Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
New England
July, 2005
Regional Report

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Watch a butterfly, dig a hole, find an earthworm ... so much to explore in the garden.

Engaging Kids in the Garden

Midsummer in the garden is a time of pulling weeds, checking for insect damage, picking vegetables, and cutting flowers. While we may think of these routines as chores to be completed so we can move on to other things, kids can have a good bit of fun helping us if we mingle the chores with an exploration in the garden. Admittedly, we won't set any speed-weeding records when we invite kids along, but it's a good reminder that if we slow down we might have more fun, too.

Of course, we can't start off by saying, "Hey, want to go pull a few weeds with me?" Instead, try setting off on a scavenger hunt that leads into the garden and involves collecting, say, some Japanese beetles. Make a list (or draw pictures) of various plant parts, live creatures, and other treasures that your kids can find in the garden. You can give them a shoebox or bug jar to capture specimens or just have them check off what they find. A can of soapy water is a good receptacle for pest insects. Here are some things they could look for:

A flower that butterflies would like. Butterflies need to land before feeding so they prefer flat, open surfaces with views. Look for them on zinnias, calendulas, butterfly weeds, sunflowers, and daisies.

A flower that hummingbirds would like. With their long beaks, hummers are equipped to feed on flowers with long throats, such as sages, fuchsias, honeysuckles, nasturtiums, columbines, jewelweeds, and bee balms. Since they hover while feeding, they need no landing areas on the flowers.

A spider web on a plant. While spiders prey on many insects that harm our plants (and us), they are not discriminating and may also snare ladybugs. Whether or not your kids find spiders a welcome sight, their webs are sure to delight.

Soil critters and other treasures. Show your kids a spot in the garden where they can dig in the soil. They can search for treasures such as pebbles, bark, and acorns, as well as insects.

Earthworms. Kids can dig enough soil from the garden to fill a small bucket and then spread out the soil in a garbage can lid or on a tarp. Next, count the earthworms. (Do this in the shade so the earthworms don't get exposed to hot sun.) Then have them dig the same amount of soil from an area in the yard where grass or plants aren't growing well, and compare the number of earthworms in each pile. This can naturally lead to a discussion about how worms improve the soil. (Be sure to return the worms to a garden bed.)

Beneficial insects. Ladybugs are familiar to most kids, and they may already know that these insects are "good bugs" because they feed on aphids and other plant-eating insects. But there are many beneficial insects in the garden that are less familiar, such as green lacewings, tiny parasitic wasps, and praying mantids. Also, insects may be unfamiliar at certain stages of their life cycles, such as ladybugs, whose larvae resemble tiny alligators. Look for beneficials on some of their favorite plants: baby's breath, cosmos, goldenrod, nasturtium, tansy, Queen Anne's lace, sunflower, yarrow, dill, caraway, fennel, lemon balm, and thyme.

Pest insects. Scout for Japanese beetles in the cool hours of early morning or early evening when they are sluggish and easier to knock off into a can of soapy water. Kids don't even need to touch the insects -- just tapping the branch will usually cause the beetles to drop off. Just make sure to hold the can underneath to catch them.

With a pair of gloves on, many kids will be happy to pick off cucumber beetles and other pests and squish them or add them to the soapy water can. Or they can collect them in a jar and release them elsewhere (far from neighbors, too!).

Weeds. Challenge kids to see if they can find enough weeds to fill a garbage bag (sneaky, huh?).

Ice cream cone. You may need to pay a visit to the freezer to help them with this final quest!

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