Sunday, May 31, 2009

Easy (and Successful) Children's Gardening Events

It seems like many organizations, businesses and clubs want to sponsor a children's gardening event, but struggle with the details to make it happen. Here are two simple solutions from recent events that I attended. One event was at a retail nursery and the other was a local Mom's Club Meeting. At each event, the children and parents planted an annual flower, vegetable, or seeds. One event used 6 inch terra cotta pots decorated by the child (shown above). The Moms Club Meeting used 4 and 6 inch plastic containers left over from some of my other gardening projects. Even a plastic container can be decorated. Rustoleum makes a spray paint for outdoor plastics. If you're on a tight budget, you could spray paint inexpensive pots beforehand then have the kids decorate with foam stickers from a craft store. There are hundreds of fun ways for kids to decorate a pot, whether it's painted, decoupaged, or tile mosaics but since these events were specifically designed to get kids gardening, less emphasis was placed on the container. Last year, we had the kids paint their terra cotta pots but this year we opted for self-adhesive foam stickers. This decision was to simplify the project, place more emphasis on the planting process, and create fewer headaches for parents that weren't anticipating their children to be painting that day (nothing makes a mommy more angry than paint all over an expensive outfit).

After the containers are decorated and personalized, the children chose their plant (one cell of a six-pack or 4 inch pansy, veggie, or other annual). Potting soil was put into a large, somewhat shallow plastic storage bin (like those used for under bed storage). This allows easy access for several children at one time and seems to reduce the amount of mess. Kids can put their pot right into the bin to fill, or next to it, for easy clean-up. At the Mom's Club meeting, we put the bin directly onto the floor for very young participants (18 month to 3 year olds) and that seemed to work great.

After they put some soil into the pot, an adult assisted putting the plant in and then the children finished adding more soil. At both events, we did not have the children water their plants to minimize the mess but advised them to water them when they got home.

Other things to consider during any children's gardening event is to have your staff explain what type of plant they are planting, the plant's name, and general care and watering instructions. Most kids (and some parents) don't realize that the plant might need direct sunlight and regular watering. Use this opportunity to teach while the kids are playing in the dirt and having fun.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Plant a Moon Garden

There is something magical about a garden at night, especially when it means you get to stay up past your bedtime. Summer evenings are great times to spend in the garden with children. There are so many wonderful things going on at night. You can catch fireflies, learn the constellations, make wishes on stars, watch the moths and bats, listen for owls and frogs, and enjoy a moon garden.

Moon gardens are designed to feature plants that hold your interest at night: white flowers, plants with silver or green and white variegated foliage, night-blooming flowers, and fragrant plants. You can plant it in a container on the patio or somewhere in the garden. Night-blooming flowers such as moonflower (Ipomoea ), four-o'clocks, and angels' trumpets add their own unique qualities to the garden for children though because their fragrances attract night pollinators to the garden.

After your eyes adjust to the dark, the light colors and white nearly glow and many blooms appear to be almost floating because the green stems and leaves have faded into the darkness. Make sure to create a comfortable place to sit by your moon garden so you can enjoy the fragrance and be able to see all the visitors that come to see your new garden.

Here's how to get started:

For a three season moon garden, choose a variety of shrubs and perennials that flower at different times of the year. Fragrant shrubs like Judd or Korean Spice Viburnums or Carol Mackie Daphne brighten a moon garden in the spring. Clethra alternifolia (Summersweet) flower in July and August. Sweet Autumn Clematis and Cimicifuga 'Hillside Black Beauty' bloom from late summer to fall. Add some white annuals, white flowering or fragrant perennials, and night-blooming flowers and you've got yourself a Moon Garden.

For a smaller space or in a container, try to choose several white, fragrant plants and at least one night-blooming variety.
  1. Night Blooming Favorites. Night bloomers include evening primrose, four o'clocks (Mirabilis jalapa), tropical night-blooming water lilies such as 'Texas Shell Pink' and 'Trudy Slocum', Angel's Trumpet (Brugmansia arborea) and nightscented stock (Matthiola bicomis or M. incana).

