Green Scene: Gardening is a natural attraction for children

By Joel M. Lerner
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, July 17, 2010; E01

Gardeners and kids have a lot in common. The most conspicuous similarities being that both like to pluck flowers, pick fruits and berries, study insects and, not least, get wet and dirty. It's a natural match, and adults can nurture young people's interest in horticulture by inviting them to help weed, water, plant biennials, divide irises, deadhead flowers and learn what various plants look like -- especially poison ivy.

Employing some imagination will help make it an adventure. Here are some routine garden maintenance activities that I've framed in a way that children might consider fun.

· Create a space fantasy for weeding. You're the commander. The mission is to collect alien weed specimens. After locating and pulling the invaders, take them to the composting center where organisms will neutralize and transform them into useful members of the planet. Use a specialized tool such as a forked prong. Call it a weed laser.

· Deploy moisture-monitoring devices. Your assignment is to teach the crew how to water properly. It's easy to get kids to play with a hose; instead, teach them to stick a screwdriver into the lawn and planting beds to check moisture. Call this a "moisture sensor." If it comes out dry, it's time to irrigate. Attend to each plant by watering one at a time, explaining that a gentle flow of water minimizes damage to the planet. Using a hard spray will cut holes into the beds and erode the soil. Use a light, bubbling action that lays water onto the soil and allows it to percolate into the roots. Explain that the flow should be the consistency of slow lava, not a major volcanic eruption.

· Use "stealth scanners" (lawn sprinklers) when watering is necessary. Challenge children to stay in the spray because that's the only time your communication system can maintain contact. This will keep them from stepping into the beds. Place an all-purpose water-catching device, like a saucer or tuna can, under the spray. When it fills with an inch of water, the mission is accomplished. Switch off the sprinkler and use the "moisture sensor" to determine if water has percolated the necessary depth of six to seven inches. If so, have the kids take the screwdriver and locate the next sprinkler site in the lawn.

· Activate a "Biennial Seedling Production Nucleus." The children, the "Biennial Brigade," will start seedlings that will bloom next year. Young cosmic gardeners won't be disappointed by hollyhocks (Alcea), forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica), foxgloves (Digitalis), sweet williams (Dianthus barbatus) and pansies. Some will re-seed and grow back annually. Sow them where you want them because they are difficult to transplant. Biennial Brigade children learn patience -- a third-grader won't see blooms until the end of fourth grade.

Biennial seeds that you can't find locally can be purchased through catalogues. Try Thompson & Morgan at 800-274-7333 (http://www., Renee's Garden at 888-880-7228 (, Seeds of Change at 888-762-7333 ( and W. Atlee Burpee at 800-333-5808 (

· Energetic future gardeners who want to dig can establish your bearded-iris division and begin training exercises today. Many gardeners consider the bearded or German iris to have the showiest late-spring flowers. They grow and bloom from shallow, fleshy rhizomatous roots. To keep them producing flowers, divide thick masses of plants now. One-year rhizomes attached to a fan of leaves are the only roots that should be moved. Discard all older and diseased rhizomes. Cut the fan of leaves in half when transplanting. Of course, adult supervision is warranted if children are handling sharp tools.

· Form a deadheading crew. This team is responsible for cleanup operation requiring careful removal of spent flowers without affecting other parts of the plant. Sometimes new flowers will form if plants are deadheaded, but many spent blooms will be sent to the compost pile.

· Choose a morale officer or two for cut-flower duty. Send them into the garden to select ornamental blooms such as bee balm, black-eyed Susans, lilies, daylilies, phlox, baby's breath and sunflowers. Teach them to cut the entire flowering stem (called a scape) to the base, to bring cuttings indoors when they are just beginning to open and to place them in water immediately. When these flowers are placed in a decorative vase, make an angled fresh cut on the stem bottom to help them absorb water.

· One final order from Mission Control is to prune. Pruning safely is an activity for only the most elite, older cadets. It demands careful attention to detail and safety. At first, only dead wood should be targeted. Then, water shoots or suckers should be removed. These are stems that are usually greener than the normal wood of the plant. They often grow straight up from the roots and can get taller than the parent plant. Suckers also grow from upper branches. They look like long, straight whips. Removing them keeps the plant from looking weedy and allows its more ornamental characteristics to show through.

There are many gardening programs in the Washington metropolitan area for children. Brookside Gardens in Wheaton houses a large collection of children's gardening books. Call the visitor's desk at 301-962-1400 for more information.

Children's Day at Brookside Gardens is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sept. 18. The focus this year is on "Adventures with Food." Learn about fruits and vegetables, participate in a variety of hands-on activities, and listen to a special band whose musicians use hand-made, home-grown gourd instruments. These activities are free. And you still have time to visit the "Wings of Fancy" butterfly exhibit that runs through Sept. 19. Call 301-962-1400 for more information.

Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria offers programs for families and children, starting with preschoolers, which they call "Garden Sprouts." Activities include stories, walks, activities and garden-related crafts. Call 703-642-5173.

The American Horticultural Society at River Farm in Alexandria continues to embrace youth garden programming that reinforces what has been accomplished so far and takes children's gardens into the next millennium. In 1993 they created the first Children & Youth Garden Symposium, which inspired people to look at garden design from a new point of view. This was accomplished in landscapes designed specifically for children and the way they play, explore and interact. The Society has children's gardens and offers programs. Call 703-768-5700.

Meadowlark Botanical Gardens in Vienna offers opportunities to explore nature in the garden and offers classes for children. Call 703-255-3631.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md.

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