Plants for children
by Rhiannon James
Kids can fall in love with gardening just by planting a few seeds and watching them grow. But if you really want to fire up their imaginations, there’s a whole Willy Wonka world of plants to choose from. There are plants with strange or scrumptious scents such as chocolate cosmos and lemon balm; plants that tantalise the touch with the softness of lambs’ ears or the smoothness of living stones and plants with intriguing personalities – think the epicurean appetites of insectivores or the shyness of sensitive plants. Our experts have picked their favourite plants for kids.
Sunflowers (Helianthus annuus)
“I’d recommend sunflowers because the seeds are not too small and delicate for children to handle and they come up fairly fast and reliably which avoids disappointment. They are also good fun as you can have sunflower-growing competitions with a class or group of children as they will get to a good size – often bigger than the child given the chance!”
Martha Orbach, garden worker at Culpeper Community Garden (www.culpeper.org.uk)
Chinese Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Hameln’)
“For something which looks stunning in your garden for months and months, try Chinese fountain grass. It really comes into its own in autumn, when other flowers in the garden have faded and it turns a deep golden yellow. Children are enchanted by the fluffy flower heads which they can treat as a pet on a stick!”
Matthew Wilson, garden designer, writer, broadcaster and Managing Director of Clifton Nurseries (www.clifton.co.uk)
Strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa)
“In the spirit of research for this recommendation I asked my five-year-old daughter what her favourite plant would be to grow in our garden. She said a rose as it’s her name. They’re not exactly the best plant to have around children so I asked her to suggest something else and she said strawberries. Now those are perfect. Not only do they produce the perfect fruit for a child to pick (no thorn), but they also grow happily in a small space and they’re a complete lesson in plant development. I remember being fascinated by the way a small plant would grow. If you’re only going for one variety, I would suggest getting one that you can’t buy as fruit in the shops. At The Roof Gardens we have five varieties; two produce white fruits (alpine white and pineberries) and three red. The best one, that fruits all summer long, is the sweet and tasty strawberry ‘Anais’. These have just been planted in a green wall and seem to be doing very well.”
David Lewis, Head Gardener at Kensington Roof Gardens (www.roofgardens.virgin.com)
Honey bush (Melianthus major)
“Melianthus major is a great plant for kids. It’s quite big and jungly with lovely serrated leaves in an unusual glaucous colour. In a hot year, a big flower spike shoots up that’s velvety and red/maroon in colour. But the most fun thing about this plant for kids is the scent: the leaves smell of peanut butter. It’s great fun to ask a child to stroke the leaves and then put their fingers to their noses. They then get their friends to do the same to watch their reaction. Their excited screams of delight are a joy and a good enough reason to get this plant.
This plant grows better in partial shade/full sun and it is hardy enough in London, withstanding temperatures to approximately -5 degrees and coming back even after it’s been snowed under.”
Ana Sanchez-Martin, garden designer (www.germinatedesign.com)
Sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus)
“It’s hard to think of a better first plant than Lathyrus odoratus, the sweet pea. The large, ball-bearing-sized seeds are easy for little fingers to handle and they can be sown in a pot or directly into the soil. Next, a climbing frame must be improvised – twigs, bits of pipe, string, anything can be used and children’s imaginations can run riot. Sweet peas grow quickly to impressive heights (reaching up to 2m tall) and wind their delicate tendrils around everything within reach.
The truly wonderful thing about sweet peas is that the more flowers you pick, the more there will be! The scent is rich and sweet and they come in any colour but yellow. At the end of the year, the seeds are easy to collect from the dry “pea pods”, ready to start again. Could there be a more enjoyable way of learning about the life cycles of plants?”
Kate Wilkinson, Glasshouse Manager and Gardener at the Chelsea Physic Garden (www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk)
“Sarracenia flava is an other-worldly plant. With its yellow tubular pitchers and carnivorous tendencies, it makes a slightly sinister yet intriguing plant for children to grow.
Sarracenia grow well in containers but they do need winter protection so plant them somewhere sheltered or bring them inside in the winter. In the summer, Sarracenia can be placed outside in full sun in moist pH neutral – acidic soil and should be irrigated with lime-free water. They will happily catch their own food and provide a striking talking point.”
Kate Gould, garden designer (www.kategouldgardens.com)
Chives (Allium schoenoprasum)
“A plant that we at the garden have found kids can become obsessed with! Chive leaves are edible and kids also love to eat the purple flowers which taste like onions. The leaves are hollow and the children use them as eco-friendly straws, although onion-flavoured water may not quite catch on!
Chives are easy to grow in pots in the house or in the ground. They can be grown from seed or from plugs from the nursery, but a pot of chives from the supermarket can be divided into many small plants and each one potted up to grow bigger. A very economical plant!
In the garden, chive flowers attract bees and other wildlife.”
Cath Evans, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh Education Officer and Co-ordinator of the School Gardening Project (www.rbge.org.uk)