Monday, April 27, 2009

Spring Containers with Kids

These girls are smiling, but you know what they're really thinking is, "Why is it always a marigold in a terra cotta pot?" Now, before you start sending me all sorts of nasty hate-mail, I'm challenging us to try to plant more inspiring combinations with our kids this year. Yes, marigolds are tough and relatively inexpensive, but there is a huge selection of annuals and forced bulbs available in the spring that don't really cost that much more. If the goal is to teach children to love gardening, then lets show them that there's more to gardening than a marigold in a six inch pot.
This might look pretty sophisticated but these are fairly ordinary plants, and you can easily replicate this pot. Maybe this urn isn't laying around in your shed, but who's going to notice the container when this is what you have planted inside?
  • Orange tulips at the center surrounded by yellow, red and white ranunculas
  • Purple viola or Johnny jump-ups at the base
  • Gold Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia num. 'Aurea') and variegated ivy (Hedera helix) trail between the violets.

For instant kid-appeal, it screams with a mix of bright, happy colors. But this kind of combination gives you the opportunity to talk about bulbs and how they work, identifying plant parts, noticing differences between each plant in the pot (like the petals or the leaves), and later re-planting the bulbs in the garden.

Here's another planted in a basket by my friend MaryBeth. Same concept: forced bulbs for height (orange tulips and hyacinth). Spring annuals include fushia stock, purple angelonia, orange callibrichoa, pansies, and variegated ivy in the foreground. Cut pussy willow stems are also stuck in here and there.

I love this one with the perennial in the center. This is 'Ivory Prince' Hellebore with the green blooms surrounded by pansies in antique shades of pastel yellow and mauve, and the seemingly requisite variegated ivy. This kind of combination gives us the opportunity to teach about hellebores and why we don't eat them, and more artsy concepts like texture and color.

I'm including this one because my sons like this guy (they say he's Ironman and who am I to argue). I think they might like the unfussiness of these planters, too. The crazy plant coming out of his head that looks like corydalis (although that would look great) is actually Cytisus x. spachianus or Scotch Broom. There's also a pot of clear yellow pansies in the back. This would look great stuffed with hens-n-chicks or sedums. My boys seem to love succulents.

I think, at its most basic, you'll have success if you let them choose their own pot and select the colors and types of plants. They'll love it because they planted it and hopefully take care of it. Who are we kidding? The spring containers featured above were not planted by children, but with a little guidance there's no reason why they couldn't be.

And who says it has to be JUST flowers? The little wheelbarrow above is planted with spring greens, herbs, pansies, and violas -- all edibles. Look around your yard and garage, or grandma and grandpa's for that matter. Is there an old wagon, bike, or tree stump that might make an interesting planter? I have a friend that planted sempervivens in pair of baby Crocs last year, (which have great drainage, by the way). Ask your kids for ideas.

Here are some things children can do when planting their spring container:

  • Let them fill the pot with potting soil.
  • Teach them how to remove the plant from its container and gently loosen the root ball.
  • Help them place their flowers into the potting soil and then add more potting soil.
  • Get a child size watering can so they can give their “garden” it’s first drink.
  • Teach your child about what a plant needs to be happy and the importance of not over-watering.

Remember: the best thing you might grow this year is a future gardener.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Curious Garden Giveaway

Welcome to Dig It! Children's Gardening Resource blog. I started this blog in an effort to reach a new generation of gardeners and their parents, with a basic goal of inspiring children to love gardening and care for the earth. I thought, to mix it up a bit, I will periodically offer giveaways of great gardening products, books, and resources for grown-ups and their kids. I look forward to sharing my family's gardening projects and discoveries with you. My first giveaway is The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. Recommended for ages 4 to 8.

"One boy's quest for a greener world... one garden at a time. While out exploring one day, a little boy named Liam discovers a struggling garden and decides to take care of it. As time passes, the garden spreads throughout the dark, gray city, transforming it into a lush, green world. This is an enchanting tale with environmental themes and breathtaking illustrations that become more vibrant as the garden blooms. Red-headed Liam can also be spotted on every page, adding a clever seek-and-find element to this captivating picture book" -- Editorial Review @

Want to know how to win?
To enter the giveaway contest simply leave a comment under this giveaway post AND become a follower. If you are not a blogger, please make sure you leave an e-mail address where you can be reached in case you win the giveaway. For more chances to win, you can earn an extra entry by one or ALL of the following ways.

