A child's garden should be about delight and the excitement of discovery in a world that is always changing. Gardening is a wonderful training ground, teaching children about botany, agriculture and the life cycle of plants and insects while helping them develop a sense of responsibility and accomplishment.
The garden is a great place to practise real-world science, math and mapping skills. Improving soil through testing and amendments provides an early introduction to chemistry, and composting is an ecology lesson in progress. Gardening also reinforces ecological lessons, from the effects of weather on plants to the relationships between plants and insects, companion planting and vermiculture. Plant species that feed butterflies and hummingbirds, add a bird bath and turn chipped pots into toad abodes to bring more learning opportunities into the garden.
Nancy Lee-Colibaba, who co-ordinates the children's gardening program at Royal Botanical Gardens (RBG) in Burlington, Ontario, says simple guidelines go a long way to ensuring that the gardening bug bites for life. Kids need to have space to call their own, but keep the size manage-able so the child does not become overwhelmed, says Lee-Colibaba. "Our youngest children [programs start at age three] work in a three-foot by three-foot area, and size up to a six- by twelve-foot plot once they enter the Junior Gardeners Club at the age of eight." Mounded or raised beds are a good choice for toddlers, as they leave no question as to where walking is-and isn't-allowed.
Let children help plan their garden, but Lee-Colibaba cautions against offering too wide a plant selection, especially for young beginners. Parents or grandparents who are avid gardeners sometimes get carried away with the seed catalogue. Older, experienced children can have a freer hand in seed selection, but younger kids should have choices between fewer, more fool-proof plants. At RBG, the six-week toddler program focuses on plants that have large, easily handled seeds, such as beans, sunflowers, beets and radishes; short-season plants such as lettuce are also staples.
Plants based on a theme can add another dimension to the garden and help maintain interest, especially for older children. At Country Lane Herbs near Freelton, Ontario, Karen Michaud and her daughter Jana have planted a number of children's theme gardens, some based on children's books. Starting with the Beatrix Potter series when Jana was younger, they added a special dimension to their bedtime reading- plant-spotting. Their literary plant checklists become planting lists for new beds. Like most 13 year-olds, Jana is an avid Harry Potter fan, so she kept a plant list while reading the books. Harry and his friends take a class called herbology, and though the plant names may be somewhat twisted about (flutterby bush instead of butterfly bush) or old-fashioned (dittany instead of gas plant), many readily recognized species are also used (though given some pretty spectacular powers). With her mom's help, Jana has been able to locate and plant many of the species that are part of Hogwarts' curriculum. (Note that this is definitely a project for older children, as some of these magical plants are quite toxic in real life.)