. Like right before you slice them off to put on your baked potatoes. Plus, if you're careful, the bumblebees on your chives will be so engrossed you will be able to pet them. Gently, now! I've never been stung, but there's always a first time...!

Not a giant sunflower, but taller than me, nonetheless!

Sunflower:

 Speaking of huge, these days There Be Giants. A fond memory of my own childhood involved the growing of one of these truly large sunflowers next to our garage. When the flower reached the roofline, I distinctly remember the Awe. When the flower head finally collapsed to the ground, more wonder! The head was at least a foot across. It seemed ginormous at the time! The image of it laying there, it's head bigger than mine, is still crystal clear in the filing system inside my head. I don't recall if I ever ate any of the seeds, but it did not matter. The magic had already happened. I highly recommend creating this experience if you have children and any yard at all.

All of the varieties of sunflower (

Helianthus sp.

) are native to North America. I can also recommend Swamp Sunflower (

Helianthus angustifolius

) for just the volume of bloomishness it creates. It doesn't have the scale derived impact of a giant sunflower, but it does have the advantage of making lots and lots of pollinators happy. Swamp sunflower will easily reach five feet tall and does spread, but a low spot in the yard with some sun will reap you great rewards.

Practice being a dentist and open their mouths!

Snapdragon:

The snapdragon I'm referring to here is of Mediterranean origin, despite the fact that we do have some native North American plants that use the name, as well.

Antirrhinum majus

blossoms can be squeezed from the sides to open their "mouths"--- release your grip and the mouth snaps shut. Not the least bit terrifying, snapdragons come in a plethora of colors and do well with a good six hours of sun. They will thrive in zones 4 to 11, so nearly everybody can enjoy them! Snapdragons prefer cooler temperatures, so in the hotter zones you will see them grown as winter annuals. Most commonly acquired are the shorter cultivars that work quite well as bright, colorful edgings to paths where children can kneel down and play with the blossoms. They do require well-drained soil, so be sure to plant them a little "high" in their holes so they do not rot.

Pumpkin:

Pumpkin is a North American native. Besides being big, delicious-looking orange globes that can be made into pies, pumpkins give us an annual art project to do with our kids! Plant seeds in July for a Halloween-ready orb. Lots of variety to choose from. Plunk the seed(s) down in a sunny spot--even your front yard...think of it as early decorating!

Banana peppers crowed into a raised bed do just fine.

Banana Pepper:

Sweet Banana Peppers are a great introduction for youngsters. (There are also hot banana peppers, but that would be rude to feed to the kid right off the bat, don't you think?) They grow quickly and get sweeter the more ripe they become. Banana peppers really need things warm to germinate, so either buy a starter plant or plants (as I did), or start them indoors before the planting season under grow lights. Banana peppers can also be grown in containers--just make sure you give them plenty of water and fertilizer. A three-gallon pot or better will increase your chances for success. The tangy flavor of banana peppers is good in salads and on pizzas, and even one plant will frequently produce enough for sharing with friends. In case you don't want to share, dice them up, throw them in a freezer bag and toss them in the freezer. Yes, those are marigolds next to the banana peppers in the image. They don't actively repel pests that eat banana peppers, but they attract other insects that eat the pests. When you harvest your peppers, just snip them off--pulling can damage the plant and the pepper.

That is a tree trunk behind that flower. A TREE.

Giant Coneflower:

Rudbeckia maxima

is another North American native, and this one is of special value to our native bees. So if you don't have any kids, you should plant this anyway! Giant Coneflower does appreciate some moisture, and will work in sun or partial shade. The allure for a children's garden, however, is its enormous leaves and six-foot tall stems topped with two- to three-inch brown cones and bright yellow petals. The flowers, separated so far from the leaves at the bottom, give the impression that they are floating in midair. The recent addition of this perennial to our yard is what inspired this post.

Cock's Comb:

Celosia species, particularly

C. argentea cristata

, have flowers that don't look like flowers. Another name for Cock's Comb is woolflower, and sometimes it goes by Brain Celosia. Fuzziness and strong color, both kid-enticing features, can be found in both common varieties of Cock's Comb. Celosia needs lots of sun and fertilizer, so make sure you've applied the compost liberally. It blooms later in the year, starting in August. Sorry I have no image-- check the link for the gloriousness!

Mountain Witch Alder:

Fothergilla major

is an easy-care, all season delight. She is an early spring bloomer, with white, sweet-smelling bottlebrush blooms. These blooms are pollinator magnets since they appear so early in the year. In fall, fothergilla displays a riotous assortment of colors. You can see an image of the fall color in my old blog post on this fine shrub right

here

. In my humble opinion, this is one of the best shrubs out there--and it is actually classified as an imperiled plant. Native to the Southern Appalachians. I'm sure you need a couple or three! Fothergilla does need good soil moisture, making it ideal for sunny rain garden installations.

Blueberry:

This fine shrub has to be one of my absolute favorites. In the spring, bell-shaped pendulous blooms. In the summer, delicious berries. In the fall--great color. Many of the

Vaccinium sp.

are native to North America, so you should have no trouble finding one to suit your zone. You can go for large berries, fall color, maybe both! Enormously healthy for you?

"In preliminary research, feeding blueberries to rats reducedbraindamage in experimentalstroke[35][36]and may cause increased production of vascularnitric oxidethat influences blood pressure regulation.[37]Additional research showed that blueberry consumption in rats alteredglycosaminoglycansthat arevascularcell components affecting control of blood pressure.[38]  Other animal studies found blueberry consumption lowered cholesterol and total blood lipid levels, possibly affecting symptoms of heart disease.[39]Supplementation of diets with wild blueberry juice may affectmemoryand learning in older adults, while possibly reducingblood sugarand symptoms ofdepression.[40]"(from the Wikipedia link)

Translation: Eat More Blueberries!

Common Fig:

Ficus Carica

is a marvelous plant, even if you don't like figs. It is a fast grower, coming back from the roots annually in the northern parts of its range. The leaves are large, textured and uniquely shaped. The fruits are a delight fresh, which is good, because they don't keep worth a durn once picked. Hence the market for dried figs! One of the things a fig tree will bring you, if you leave some of the fruit on the tree, is a number of butterflies you might not ordinarily see. These specialists nectar from rotting fruit. You will also be able to video, if you like, birds fighting over the fruit. So even though the fig tree is not ordinarily listed under great habitat plants, it probably should be. Good for people and plenty of other life forms! With its rich history, there is much you and your children can learn about this ancient fruit tree.

In the resources I've included a link from WebMD, which should illustrate another reason for getting kids outside, whether at home or school. Plant some of the species above, and they'll have a reason to go there!

Resources:

WebMD

Medicinal Plants

,

Helianthus

,

Organic Gardening

,

Cornell

,

Vegetable Gardener

Time to Reset Your Clock?

Time to Reset Your Clock?

Northern Flicker Family Time

Northern Flicker Family Time