1. Leave another comment saying that you became a follower.
2. Write about Dig It! on your own blog and leave an additional comment with a link to your post.

If you are not a blogger, forward this post to 2 of your friends and cc: on the email. A winner will be chosen at random on April 30, 2009.

Giveaway Rules:
To be eligible to enter the giveaway contest you must be at least 18 years old and live in the United States (sorry, my friends overseas). Entries must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CST on the deadline date of the contest. Limit one entry per household unless we can verify that you have taken the correct steps to gain extra bonus entries as outlined above. A winner will be chosen at random the day after the giveaway has ended. If you win I will contact you via e-mail. You must respond within 4 days or you will forfeit your prize and a new winner will be chosen. When entering the giveaway, please leave a valid e-mail address where you can be contacted in the event that you win. Dig It! cannot be held responsible if you do not provide the correct e-mail address or if the e-mail was delivered to your spam folder. Odds of winning are dependent on the number of entries received (which are pretty good at this point since only four people have visited the blog). Your privacy is of the utmost importance to me. Your e-mail and home address will not be shared or sold to anyone. I will only use it to mail you your prize. I am not responsible for any injuries, damages, losses, legal or medical expenses that may arise from the use of the products given away. Please use the product at your own risk.

Good luck!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Backyard Habitat and Wildlife Gardens

My family just discovered a television show on Animal Planet called Backyard Habitat. Yes, it's been on for two seasons and we JUST heard about it (I don't get out much), but it's inspired my children to think about how other creatures might use our yard and the importance of what is planted in it. If you're not familiar with the show, a National Wildlife Federation ecologist named David Mizejewski helps viewer's transform their outdoor spaces into NWF-certified habitats for local plants and animals. Touting that they are teaching "people to make the planet a better place for animals - one backyard at a time", the half-hour show builds on the established and well-respected NWF's 30+ year old Backyard Wildlife Habitat™ program. Season 1 seems to be mostly in California, Florida, mid-Atlantic and North Carolina. Season 2 features yards in Arizona, midwest (Illinois and Wisconsin), Florida, and North Carolina. For show times or more detailed info go to Under the tab "Step by Step", it lists all of the nature projects from the shows (such as nesting boxes and simple bird feeders) with directions. Otherwise, I'd go to the NWF's website if you need habitat-building info.

This show is not intended for the experienced gardener, but rather a more popular audience. It's great for kids and it's a nice introduction to ecology, family gardening, and making a commitment to conserving wildlife. Even the more experienced gardener can't help but think about the potential their own yard has at attracting wildlife. After just seeing a couple of episodes, my kids are really motivated and excited about working towards our own NWF Wildlife Habitat certification.

At its essence, your yard needs to provide elements from each of the following areas:

  1. Food: native plants, seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, nectar planted or provided in feeders
  2. Water: birdbath, pond, water garden, stream
  3. Cover: thicket, dense shrubs, rockpile, birdhouse
  4. Places to Raise Young: Dense shrubs, vegetation, nesting box, pond
  5. Sustainable gardening practices: mulch, compost, rain garden, chemical-free fertilizer

I'll keep you posted about our progress. Check out for more information about their certificate program. Their website is an excellent resource for information on wildlife gardening, starting community and school gardens, and Green Hour (which I LOVE). Also, the NWF website has native and invasive plant lists, bird and wildlife field guides, and life lists you can view or print out.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Build a Tiny Gnome Town

Trying to stay on theme with Gnome Week (fortunately only celebrated on my blog), I thought I might include my friend Freya's miniature garden for inspiration. Although she created hers in a large concrete container, this could easily be replicated right on the ground within an existing garden or a window box. Children would have tons of fun designing their own version, or have fun discovering one in a small corner of the yard or under a tree that you've built. Aside from the shear joy a garden like this provides, a truly fun gardening project stimulates the imagination, encourages artistic and creative expression, and inspires healthy outdoor play. All good stuff.

