In these days of game consoles, tablets, cellphones and many channels on cable specifically for kids, it isn’t easy to get your children to even go outside, let alone take any interest in nature or gardening. In my youth, my sister and I were restricted to the handful of Saturday morning cartoons they broadcasted for kids. The rest of the time we were outside in the fresh air, using our imaginations to turn our simple backyard into a magical kingdom full of fascination and adventure.
Now, as a mother of two, a horticulturist and a nature lover, my kids have always been forced to spend a lot of time outdoors, whether they liked it or not. While sometimes my kids found it to be hot, sweaty, hard work and much too educational for their liking, other times I saw that spark of imagination and even a sense of pride regarding certain plants. Here are my top 10 plants for kids – if they can fascinate mine, they most certainly will others.
1. Milkweed – Milkweeds are like a little magical kingdom all on their own. They easily grow from seed and, once sprouted, they seem to double in size each day. In spring and summer, several varieties of butterflies visit the plant for its nectar, and in mid-summer, kids can start hunting for monarch eggs on the undersides of the leaves. A child-at-heart myself when it comes to monarchs, every morning I look forward to checking on the progress of the little caterpillars. Make a homemade butterfly tower with your kids and they can watch the caterpillars grow from egg to chrysalis to adult monarch. Autumn is also a fun time for kids to pop open milkweed seed pods, setting the fluffy seeds free in the wind.
2. Snapdragon – Snapdragons also require very little work or patience to grow from seed. My daughter, who is now seventeen and possibly a vampire that seems to think she might burst into flames if she spent a gorgeous sunny day outside, still reminds me every spring to get some snapdragon seeds for my annual containers. When she was very young, a nice woman at a garden center showed her how to make snapdragon flowers “talk” by pressing the sides of the flower, causing it to open and close. My daughter and I have grown a pot of snapdragons every year since and this is one of the attractions the plant brings to kids.
3. Pumpkins – Pumpkins grow quickly and easy from seed and it can be a very proud moment for a child when harvesting his or her own pumpkin to carve for Halloween. The seeds can be baked into tasty treats with different seasonings. My kids always like cinnamon-sugar baked pumpkin seeds. Save a few seeds for replanting in the spring.
4. Sunflower – Sunflowers, especially Mammoth sunflowers, are fun for kids to watch grow quickly from seeds. The flower heads and seeds can be used for arts and crafts or edible treats.
5. Hens and Chicks – Hens and chicks are very easy to grow and propagate from division. They work great in fairy gardens because they are small and they require very little maintenance or water. Most kids tend to enjoy these cute little plants.
6. Radish – Radishes go from seed germination to harvest very quickly, and kids can grow several crops of radishes in just one season. They also come in a myriad of colors and varieties.
7. Gourds – While gourds may take longer to mature than many plants, the daily care of them teaches kids responsibility and, in late summer or autumn, the reward for their hard work pays off with holiday decorations and crafts made from these plants.
8. Chinese Lanterns – The papery “lanterns” of Chinese lanterns sparks kids’ imaginations and curiosity. Before planting though, be sure that Chinese lanterns aren’t on your local extension’s invasive weed list.
9. Grapes – Most children love to eat these tasty treats and they’re healthy. A bowl full of grapes is even more tasty and meaningful to children if they have helped grow them.
10. Pansy – Another excellent small plant for fairy gardens, pansies are easy to grow from seed and are very forgiving of neglect. They also provide lots of color in cooler months when many other plants have lost their luster.