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Ask an Expert: Growing Children's Interest in Gardening

Esther E. McGinnis, Ph.D., Horticulture Specialist, Department of Plant Sciences, NDSU

How do I interest my young child in gardening?

Start early! When my daughter was a toddler, I created a rainbow garden using annual bedding plants to teach her the names of colors.

Along the sidewalk leading to the front door, I planted masses of bedding plants in red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Every day, we would admire the plants and their colors. Before the end of summer, she knew her colors.

Bedding plants come in multiple colors. A few suggestions are given below. For a more aesthetic planting, choose varieties that have similar heights. Admittedly, finding a true blue bedding plant is hard to do.

ColorsSuggested Bedding Plants (Full Sun)
Red Verbena
Zinnia x hybrida ‘Profusion Cherry’
Orange Marigolds
Lantana camara ‘Bandana Orange Sunrise’
Yellow Celosia ‘Fresh Look Gold’
Green Coleus (green-leafed cultivar)
Blue Borage
Lobelia erinus ‘Crystal Palace Blue’
Indigo/Violet Ageratum
Gomphrena (globe amaranth)

The rainbow garden was so successful that I decided to expand our gardening efforts the next summer. We planted an herb sensory garden in containers that she could explore. Chubby fingers felt the silky texture of silvery sage leaves. She admired delicate purple lavender blossoms and red-leafed basil. Oregano and rosemary leaves were torn apart and sniffed.

While she enjoyed all the plants, two exceptionally aromatic plants were her favorites. A mint plant that smelled like chocolate mint absolutely captivated her. In addition, she loved lemon thyme, which makes a fantastic pesto for chicken or fish. Every day after daycare, she would spend a few minutes exploring her personal sensory garden and it was her way of unwinding after a day filled with preschool activities.

My daughter is in grade school now, but we still plant a container herb garden every spring. It is our rite of spring, and I still buy mint plants for her.

When I can tear her away from her friends, we also plant a vegetable garden. While she doesn’t volunteer to weed the garden, she is an enthusiastic harvester of lettuce, tomatoes and peapods. Yes, I still need to remind her to eat her vegetables, but I am encouraged that her gardening experience makes her more adventurous in trying new foods.

So many children spend their time in front of the television or some other electronic device. Entice them away from their “screens” with gardening time. A recent study found that the average child can identify more than 1,000 corporate logos but fewer than a dozen plants. Parents, grandparents and teachers: Expose your children to gardening. You will be preserving an important part of our heritage.

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