Here are the key components to Freya's Gnome Garden:
  • several bird houses
  • dwarf arborvitae, boxwood, and evergreens
  • dwarf perennials and groundcovers: columbine, heucherella, creeping jenny, hens and chicks, creeping thymes, irish moss, veronicas (check any Steppables display at your local garden center for ideas)
  • spring bulbs and annuals: tete-a-tete daffodils, dianthus, anything else within scale and colorful and/or fragrant
  • larger and smaller stones
  • plastic saucer or 1 gallon pot for a pond
  • pea gravel for mulch and line their little gnome walkways

Here's a look at the Gnome Garden in the winter. As you can see, all of the annuals and most of the perennial groundcovers have been removed (they wouldn't have survived our winter in a container anyway) and she's replaced them with cut stems, evergreen tips, and the all too necessary fuzzy fake deer and tiny gnome figures. (You have to have a sense of humor when designing your gnome garden). Although I think hers is more sweet than silly. Otherwise, the foundation stayed relatively the same. Structures, paths, and the pond remained.

Detail of gnomes by the pond in the winter.

There are so many possibilities to create your own miniature garden. Let your children and their interests guide you. I've seen wonderful gardens built with train tracks winding through, but you could have a lot of fun with plastic dinosaurs, zoo animals, or giant insects. The tough part is creating something that they can play with without completely destroying or, in the case at my house, running away with all the figures. Let me know about the gnomes in your garden...and where they live.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Not Necessarily for Children Gardens

One of my all-time favorite places to take our kids is the Garfield Park Conservatory. We try to go at least every three months and stay for at least half the day, almost always bringing a picnic to eat either in the hoticulture hall or the Monet Garden depending on the weather. I've tried to persuade nearly every mommy-friend and playgroup companion I know, and no one ever seems to want to venture out to see it. All I can think is that the word "conservatory" must have some pretty negative associations to stuffy old ladies and bonsai or rare orchids. It's really quite the contrary. It's an explosion of texture and layers. And to make it even more wonderful, every other year they bring in a fabulous artist installation, too. We've been lucky enough to see exhibitions by Dale Chihuly and Niki de Saint Phalle just in the last few years.

I imagine that most parents might first think that kids and plants or kids and statues, or worse kids with plants AND statues, is a recipe for disaster. The "Niki in the Garden" exhibit from 2007 featured very large, vibrant mosaic pieces of animals, dancing women, people, and mythical creatures (many of which you were invited to climb on, sit on, or touch).

But even when there is no special event, it is such a rich, wonderful place to introduce children to gardening. I wish I had more pictures of my kids just enjoying the garden. They can spend nearly an hour exploring in the fern room alone. I recommend going on a week day and you'll have the entire place to yourself. It's heaven.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Gnomes, fairies, sprites and other garden creatures

I was never much of fairy person, nor have any special affinity for them, but I'm always trying to think of new ways to lie to my children (and have fun in the garden). A couple of years ago I started planting tropical hibiscus in some of our patio containers, along with lots of other annuals, and one day my daughter discovered the sepal from a past bloom laying in the soil. If you're not familiar with this plant, the bloom only lasts for one or two days then the petals fall off, leaving the cup-shaped sepals that once protected the bud. The sepals often fall from the stem as well, resembling a perfect little fairy cap. I showed her how it fit on the tip of my finger and drew a little smiley face on the end. I told them about some of the magical little creatures that might be hiding in our yard (mostly gnomes and fairies), and that sometimes they leave things behind when they're in a hurry and run away. All of them aren't quite sure they should believe me, but bless their little hearts they search under leaves and behind blossoms to try and find them hiding, build little houses and fairy towns for them, and even "dress up" their own little fingers to try and lure the fairies out to play. They've even discovered their own artifacts from the gnomes and fairies. A small branch becomes a gnomes walking stick, acorns are the balls left behind from their games, hosta leaves become fairy umbrellas. It's so sweet, and keeps them endlessly preoccupied.

