The dullest days of winter might seem too early to think about planting a garden, but this is the time of year when seed companies send out catalogues and home gardeners use their enforced time indoors to start laying plans for spring.
Although adult gardeners might go wild with the seed catalogues, planting crops and flowers that need a burdensome amount of care and space to flourish, families with kids can simplify and choose easy-to-grow plants that will stay happily confined to pots on a sunny front step or back deck.
Kids love to watch plants grow, and a thriving beanstalk wound around a trellis will be a source of pleasure and fascination in early summer. June mornings may still be far off, but in the meantime, parents can get their kids started down the gardening path by reading books and online resources, and visiting a major -- and child-friendly -- West Coast garden show.
Weave gardening activities into your family's calendar all year long and kids will get a healthy dose of practical living, nature and science education as well. Keep activities light and fun so kids won't view gardening as a chore, and check out our list of resources (see below) for book and plant lists, planting tips, tools and other information on gardening with kids.
All year: Read a children's gardening book or two with your child to introduce basic gardening ideas and vocabulary. Visit gardening Web sites for kids to get plant and activity ideas.
Winter: Order and look through organic gardening catalogues and choose "easy" seeds (not susceptible to diseases or pests, like to grow in pots and are quick to sprout and flower or fruit). Large plastic or terracotta pots are a good place to start with children as they don't seem as overwhelming and can be easily weeded and harvested. Younger kids may not be interested at all, while older children may want to read about and compare different plant varieties, and choose the best ones for our zone. With elementary-age kids, make a plan: What do you want to grow? How much room and soil depth will you need? Do you have a good place for the pots? When will you need to plant the seeds, and how long will they take to flower?
Winter-spring: Visit garden shows and local children's gardens or P-patches for inspiration -- even in winter, an outdoor garden makes a fine sunny-day outing. Visit the same garden or P-patch several times from late winter through early summer and help your kids observe the changes in the garden's land, plants and overall look. Older kids can sketch the garden or take notes.
Mid-late spring: Once the weather warms up in late April or May (depending on the plant), sow seeds directly into prepared pots and then monitor and water the seeds as they grow from seedlings into robust plants. Younger kids may simply want to explore the feel and smell of the potting soil, or roll seeds around in their hands, while elementary-age kids can help fill the pots with soil, read the planting instructions on the packet, space the seeds correctly and water them properly.
Early-Mid Summer: If you make it to the final stage and have grown a healthy bean plant or a pot full of summer flowers, your kids will enjoy the almost smug satisfaction of crunching a fresh-picked haricot vert or assembling a bouquet of flowers they grew themselves. Smaller kids are often more focused on the process rather than the outcome, and reading a story book, taking a P-patch walk or planting a bean seed in a cup may be enough.
February is a particularly good month to get started, as the sprawling, sweet-smelling (and intimidating, depending on the color of your thumbs) Northwest Flower & Garden Show makes its yearly visit to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle. Yes, the place is overrun with serious gardeners taking notes in front of the elaborate fantasy display gardens, and you'll find that your baby backpack is more favorably received than your stroller, but you'll also find activities and exhibits for kids that can give you ideas for your own front-step pot garden.
In Sproutopia: A Place for Kids!, check out the container gardens created by local schoolchildren, study roots as they spread through the dirt in a root view box, and plant a seed to take home. Garden-themed programming for kids takes place every half hour on weekends. Take a look at the Container Garden exhibit to get ideas for good container plant combinations, and stroll through the Funky Junk exhibit, assembled by high school students out of creatively reused, recycled and found objects. Funky Junk is particularly fun for kids of elementary age, as they'll see the unusual ways that everyday discarded items can be put to use, and can begin to think about objects around the house that they can put to good second use in their own gardens. Nonprofit organizations and horticultural societies will present educational displays, and, in the Marketplace, exhibitors will be on hand to sell everything from garden tools and garden art to children's books and clothing.
Of course, one of the show's chief pleasures is to wander the display gardens created by local design companies. The 25 gardens pack a lot -- including garden structures, art, rocks and boulders, and plants in full, forced bloom -- into relatively compact spaces, and visiting really does feel like a mini-vacation to somewhere warm, tropical and not-Seattle. Even smaller kids are captivated by the weirdly compelling spectacle of plants flourishing out of season inside a cavernous indoor space. (For further information and ticket purchases, visit www.gardenshow.com.)
Kris Collingridge is ParentMap's Out & About editor.
- Children's Garden at Magnuson Park, Seattle. Kids ages 5-13 helped design the park, which includes paths, flower beds, a Starfish border and Big Blue Whale bed. Work parties held the third Saturday of every month, mid-spring through mid-fall, call 206-527-0584. 7400 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle, 206-684-4946, www.cityofseattle.net/magnusongarden/Child/Childrens.htm
- Bradner Gardens Park, Seattle. This hilltop park includes a children's A-Z garden, garden art throughout the space, P-patch and vintage windmill. 29th Ave S. and S. Grand St., Seattle. Open daily, dawn to dusk. 206-684-4075, www.seattle.gov/parks/Parkspaces/bradnergardens.htm#about
- Seattle Tilth Children's Garden. Kids do all the gardening at this small plot set off from the main demonstration garden. The grounds themselves are lovely to walk and lie adjacent to a children's park. 4649 Sunnyside Ave. N., Seattle.206-633-0451, www.seattletilth.org
- Pierce County MG Demo Garden. The site includes wetlands, display beds and a Jack in the Beanstalk garden. 7711 Pioneer Way, Puyallup. http://mastergardener.wsu.edu/demo/dg.html
Resources: Books, Web sites, activities, seed catalogues
- Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots (Gardening Together With Children by local gardening expert and author Sharon Lovejoy. Includes plant picks, theme garden suggestions and "how-to" instructions; beautifully illustrated. [Workman Publishing, paperback $13.95]
- From Seed to Plant by Gail Gibbons. Instructions for growing a bean plant for grades K-2, nicely illustrated. [Holiday House, paperback $6.95]
- WebSmart Kids Gardening Books. List of gardening books for all ages, with pictures and thoughtful reviews included (can't buy books off site): www.brick.net/~classact/garden2.html
- Whitney Farms Kids Gardening Guide. A 12-page downloadable coloring booklet that includes very simple planting instructions, a growth chart and activities. www.whitneyfarms.com
- Kidsgardening.com. Lots of good information for family gardening, including age-appropriate expectations and thorough coverage of family gardening issues. Also includes gardening supplies.
- Hortikids.com. Fun gardening aprons and gloves, kids' tools, mini-gardens.
- Seeds that are easy to grow! A good seed list for kids, planting instructions, pest control. http://redwoodbarn.com/DE_seedseasy.html
- Territorial Seed Company. Organic seed, supplies, order catalogue or online. www.territorial-seed.com
- Seeds of Change. Organic seed, garden supplies, catalogue and gardening information. www.seedsofchange.com/default.asp
- The Cook's Garden. Flower, herb and vegetable seed; garden supplies and a beautifully illustrated catalogue. www.cooksgarden.com
- Heirloom Seeds. Grow heirloom variety vegetables; garden supplies and planting guide; catalogue and online ordering. www.heirloomseeds.com/history.htm