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One of the great children’s books of the last century was Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, in which a little girl discovers and is captivated by a secret outdoor place. The challenge for parents these days is to make our own gardens as fun and alluring for children as the TV and computer that constantly demands their attention. The rewards are huge: not only does gardening teach children about the origins of their food and caring for the environment, but it gets them exercising in fresh air. It’s also a great way for the family to bond and share fun times together.
Gardens kids can eat
The best way for children to learn about their food is to plant the seeds and watch it grow themselves. Choose something that your child enjoys eating and which is easy to grow. I don’t know any child who doesn’t like sweetcorn. Strawberries and cherry tomatoes are also favourites, as well as green beans, snow peas and citrus plants.
Seed suppliers such as Yates and Mr Fothergills have a wide range at garden centres, so make it an outing for the children to go and choose their own seeds or seedlings. Or head online to Diggers Club for some interesting heirloom varieties.
Find a sunny spot for your fruit and vegies – add plenty of compost or manure and encourage the children to water and add fertiliser three times a week. If you have acidic soil, you might want to try growing pumpkins (the “bush” type requires less space) so that you have lanterns in time for Halloween. Or have your child carve their name in a small marrow and, as it grows, they can watch their name expanding.
Develop good green habits in your children from an early age by using natural solutions to deter pests wherever possible. Snails are a problem in my garden so my children break up their eggshells once they’ve had their breakfast to scatter around the vegies. Snails hate rough surfaces so the pieces act as a barrier.
We have also had fun making our own mini-scarecrow from a broom handle, old trousers and a jumper stuffed with straw and scraps of material for the body. Scrunched up newspapers formed the head, which we covered in white cloth and painted, and an old straw beach hat tops it off. It frightens the cat at least!
One of my earliest memories at school was growing hyacinths and French beans in tall glass vases. The hyacinth bulb would sit in the top of a waisted glass with its bottom just above the water. You could almost see the roots growing each day. Take a dried French or butter bean, use a piece of blotting paper wrapped around the inside of a tall glass and wedge the bean between the glass and paper. Add water to the base of the glass – ensure the water level is high enough for the paper to soak it up. The bean will develop a shoot and each day you can monitor its progress until it is ready to plant out.
Old strawberry punnets with holes in the base are also useful containers for kids to plant peas or beans in. Plant the seeds near the sides of the container; kids will enjoy seeing the roots growing and poking through the bottom.
Get crafty with containers
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe … well, plants can live in worn-out shoes, too, or gum boots. In fact they can live in old straw hats, tins, teapots, even old sinks and toilets, so feel free to make fun features in your garden that will amuse your children. Gardening in pots and containers is a good way to introduce children to their outdoor space and make them feel they “own” a part of it. Decorating their containers is the first step.
I’ve used papier maché, painted and then glazed or adorned with plastic beads, glitter and gems. Shells sprayed silver or gold are also effective, as is using leaves as stencils. Save old lolly sticks and decorate them before using them as spike labels for your seed trays.
Colour & perfume
What’s your child’s favourite colour? A tub or plot of all red or yellow flowers is fun for them to grow and learn about different plant types. Flowering annuals are ideal because they have a shorter life and the children won’t get bored. Think of plants such as petunias, impatiens, nasturtiums and marigolds. Or,
have one area of the garden – near a door is nice – reserved for scented plants. Sweet peas are my favourite.
Getting down and dirty
We’re always trying to keep our children clean and tidy but the garden is a wonderful place to liberate them from all that. Kids can wear old clothes and get dirt on their hands and faces as much as they like. If they come to associate the garden with freedom, that TV won’t stand a chance.
Amanda Woodard is a freelance writer based in Sydney.