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A Child's Garden

By: Sandra Nelson; Images Sandy DeFoe

Last fall I gave myself a gift of new flower beds. It took me weeks to dig up almost the entire backyard and haul in bag after bag of cotton burr compost. My vision was to wait until this spring and then fill my perfectly prepared beds with a whole new collection of native plants. I imagined myself designing a space that would nourish the native insects and reward me with blossoms from early spring until late fall. It was going to be absolutely perfect — a neighborhood showplace. 

As usual, my plans didn’t work out quite the way I intended. Oh, the beds are ready and waiting to be planted. I’m still going to fill them with blooms from spring until fall. I may even manage to feed an insect or two. (hopefully beneficial ones) I just won’t be filling those beds with native plants this year. Something much more important is taking precedence over my dream. My grandkids need a huge flower garden of their own. 

child with wheelbarrowI have always planted a vegetable garden with the grandchildren in mind. We grow lettuce, snow peas and spinach because they are fast crops. Quick gratification for little guys. child in vegetable gardenWe grow potatoes and carrots because they are exciting to harvest and tomatoes and cucumbers and beans because they taste good. They love their vegetable garden, but flowers have never been part of their experience at grandma’s house. 

The flowers in the yard were mine and I jealously guarded them, cringing inside whenever any of the little darlings even approached them. My heart broke just a bit when a flower was picked and I felt intense physical pain when a plant was inadvertently pulled by its neck from the ground. I swear I could hear it’s anguished cry. (In retrospect it was probably just me trying not to be upset.)


Last weekend I got a reality check. My youngest daughter and I were reminiscing about the house we lived in when she was young. It had a huge backyard with those once in a lifetime absolutely perfect growing conditions. Soil so rich and fertile anything grew. Morning sun and just enough shade in the afternoon to protect delicate plants. Ideal drainage. I filled that yard with flowers

And that is exactly what she remembered – long summer days spent immersed in an imaginary world shaped by the colors and fragrances of my gardens.  mom and daughterShe talked about the crowns of flowers she wove for her dolls and the “bouquets” she picked for all the important people in her life. The arrow that struck my heart though, was when she said “and you never once got annoyed with me for picking your flowers. I always thought I was doing something good.” I realized that my daughter loves gardening so much because it was not only a joy-filled part of her life, but also because she felt good about herself. 

Our world is suffering on so many levels; for the planet to survive, we need our children to become true champions of the earth. For them to become ardent caretakers who believe they can make a difference, children must first be able to experience the joy that simple gifts like sweet-smelling bouquets and crowns of daisies offer. They need the opportunity  – and the freedom  –  to lose themselves in nature during the long, lazy days of summer. Whether they are creating imaginary kingdoms or just watching a lady bug crawl up a stem, the middle of a flower garden is a perfect place to begin building a life-long, positive relationship with the natural world. 

sad flower

The random Saturday morning conversation with my daughter got me rethinking what needs to go in all those new beds. If the beds are truly for their delight, then the flowers I plant this spring must be different from those I was going to plant for myself. 

girl in garden

Flowers for children need to be:

  • Fast growing - patience generally isn’t a strength of littles. They need varieties that will produce flowers quickly so they don’t lose interest before the adventure can begin.
  • Tough - body control isn’t developed in toddlers and young children. A plant that will immediately die from a misplaced foot or an unexpected fall isn’t a good choice.
  • Quick to rebloom/reseed - a garden constantly full of flowers is like a magnet for kids.They can’t resist picking just one more.
  • Gentle to little fingers - getting pricked by thorns or coming away from the garden with splinters ruins the experience. Flowers with smooth or even furry stems are a better choice.
  • Safe - Little people have been known to munch on unusual things and they have sensitive skin.  Avoid both plants that are toxic when eaten and those with sap that can be irritating to the skin. 
  • Long-lasting when cut - it isn’t much fun when your flowers wilt before your very eyes. It can be hours between the time the “bouquet” is picked and when it is delivered.
  • Sensory rich - flower gardens enrich children’s understanding of the world through their senses. Exploring the colors, fragrances, textures of the garden sparks their imaginations. 

Keeping all of these elements in mind, I’ve reread my seed catalogs searching for just the right combination of flowers that will create the perfect garden for children.

This is the collection I have settled on for 2022:




Newer varieties are exceptionally hardy, easy to grow, keep producing blooms all summer long and come in a variety of colors. Their relatively malleable stems are great for weaving. 


Wooly Lambs Ears 

wooly l;ambs ears

Although this perennial is sometimes underrated, the foliage’s texture is irresistible for kids and adults alike. It’s unbelievably soft texture makes a perfect bed for fairies and unicorns in the garden! 




  Perfect for the spring garden and the fall garden, snaps will slow or stop blooming in high heat and humidity. Consider planting them in a container that can be moved in or out of the garden. I don’t know anyone who can resist making a snapdragon “talk” by gently squeezing the bloom. 




A garden favorite because it is so reliable. There is an incredible array of colors and sizes available. Marigolds are easy to grow from seed and bedding plants are quick to set flowers. It’s fun to deadhead tired blooms and then scatter the seeds in the wind.




Another garden favorite because of the multitude of colors, sizes and shapes. The older varieties are prone to unsightly mildew which can also be a problem for children with allergies.  Stick to newer hybrids that are disease resistant if that is a problem.

Ornamental grasses 

ornamental grass

Strategically plant some of the taller varieties to create a child size hideaway. Encourage kids to listen carefully to the sounds of the grasses in the wind. Do they hear a song? Is there a secret message being sent?


Bachelor’s Buttons 

bachelor buttons

Straight out of grandma’s garden, you couldn’t ask for a better child’s plant. They are easy to grow in full sun, easily self-seed and last forever as cut flowers. They are one of the few true blue flowers and draw butterflies and birds to the garden by the dozens.



cosmosAnother of grandma’s favorites for good reason. They grow quickly, liberally self-seed and are at their best in the middle of the hot summer when so many other flowers are struggling. The stems of some older varieties are fragile so look for newer hybrids.



child with gomphrenaThe globe shaped blooms are fascinating to kids. Gomphrenas love heat. They love poor soil. They have fabulous colors and they bloom from early summer until hard frost. Perfect for picking.




Low maintenance petunias come in just about every color imaginable, so you could easily create a rainbow of blooms. Another benefit is that the more flowers kids pick, the more flowers they will have.

kids with flowersIn a few years, when the grandchildren are older and have left their imaginary kingdoms behind, then I will reclaim the beds for my own. Until then, I intend to savor every moment they spend here at my home playing in their gardens and building a life-long love of nature.