by Kelly Johnson
Embarking on journey toward gardening with children often means biting off more than one can chew. A big garden seems great – until weeds set in, insects find it, and life’s everyday jobs place a pleasurable task of gardening on the back burner. Then, sadly, green-thumb visions of bountiful harvests turn brown, along with the plants.
Beginning gardeners of all ages should start small, remembering that as skills grow, so will the harvest. Container gardens are a manageable way to excite children about plants and vegetables, while setting up a scenario for success. Whether at home, school, or in a community garden, there is the perfect container for every situation, space, or skill level.
Right container, right place. The location of containers is as important as their contents. Whether placed on a patio or deck, or within a larger garden, kids need easy access to their plants. Can tiny arms reach the garden for harvesting? What is the sun situation? Tip: Place container gardens within your line of sight, as it increases the chances you (or the kids) will remember to provide regular watering.
Plant for similar needs. A big mistake by new garden enthusiasts is to combine plants with very different water and sun needs in the same container. Be sure to research compatibility of the plants you want, and ask questions of growers at your favorite nursery.
Allow room to grow. It’s easy to overcrowd a pot when starting container gardens, as tiny seeds can be deceiving. Do some digging (pun intended) and learn about the space needs of plants before dropping any seeds in the dirt. Remember to allow height space and potential trellis room, too, and know that vegetables have deeper roots than most flowers, so plan for deeper pots if you’re growing edibles.
Get the dish on dirt. In container gardens where plants are generally more crowded, high quality potting soil should always be a priority. Good potting soil is light enough to allow for easy root growth and compaction prevention, and is full of nutrients. Also carefully consider drainage of containers, adding holes in the bottom if necessary. Contrary to popular opinion, adding rocks or Styrofoam to the bottom of a pot does not help with drainage, and only takes up valuable growing space, not to mention making pots difficult for youngsters to carry.
Once you’ve planned locations and types of plants, it’s time for the best part, selecting a container. The good news is that almost anything can become a container garden, from teacups to toilets. Flower pots, of course, are the most common container. Large, small, plastic, clay, round, or square, any traditional flower pot makes a simple container garden. Stacked or clustered, they look great grouped together on a deck, patio, or balcony.
For little gardens, sometimes called terrariums, use up-cycled glass jars, an old aquarium, or any clear container. Kids often enjoy creating a theme for their garden, from cartoon characters to colors and textures. Try a fairy garden from ferns, or a mini-moss terrarium for plastic dinosaurs.
Have a closet full of old shoes? Grab one or two, along with a plastic sandwich bag. Fill the bag with soil, and place a cutting or small, moisture-loving plant inside (I use a pothos cutting; this leafy houseplant grows fast). Then, insert the planted baggie into the shoe and fold the top of the baggie over the top of the shoe. Spruce up the shoe’s exterior with fancy new shoelaces or paint.
Social media channels are full of “shabby chic” options for container gardening. The shabby chic container garden is usually integrated into an existing garden or landscape by taking something old and upcycling it into something new. Turn an old bench or chair into a container garden by adding pots to the former seat areas. Fill an old grill with fiery red, orange, yellow, and purple plants. Take an old bed frame and turn it into a “garden bed.” Plant a grouping of painted tin cans or canning jars, attach to a piece of reclaimed wood, and hang on the wall. Shabby chic gardens are limited only by one’s imagination.
Most kids are a bit confused when it comes time to pick out plants, so choose color themes, and plant a container garden centered on one or two particular colors. Don’t forget plants with colored foliage as well as flowers, and put taller plants in the back of a container, leaving room to fill around them with trailing vines or texture-full ground cover to add visual movement.
Another option is to “grow” your own dinner. Plant a pizza garden in a large (24-inch) pot, adding one cherry tomato plant, some basil, oregano to trail out the front, and a sweet pepper plant.
Container gardening is a fun and easy way to get young gardeners excited about botany, plants, and farm-to-table concepts. It also opens the door to stewardship, and during this Earth Day month, is a valuable activity for the whole family.
Kelly Johnson is an artist, author, and publisher of Wings, Worms, and Wonder, a website centering on nature, art, and green thumbs. She lives and works in Florida.