You can't be sure what children will take a fancy to in the garden, but here are some guidelines to follow regarding the best plants for kids to grow. They should be:
- Fun to grow: They stimulate children's senses (including taste, for edibles) or excite the imagination.
- Easy to grow: Kids need to be eased into gardening with forgiving specimens. Plants easily grown from seed are especially appealing to children because they preside over them from start to finish.
- Safe to grow: The last thing you want is something unsafe for kids, including poisonous plants.
- Instructive: Some plants are great for teaching lessons about nature. They provide examples of natural remedies or help kids connect to animals (as when flowers draw hummingbirds).
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The sense most stimulated by Stachys byzantina is touch. Children can reach out and stroke the fuzzy leaves of this perennial.
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Best in zones 3 through 9, American violets (Viola spp.) have nothing to do with African violets (Saintpaulia spp.), which is why it's important to use scientific names to avoid confusion. Viola has two qualities that make it great for kids:
- It's edible. (For safety reasons, not salad reasons.)
- A common lawn weed, Viola does grow like a weed.
These 4-to-6-inch-tall perennials grow best in partial sun to partial shade.
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Lunaria annua is a zone 4 to 8 biennial grown for its unusual pods. Kids marvel over the shape and color of these silver-dollar-like pods, which, at first glance, don't look natural.
The drawback of these 2-to-3-foot-tall plants is that they're invasive, meaning they'll drop seeds and spead quickly throughout the area. Be sure to have adult supervision to prevent their spread. Harvest the pods to keep them from dropping seed; they're useful in crafts such as wreath-making. Plants that spread this easily aren't fussy about growing conditions, but their preference is for partial shade.
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Flowers that come in bright colors and bold shapes are among the best to capture a child's imagination. Vibrant colors leave kids in awe over this Kniphofia.
Grow these unusual flowers in full sun (zones 6 to 9). They're over 2 feet tall when flowering.Continue to 5 of 19 below.
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There are many kinds of pitcher plants; people in zones 3 to 7 are most familiar with Sarracenia purpurea. Both the flowers and leaves of these perennials are visually fascinating.
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Gourds are fun, easy annuals to grow from seed, requiring full sun and a bit of room to grow in.
The ornamentals (Cucurbita spp.) are best for young children. Their vibrant, natural colors and odd shapes make the fall season come alive.
Older children can graduate to hard-shell gourds (Lagenaria spp.). You and your kids can team up and undertake craft projects with them, ranging from:
- Jack o'lanterns (in lieu of pumpkins)
- Sculptures (hats, lamps, etc.)
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Remember smell when selecting plants to appeal to kids' senses. Many herbs bear fragrant leaves, such as Nepeta cataria. Kids find it amusing that cats love the scent even more than people, to the point of rolling around in the stuff and making fools of themselves.
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Kids are impressed with the visual statement made by Alcea rosea. At 6 feet tall, these biennials or short-lived perennials for zones 4 to 10 will dwarf children, inspiring them with awe. They're easily grown from seed, although you must wait a year for flowers. (So it helps to get a head start before introducing the kids sometimes.)Continue to 9 of 19 below.
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While its common name reveals that Buddleia draws butterflies, don't sell it short: It also attracts hummingbirds. Its detractors point out that it gets too big for small spaces and is invasive. But the Blue Chip cultivar (zones 5 to 9) stays compact (24 to 36 inches tall) and is non-invasive. Place it in full sun.
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Impatiens capensis is related to the popular Impatiens walleriana. The matured seed pods of both explode when touched, making them irresistible. But this annual of North America's East Coast also provides a chance to teach children about natural remedies: It relieves mild cases of poison ivy.
Jewelweed can reach 6 feet tall in full shade and is easily grown from seed. You can buy seed from companies pushing it as a poison-ivy treatment or get it from the wild.
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Some holidays are more fun than others, and youngsters naturally want to participate in them in some way. With its leprechauns, rainbows, and unicorns, Saint Patrick's Day is one such holiday. With Oxalis regnellii (1 foot tall), kids can grow their own shamrocks to get into the Saint-Patty's-Day spirit. They'll also marvel at the purple color.
A zone 8 to 11 plant, it's best grown outdoors in summer in the North (partial shade), then as a houseplant for winter. But it's poisonous for dogs and cats, so skip it if you have pets.
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Sempervivum tectorum is a low-growing (4 inches), perennial, zone 3 to 11 succulent easily grown in full sun to partial shade. Its common name (which, in itself, appeals to kids) refers to the fact that the mother plants (hens) make off-shoots (chicks) that can simply be plucked off and grown somewhere else. Kids love engaging in this elementary form of transplanting.Continue to 13 of 19 below.
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Tagetes patula is an annual easy to grow from seed. Reaching 5 to 18 inches tall, it needs full sun. Besides orange, common flower colors for it are yellow and mahogany.
Have kids grow French marigolds near cucumbers to teach them about companion planting. The marigolds are supposed to keep certain pests away, including cucumber beetles.
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Lobularia maritima is a short (4 to 6 inches tall), sun-loving annual easy to start from seed. It flowers in other colors in the pink-to-purple range, although white is most common. Because it's not fussy, sweet alyssum is a good plant to use to introduce kids to creating container gardens. Suggest that they grow a taller plant (such as marigold) as a compliment to the alyssum.
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With its tall (6 to 8 feet) reeds swaying in the wind, Miscanthus sinensis Gracillimus appeals to kids' sense of sound. This is a zone 5 to 9 ornamental grass (full sun) that comes into its own late in the year. In fact, if you want it most for the sound it makes, be sure to leave the dried stalks alone all winter (when the wind rustles them the most): You can clear them away in spring.
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Tropical Colocasia esculenta astounds kids with its big leaves on 2-to-3-foot-tall plants. Black Coral and similar cultivars add further interest with dark coloration.Continue to 17 of 19 below.
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Asclepias syriaca (3 feet tall, zones 3 to 9, full sun) is another perennial that grows like a weed (because that's what it is). Kids love to chase the seed-bearing "cotton" it puts out, which gets blown by the wind. This milkweed is also important to monarch butterflies.
If you don't already have it on your land, you can harvest the seed from elsewhere in the fall (or buy it). Moisten a patch of ground in November, bury each seed 2 inches in the ground, and cover with soil.
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It's easy to grow Pisum sativum var. marcrocarpon from seed (10-day germination period), and kids can eat the fruits of their labors shortly after. Snap peas grow quickly and like cold weather, so this is one project children can undertake during spring.
The pea family also has members grown as ornamentals, not food, including:
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Children are attracted to bright colors, unusual textures, and anything strange. It's great when plants are safe (non-toxic) and have one or more of these qualities. But when poisonous plants have such qualities, it's the worst of all possible worlds: Curious youngsters will be tempted to nibble at something that will make them sick. When young kids will be playing in the yard, always double-check that your landscape is free of toxic plants such as bittersweet nightshade (with its brightly-colored berries) and Chinese lantern (with its papery, lantern-like pods).