By Kristina Howley, Proven Winners Color Choice
Photographs courtesy of Proven Winners Color Choice
If stepping into the garden can instantly improve your mood, just imagine how powerful that experience is for a child. If you’re reading this, you probably want to share the overwhelming goodness of nature and the joy of growing things with a child in your life. I wanted that too! I was a gardener long before I became a mother, so when my son came into the picture I immediately knew I’d share the garden with him to build an appreciation for plants and nature.
Then came the how. The outdoors, and gardens in particular, somehow become a little scarier when we have a curious, vulnerable little person to guide through them. (If you’re like me, you might constantly be thinking, “Is that toxic? Is that toxic? Is that sharp? Etc.”) So I’ve gathered my experiences updating our own garden into a child-safe space and compiled a list of four things you can do to make gardening with children simpler, safer, and more fun.
1. Address The Toxic Plants
Young kids explore with their mouths. If you aren’t gardening with taste-testers, you can just skim read this step. However, if your kids have a habit of putting everything in their mouths (like mine does right now), start by assessing the plants that are already in your space. Look for potentially dangerous shrubs along walkways or seating areas. If you find some, decide if it’s best to transplant them to a spot that’s harder to reach or if it’d be easier to put a barrier around them for a year or so while the children grow out of this phase. I’ve split the list of the most common toxic shrubs to bring attention to the especially attractive toxic plants; look further below for exhaustive resources on toxic plants.
Common toxic shrubs with berries:
Children are drawn to these brightly colored, berry-producing plants, so it’s especially important to keep them out of reach.
Buckthorn – Rhamnus – extreme discomfort
Cherry – Prunus – seeds can be fatal
Coralberry – Symphoricarpos – extreme discomfort
Cotoneaster – Cotoneaster – extreme discomfort
Holly – Ilex – extreme discomfort from berries
Laurel – Kalmia – extreme discomfort
Privet – Ligustrum – extreme discomfort
St. John’s wort – Hypericum – can be fatal
Yew – Taxus – all parts can be fatal
Common toxic shrubs:
Azalea – Rhododendron – can be fatal
Boxwood – Buxus – extreme discomfort
Burning bush – Euonymus – extreme discomfort
Clematis – Clematis – extreme discomfort
Daphne – Daphne – can be fatal
Elderberry – Sambucus – ripe fruit is nontoxic, but foliage can be fatal
Hydrangea – Hydrangea – can be fatal
Juniper – Juniperus – extreme discomfort
Lily of the valley shrub – Pieris – can be fatal
Oak – Quercus – acorns can be fatal
Oleander – Nerium – can be fatal
Rhododendron – Rhododendron – can be fatal
Scotch broom – Cytisus – extreme discomfort
Wisteria – Wisteria – extreme discomfort
Since I can’t list all of the toxic plants out there, you can consult a good university website like UCDavis or NCSU for more information. These sources provide reliable, science-based information on not just which plants are toxic, but what health issues you might see if they are eaten.
2. Make It Safe To Explore
Plan for trampling. Whether it’s an intentional adventure or an unintentional fall, some plants will inevitably be damaged. Choose shrubs that will bounce back quickly and remove or relocate plants that will fight back (thorns, sharp edges, or those that release an irritating sap when broken).
Resilient, easy to grow, non-toxic shrubs:
Butterfly bush – Buddleia
Bluebeard – Caryopteris
Potentilla – Potentilla
Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus and spp.
