Instead of handing your kids the TV remote to ward off boredom during summer vacation, how about a garden spade? There are plenty of fun garden projects that children will enjoy now — and that could sow the seeds for a lifetime of gardening.
If you want your child or grandchild to love gardening, don't start them off with mundane tasks like weeding. According to the National Gardening Association, the best ways to win them over are to lead by example, surround them with gardens at home and provide good gardening experiences early on.
So what makes a good, kid-friendly gardening activity? Many experts recommend vegetable and herb gardening — a fine idea if you live up North. But this is summer in Florida and not the ideal time for attempting tomatoes and corn.
Instead, try a summer-proof theme garden. Start with your child's favorite movie, book or toy for inspiration, then plan a garden that includes plants and items that capture their interest.
For example, you could plant an outer space garden based on this summer's big movie Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, which features the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Start with a rocket-shaped obelisk built by tying bamboo canes together with wire or twine. Grow vines, such as moonflower, which roots quickly from seed. Include white varieties of flowering plants, which will "glow" at night. The kids can even hang handmade stars and planets from the rocket.
Fairy gardens are always popular with children. Let your child choose a variety of colorful bedding plants that fairies can call home. Brainstorm on garden features little fairies will need, such as small stones to sit upon, a little dish of water for bathing and a tiny house made from sticks and leaves. Don't forget a small mirror or gazing ball so the little garden sprites (fairies and the kids!) can admire themselves.
Whatever theme you choose, let your child pick the plants — with your guidance, of course. Easy-to-grow, "fail-proof" plants are best, recommends Don Prahl, owner of Dolins Garden Center in St. Petersburg. "You want something that's hardy under all conditions," he says. "It's got to be colorful, grow quick and survive."
A popular summer garden is the red, white and blue American garden, which should be planted now to be ready for July Fourth. Pick a prominent garden bed in the front yard to show your spirit, or use a container or two. Even better, fill a child's red wagon with the colorful plants, add a flag and you'll have a ready-made float for the local Fourth of July parade.
There are numerous summer annuals and perennials to choose from, including penta, vinca, salvia, geranium and angelonia, Prahl suggests. Start with small containers that will be easy for kids to handle. With regular watering and care, plants should be established and bursting with color in no time. (See accompanying plant list.)
Let your child help prepare the wagon for planting. Whether it's the old-fashioned metal or wooden variety or a new plastic one, it's best to place a sheet of plastic on the bottom to prevent water from pooling. Arrange planting containers in the bed rather than filling the wagon with soil (which requires drainage holes in the bottom and will cause a metal wagon to rust and a wooden one to rot).
Choose containers that are no more than an inch or two taller than the sides of the wagon. Staggering container height is ideal, with the tallest containers in the middle and shorter ones at the sides. You can raise the height of containers with a brick or two.
Plants with different growth habits are best. Tall plants and those with spikes, such as salvia, should be placed in the middle. Lower-growing, bushy plants and trailing varieties are ideal at the sides. You can even use a vine at the front of the wagon and train it to climb up the handle. Crowd the pots as close together as possible for best effect.
When shopping for plants, buy two or more of each one and then group them in the wagon. Small groups of similar plants will look better than a jumbled mix.
Display your child's red wagon garden on the front lawn or another highly visible area of the yard to show your family's spirit. Keep it well watered, but don't allow stagnant water to sit in the wagon's bed. If a heavy rain fills the bed, tip the wagon to drain. Some of the newer plastic wagons do have drainage holes; keep them clear so water will drain.
Come July Fourth, your child's red, white and blue garden will be ready to roll!
Yvonne Swanson is a freelance writer in St. Petersburg and a Pinellas County master gardener. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.