I just checked out a book at the library called Fairies, Trolls & Goblins Galore by Dilys Evans. The book features sixteen short poems by different authors about sixteen different mythical creatures (several I've never heard of before). I appreciate that the author tried to stay true to their history, but I sugar-coated a few of their descriptions to my under six crowd to reduce the number of nightmares in our house. I want them to enjoy the magic of the garden, not be terrified out there. So anyone that kidnaps children, steals humans or appears when you're going to die (sorry, spriggans, sinister elves and banshees) might have their bio changed when I read it. Really, the best offering from the book is the wonderful illustrations by Jacqueline Rogers. My favorite fairy book is still The Book of Little Folk by Lauren Mills. Mills' book offers truly delightful, culturally diverse stories, poetry, and folktales AND incredibly charming illustrations. Check out the little guy playing the triangle on the cover. How funny is he?! It's one I would highly recommend to your child's collection.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Obama Victory Garden

Well, I have to admit, I started laughing when I first saw Michelle Obama out on the White House lawn trying to muscle her way through the half-frozen soil in mid-March. It may not be the ideal time to start planting your vegetable garden in most of the midwest (or mid-Atlantic, for that matter), but it's the perfect time for planning this year's garden and starting seeds indoors. Why not inspire kids to grow a vegetable garden just like the Obamas, or a former President?

Presidential gardeners and vegetable gardens at the White House have been there on and off since John Adams, the building's first resident, in 1800. Thomas Jefferson's famous gardens at Monticello were meticulously documented ( Monticello has made it easy by selling seeds (both by variety and sample packs) that seem reasonably priced at And if you're lucky enough to live nearby, you can actually visit and buy plants from their nursery. In 1943, Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden at the White House. Jimmy Carter planted herbs between the flowers. The Clinton and W. Bush staff harvested food from a vegetable garden on the roof, too. Yes, I admit, this type of "theme garden" might not get every child super excited about gardening. But it might be a great starting point for garden planning with your children this year.

Now, if you decide to grow a historic period garden, there are several considerations to take into account. In the 1800's, most home gardens were started from seed or divisions from family, friends and neighbors. The commercial seed trade really did not boom until the 19th century, and the popularity of specific varieties have changed through time. It may be difficult or impossible to find the exact varieties from the historic garden you're replicating. Be flexible. The effect will be the same. Search online for heirloom seeds. A good place to start is Victory Seed Company or Burpee Seed. If you can't find the specific plant, or they just seem too expensive, ask your local garden center to suggest a good substitute.

Victory Seed has a list containing varieties appropriate for an 18th century kitchen garden and herbal pharmacy, "either actual varieties used in the period or close in characteristics to varieties described in primary source documentation". Pretty cool if you're really going for authenticity.

If you want to plant what the Obamas are planting this spring, you can view the garden design at It includes raspberries, blueberries, rhubarb, herbs, peas, broccoli, and lots and lots of greens (lettuce, spinach, kale, and collards). Most of the plants are very common and should be relatively easy to find.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Jack's Garden

Yesterday a friend gave me a copy of Jack's Garden by author and illustrator Henry Cole. It's not a new book by any stretch of the imagination (1995) but its a timeless narrative with beautiful colored pencil illustrations. As a nod to the familiar rhyme "This is the House that Jack Built", we follow a little boy in the process of planting and enjoying a flower garden in his own backyard. As an elementary school science teacher, the author provides remarkably accurate, labeled drawings of all stages of plant development (from seeds to seedlings then flowers), soil, insects, birds, and even gardening tools. This is less an instructional guide and more of a beautiful story book. But its real value, I believe, is the way it makes understanding a little garden ecosystem effortless for young children. My five-year old daughter LOVES this book and was instantly inspired to go out to her own patch of dirt this afternoon and "get to work" (although it was only about 40 degrees here in Chicago today). All of my older children (ages 5, 4 and 3 years) enjoyed pointing out the plants and creatures they recognized and learning the new ones they didn't. This is a great gardening book for children ages 4 to 8. It would be a wonderful addition to any family library.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Garden Games

I was surprised during the panel discussion of "Where Do the Children Play" the number of parents who admitted to not knowing where to start to get their children outside to play. Start a garden! Most children love to be in the garden and be a part of the process. I found a great article at that offers some great ideas and photos to inspire play in the garden. Although many kids can find ways to go exploring in their yard all by themselves, there's nothing that compares to seeing someone they love enjoying the garden too. Try to think of ways to create positive outdoor and gardening experiences. Also on this website, was a great article titled "Engaging Reluctant Gardeners" by Sarah Pounders. You can check it out at