Spirea – Spiraea
Weigela – Weigela
Common shrubs to avoid planting due to thorns or sharp edges:
Barberry – Berberis
Blue or evergreen holly – Ilex x meserveae
Bougainvillea – Bougainvillea
Firethorn – Pyracantha
Hawthorn (some are thornless) – Crataegus
Roses – Rosa
Common shrubs to avoid due to possible irritation from sap:
Balsam fir – Abies balsamea
Buckthorn – Rhamnus
Daphne – Daphne
Dogwood – Cornus
Ginkgo – Ginkgo
Oleander – Nerium
Smokebush – Cotinus
Tree of heaven – Ailanthus altissima
3. Build An Engaging, Easy Care Garden
Spend more time enjoying and less time working by choosing plants that meet your needs – easy to care for, interesting, and safe. Making deliberate plant choices now will help you feel at ease as your kids explore in the future. (Note: I don’t advise eating any of these on purpose, they just aren’t poisonous.)
A few fun, non-toxic plants for kids and a little view of the value they bring to the garden:
Potentilla – Potentilla extremely tough, easy to care for, flowers abundantly, trim in early spring, very drought tolerant
Rose of Sharon – Hibiscus syriacus and spp. easy to care for, drought tolerant, often attracts hummingbirds, no pruning necessary
Spirea – Spiraea blooms abundantly, attracts pollinators, great cut flower, no pruning necessary
Spruce – Picea evergreen, interesting foliage texture, fun for crafts, no pruning necessary
Pine – Pinus evergreen, interesting foliage texture, fun for crafts, no pruning necessary
Viburnum – Viburnum attracts pollinators, berries draw in wildlife to observe, often has pretty fall color, no pruning necessary
Weigela – Weigela blooms abundantly, attracts pollinators, no pruning necessary
Willow – Salix flexible branches brush together making a lovely sound, great for cut flower arrangements, no pruning necessary
4. Make A Realistic Plan
When you head outdoors with children, it’s good to have an idea of what you’re hoping to do, but I always try to keep my expectations light. In other words, I check my expectations at the garden gate. (“Oh you thought we were watering? How about a mud puddle adventure instead.”) Here are three main outcomes you could keep in mind when gardening with children:
Although there are a million activities you can do with kids outdoors, these are a few simple garden activities that I’ve found that are actually fun and require little to no planning.
Bug Hunt – Find as many types of bugs as you can in one section of your garden. – Make up silly names that describe them – fluffy buzzer for bumblebees, slippery noodle for worms, etc. (A great way to work on vocabulary!)
Gather a Bouquet – Encourage them to narrow their choices down to three favorite flowers. – Try to draw them like a still life with crayons or markers.
Scavenger Hunt – Make a list of things to find – something fuzzy, something round, something pink, something rough, etc. – Put each item on the paper.
Sensory Bin Scooping – Gather flowers, seed heads, leaves, rocks, etc. – Get two bins. Fill one with water. – Get a scooping tool out. – Put all of the gathered items in the water-filled bin, notice what happens to each one. (ex. Does it sink or float? Did it change color? Etc.) – Scoop up each item, one by one, and transfer them to the empty bin.
Involving kids in real gardening tasks often takes triple the amount of time, but there are a lot more laughs and you might be surprised at how much more you notice with an observant tagalong helping you out. I grew up thinking gardening was full of games, and honestly, it kind of is. Here are a few “garden games” you can play:
Pick Up Sticks or Pinecones – Simple garden tasks like these empower kids! They enjoy helping in a way that is real and visible. – This is a great opportunity to practice counting as the sticks get piled up or put into a bin. – Use the gathered sticks to build a mini fort for play people or stack them in a tower.
Watering It’s hard to resist the responsibility of watering something, whether it’s with a hose or a small watering can.
Weed Matching Pick one example weed and work together to find as many matches as you can. Pull them out as you go. Compare similarities and differences between the plant you’ve found and the one you’re looking for. (ex. This plant has fuzzy leaves, but this one doesn’t.)
Plan to let them explore without giving much, if any, input. See what they gravitate toward and how they choose to interact with their surroundings. Sometimes children are absorbed by repetitive play that may seem boring to us, but is valuable for their development and understanding of the world around them.
No matter the size of your garden, the plants you have, or what activity you’re up to, it is so worthwhile to spend time in the garden with the kids in your life.
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