In the Garden:
Just one of the many visitors to our garden.
Channel That Youthful Exuberance
Gardens have always been places of discovery for me. When my two sons were young, I took them with me into the garden. Together we picked flowers, chased butterflies, pulled carrots, snacked on baby green beans, and dug potatoes for dinner. They snapped the jaws open on snapdragons and collected silver dollar seed pods from lunaria to use as play money. They dug in the dirt to make homes for squash and tomato seeds, and went on slug patrol, with the glee reserved only for six-year-old boys armed with salt shakers.
I learned over the years that building mystery and intrigue into the garden helped keep our sons' sense of discovery high. I gave them each a magnifying glass and challenged them to find developing buds on stems and stalks or small insects on the undersides of leaves. They were wide-eyed as I explained how aphids pierce the surface of a leaf with their sucking mouthparts and sip the fluids within the tissues, excreting a sweet, sticky substance called honeydew. I also explained why ants love to find aphids on plants and how they go to great lengths to protect the colonies of aphids. After this discussion I found my boys capturing stray ants and placing them on aphid infested leaves, just to watch the interaction between the ants and the aphids.
Grow Large Plants
Children love tall plants and big, bold leaves, so we always planted sunflowers and Jerusalem artichokes. When our garden had room, we planted bear's breeches (Acanthus). When in bloom, this plant can occupy a space 6 feet high and wide. The 3-foot long, bluish-green leaves are durable enough to forgive rambunctious activity during games of hide and seek, or when the boys made a fort at the base of the plant. We called gunnera the dinosaur plant because of its large and crinkly, 6-inch long leaves and curious cone-shaped flower heads. It has spikes along the stems and leaves, so no touching allowed, but it looks exotic, like something a dinosaur would like to eat. Another favorite, Canna indica, produces shocking pink flowers and grows 8 feet tall in a year.
Plant Flowers and Herbs with Strong Scents
One year, with our help, the boys planted a spaghetti garden that included thyme, sage, basil, oregano, and rosemary. Each leaf has a delightful fragrance alone, but when crushed together they smell just like spaghetti sauce. Mint leaves have a strong aroma, and they're tasty alone or mixed into a glass of lemonade. Marigolds have a strong scent, violets have a sweet scent, and carnations smell like cloves.
Build a Play Area
A colorful garden attracts birds, butterflies, and bees by the score. Half the fun of being in a garden is sitting quietly and watching the flying visitors go about the business of collecting nectar and transferring pollen. What better place to watch than beneath a trellis covered with morning glories, sweet peas, or honeysuckle? We dug a shallow pit on a hillside, then built a roof and extended the sides with lattice. Bare earth served as a place for our boys to lie back and secretly watch the visiting creatures.
The most popular hiding place, and one our sons requested every year, was a bean-covered tepee. Fashioned from cedar stakes and covered with scarlet runner beans, the tepee became a clubhouse, picnic site, and as they grew older, sleeping quarters for their campouts. A tepee is easy to build. Draw a circle on the ground the size you want the finished structure to be, pound the stakes in at an angle toward the circle's center, then tie the tops of the stakes together. We spaced our stakes 1 foot apart for strength and privacy. Leave a space for the entrance and cover the floor with straw to make a soft place for sitting. We always planted scarlet runner beans, but hyacinth bean (Dolichos) is another option for full coverage of the structure.
Over the years we've had our share of accidentally trampled plants and harvests of not-quite-ripe veggies, but our boys enjoyed countless hours of discovery and developed a deep respect for nature, all in their personal classroom, in their own backyard. They're grown now, but as they reminisce about their adventures in the garden, I know they'll continue the family tradition by creating gardens of their own.
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