Fall has finally arrived here in Central Texas, though you’d hardly know it by the hot, dry weather we’ve had lately. Still, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel as we approach the middle of October. My twins turn three this month, and they are very interested in playing outside and being involved in everything I’m doing. It’s put me in the mindset of starting a garden with my kids this fall – a goal I’ve had since before I even had kids. (In the northern climes, most gardening happens in the spring, but here in Texas, where are summers are far more extreme than our winters, the best gardening happens in October and November.)
Gardening is a great activity to do with toddlers as they start to develop their gross motor skills. It allows them to get fresh air and some sunshine, it’s physical, and, with a bit of luck, they can watch their work blossom into fruition! (See what I did there?)
It’s a good idea to consider a plan for your garden before you break ground. First, it might be helpful to choose a theme that appeals to you and your kids. You could choose edible plants, like herbs and veggies, to encourage your kids to try new flavors and eat more plant-based foods. You could decide on a garden full of plants that attract beautiful butterflies or hummingbirds. You could choose all the purple plants you can lay your hands on. In our case, the garden we’ve been working on is inspired by the sense of touch – plants with interesting textures, herbs that emit lovely smells when the leaves are rubbed, and generally anything that allows kids to get hands-on with the garden.
You’ll also need to think about the conditions of the area in which you’re planting. We’re working in an existing bed which happens to be located in a shady part of my yard. I’ve done some research to determine which plants with interesting textures would grow well in that environment in my region, and when I went shopping, I took a list with me. Herbs are great for a touch garden, but most herbs require lots of sun, so I had to adjust my list accordingly. Lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantia) is a great choice, and one that I have experience growing. It has thick, velvety leaves and spreads into an attractive ground cover. It even has a pretty purple bloom! I also chose Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima), which blooms feather-soft in the fall, globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa), which has a bright papery bloom, and a few mint plants, which give off a lovely smell and flavor when touched. (Note: mint is inclined to go wild under favorable conditions. I planted mine in a pot which I submerged in the ground to reduce those tendencies.) Leave a little room open in the budget for getting new ideas once you get to the nursery, and consider a few inexpensive annuals to fill out your garden with colorful blooms. Your kids can help you pick out some plants that they find interesting, as well – however, you’ll want to be mindful not to buy anything overly toxic. This is often noted on the plant’s information tag.
Plants grow best in soil that has organic matter mixed in. The easiest way to achieve this is to dig your bed and mix the dirt with compost. Your children can help by using a scoop or a pot to pour compost onto the dirt as you turn it, or by using a trowel or small shovel to turn one corner of the bed. Once your dirt is prepared, you and your kids can dig holes for the new plants, pre-watering the holes, spreading the roots a bit as you pull them out of the pot, and depositing them in their new homes. Watering in the plants is also, not surprisingly, a very popular pastime in my garden.
If you have some space and are interested in adding a visual element to your garden, you might consider adding a fairy garden. I found a local nursery that sells inexpensive fairy furniture, but you and your kids can make your own fairy decorations, as well. Consider painting a rock or a pinecone and leaving it as art for your garden’s faeries to enjoy! Place a marble in the ground as a gazing ball. If you have older kids, they might enjoy building and painting small wooden structures (like you might find at a craft store), or even making their own with twigs and bark. You’re limited only by your imagination!
Keep your plan a little flexible. Let your kids have as much control as is feasible over the placement of items in your new garden, even if it doesn’t match your mental image. With my three year olds, their attention span runs low before the work runs out, so I can do a little bit of editing to their work, but this is a shared space for us, and I want the final product to reflect that. Ultimately, if you’re gardening with kids, the final garden is secondary to the process of creating it.