  2. Fragrant Plants. The sweet, heavy scent of flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris or N. alata) is most evident at night; look for ones with white or lime green flowers. The late-summer flowers of night jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum) have a wonderful fragrance. There are great fragrant hostas too like Fried Green Tomatoes, Guacamole, Summer Breeze, or Fragrant Bouquet. Try to limit the number of fragrant plants in one area of the garden though to avoid competing scents or try to plant ones with different bloom times.

  3. White flowers. Spider flower (Cleome hassleriana), Phlox p. 'David', 'Casa Blanca' Oriental Lily, bellflower (Campanula sp), Baby's Breath (Gypsophylla sp), or 'Gentle Shephard' Daylily.

  4. Variegated foliage. Look for plants with bright white variegation and great texture. You can create unusual effects with different types of variegation--whether it be a hosta or caladium in the shade garden or an ornamental grass in a sunny spot.

  5. Moon garden climbers. Climbing roses, moonflower (Ipomoea alba), or clematis varieties such as Henrii, Duchess of Edinburg, or Sweet Autumn (Clematis paniculata) add both fragrance and white blooms when trained to climb a trellis or pergola.

In April, we planted our moon garden in a couple of pots on the deck. At the time, I didn't think I wanted to make a big commitment to it this season, but since then I've kind of fallen in love with the subded hues and fragrance so I'm going to continue the color theme and concept into my other containers that I usually put up on the deck. Although for those containers, the flowering tobacco and variegated ivy will be the only repeats. The woodland phlox and leucojum are done blooming and will be transplanted into the garden and replaced. This time I'm probably going to plant jasmine or gardenias at the back, then some other fragrant herbs and annuals around the edges.

Here's our Moon Garden Plant List (shown above):

  • Viola 'Sorbet Coconut Swirl'
  • Phlox divaricata ‘Blue Moon’
  • Ipomoea sylvestris (planted as seeds)
  • Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris)
  • Lavender 'Goodwin Creek'
  • Summer Snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum)
  • Euphorbia 'Diamond Frost'
  • Pineapple Sage
  • variegated ivy

I found a fun project for glow-in-the-dark garden signs in a book called Night Science for Kids by Terry Krautwurst that I hope to try soon. I'll include a description and directions in my next post.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Choosing Binoculars for Children

My children are interested in bird watching, but I've read conflicting opinions about getting binoculars for young children. Alicia Craig, director of the Bird Conservation Alliance for American Bird Conservancy, suggests using a spotting scope instead of binoculars when birding with kids. She says that having kids look through binoculars can be problematic because they tend to play with them more than actually use them and they have trouble spotting birds through the lenses.

Laura Erickson, author and staff ornithologist for, recommends not investing in binoculars until a child is in at least third grade. She finds that the optics are too complicated for young children and that they don't really need them anyway because their keen eyes see a surprising amount of detail on their own. For children three to eight years old, she recommends actually making binoculars out of two cardboard tubes (like from paper towels or toilet paper). Erickson argues that the cardboard-tube binoculars provide a "tunnel vision" to focus on one thing without distractions, and emulates what mom and dad are using.

When they are ready to graduate to real binoculars, here are Laura Erickson's recommendations for choosing binoculars for children (from Good Birders Don't Wear White: 50 Tips from North America's Top Birders):
  1. 7 to 8-power magnification
  2. Weatherproof and have a rainguard
  3. Shockproof
  4. Help children set the barrels for the distance between their eyes.
An article titled "The Right Fit" in WildBird Magazine (Nov/Dec 2008) also offers their tips for choosing binoculars for kids.
  1. Choose an IPD range of 50mm to 55mm, providing a full field of view.
  2. Avoid a compact model. The smaller diameter focus dials on compact models make the binoculars actually focus "faster" making the image more challenging to refine. Also, small eye pieces can be titring to use over prolonged periods of time and small objective lenses might yield a smaller exit pupil diameter.
  3. Find a lower magnification with a larger field of view, 6 to 8-power. Viewing birds or other small (and often moving) wildlife through a binocular with a wide field of view is less challenging.

You can check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's article "The Age of Binoculars" for a more comprehensive review of binoculars for birders at

Hopefully this helps you choose a binocular that will help your little one enjoy birding more. For now, my little birders will be using their inexpensive toy ones when they want to feel like a grown-up. They spot more with their eyes than I do with my binoculars anyway.


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