Green Scene

Green Scene: Perfect Time to Let Young Gardeners Blossom

Start by giving children their own outdoor gardening space. Planted containers with color are fun to create.
Start by giving children their own outdoor gardening space. Planted containers with color are fun to create. (By Sandra Leavitt Lerner For The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, August 8, 2009

One of the best ways to interest children in plants is to start working with them when they are young and curious, and there's no better time to begin than the dog days of August, after summer camp ends and before school starts.

Teaching gardening basics to youngsters is not complicated, and it can be a lot of fun for little ones and their parents. Here are some ways to make the most of the waning days of summer -- indoors and out.

Start by giving your children their own outdoor gardening space. It shouldn't be too large to manage but should be big enough for them to do what they do best -- play. Give them fast-growing edibles to plant from seed, emphasizing that they can do anything they like with the area. If your youngsters want to try to build a patio or a fishpond there, that's what they should be doing.

August is a good month for planting trees and shrubs. It's also time to start a second crop of cool season lettuces, cabbage, broccoli, radishes, garlic, snap peas, endive, spinach, collards and other greens. Preparing, watering and weeding fall edible gardens creates pride in children. You will be feeding your family well into fall.

Of course, gardening is a lot more than putting plants into the ground. You'll need to instill lessons on other crucial landscaping skills. Along the way, you may learn a few tricks yourself.

Remember to teach soil preparation to your little ones. Dry soil creeps up when you're least expecting it. As temperatures climb, soil moisture evaporation occurs rapidly. So, incorporate lots of compost to drain and enrich the growing medium, up to one-third compost to two-thirds native soil. If you do not have enough compost on site, Leafgro is widely available in this region and is good commercial compost. Soil preparation involves lots of digging and mixing, which will probably be a lot of fun for children.

You also should show your children how to properly water plants. A gentle flow minimizes damage to roots. Water pressure should be light enough to flow onto the soil and percolate into the root zone. You don't want water delivering a hard spray that cuts holes into beds, runs off and erodes soil. It is generally not necessary to water the foliage of most plants.

To ensure that they water to the correct depth, teach youngsters to check moisture levels. A finger is still the best indicator. But, if you want to know how deeply water percolated, probe with a wooden dowel.

Watering can be accomplished one plant at a time. During dry spells, this will keep children occupied for long periods of time. You can also use sprinklers. More water is lost to evaporation, but your children will love running through the spray. A good rule of thumb is that catching one inch of water in a shallow can or saucer set under the sprinkler is usually enough to penetrate into soil four to eight inches, depending on soil type. Sand can percolate deeply and quickly but does not hold moisture like soil high in organic material.

Older children may be ready to learn the art of deadheading, the careful removal of faded flowers. In some plants, such as hybrid tea roses, depending on how they grow, the work might have to be done with hand pruners. Parents will be the best judge about whether their children are ready to handle sharp garden tools. When pruning, keep these basic safety lessons in mind:

-- Wear gloves. Kid-size work gloves can be found at garden and home improvement centers and on the Internet.

-- Know where both hands are when cutting.

-- Don't hold stems with your free hand when pruning.

A wonderful gift to receive from a child is a bouquet of cut flowers. Color, variety and texture don't matter. One dandelion can be a treasure. Take the opportunity to show your child that the best time to cut flowers is just after they open. Bring the flower inside and place it in water immediately. Roses, lilies, carnations, irises, penstemons, baptisias, peonies, liatris and kniphofia are some that have staying power in a vase.

Take your instruction indoors on rainy days with a few fun projects. Drying flowers can offer a lesson in chemistry. Start by cutting flowers in their prime. Pour crystals containing silica gel into a bowl. (These nontoxic crystals can be found at craft stores and garden centers. Flower Drying Art is one product.) Completely cover the flowers with the crystals. Within several days, you'll have dried flowers to use around your home.

While working inside, you can also offer a botany lesson by dyeing fresh-cut flowers. Add several drops of food coloring to the water in a vase. Any flower that stays turgid in water will absorb the fluid for its sustenance -- and soak the coloring up along with it. Its color will transform overnight. When you immerse flowers in water, prune an inch or two off stems to make a fresh cut. Try white snapdragons, lilies, daisies or Queen Anne's lace. White carnations will turn any color you want. In fact, white flowers will produce the most dramatic changes, and children will learn that water flowing through the plants' "veins" by capillary action transports water to the petals.

Planted containers of color can be fun to create. Look for leftover annuals at garden centers, or cool-season flowers such as pansies and mums. Tuberous and hardy begonias or fall-blooming perennials will return next year. Fertilize when watering with a water-soluble fertilizer until October if plants continue to grow. The efforts will be rewarded next year when the plants begin to grow again.

Your children can be a rich source of inspiration for your landscape designs. As you search for ideas, learn from observing what children are drawn to when they explore the landscape. Young people are keenly aware of what creates interest in gardens. They run toward streams, fountains, ponds and pools, and are drawn to hills, grottos, rocks, hollows, caves and secret gardens. Birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife fascinate them, as does working the soil and watching plants grow and flower. These are the same principles that should be used to add appeal to a landscape design.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site,

© 2009 The Washington Post Company