Parents rarely if ever consider what type of effect the garden they are planting will have on their children. Certainly other influences will have their place, but let’s not underestimate the memories of our youth and the strong influence early experiences have upon our mature attitudes, appreciation, even our interests and actions. Nearly any real garden will in some way communicate a love of plants – anything from cactus to rose gardens! That in itself is certainly a good thing. There is something in plants which speak to us, not just to us as grown ups, but to us at ANY level in our lives.
What type of garden is best for children? Should it be a pristine garden, exactly maintained, showing a child that gardens are precisely arranged collections of beautiful flowers and interesting plants, not to be touched? Ideally, a garden should allow and encourage interaction and participation by children, allowing investigation and rewarding curiosity. How much better, if those experiences include plants native to our region! If they do, perhaps the pungent aroma of sage and sagebrush will in later life bring back the pleasant memories of youthful play – of the hummingbird magically suspended as it sips from hummingbird sage or coral bells, of sitting near the fragrant chaparral currant, or of climbing the low spreading branches of the native redbud or walnut.
Yes, even activities with parents can be memorable. See the bumblebee in the penstemon? After the bee is gone examine the flower with its colored directional marks showing the bee just where to go. Observe the finches collecting all sizes of twigs to create their nest, and watch the young ones arrive and learn to fly. What about hatching “their own” butterflies in a garden including both native food plants for the larval stage (caterpillars) to eat and a nectar source for the adult butterflies to sip. What a gift to teach children about the magic of a caterpillar becoming a cocoon and then a butterfly. They can watch it in their garden (and invite their friends over to see something really cool).
Of course, the more accessible a garden is to the child the better. Imagine a young adult recalling stories of hiding behind the clumps of deergrass and sage, using leaves to imprint the still moist surface of clay bowls (or the wet concrete of patios or pathways), examining strands of algae from the small pond with Mimulus guttatus along its border. (Eyes get bigger when peering through the magical handlens.) I believe the garden environment children are reared in can be just as important as a natural history museum. Perhaps more so since they are immersed in it so often, especially if they feel at least a part of the garden is “theirs”!
So what about a part of the garden to call their own? A little help could prompt a teepee of sticks covered with rapidly growing island morning glory, Calystegia macrostegia ‘Anacapa’. Imagine lying back inside and viewing the pale pink flowers against a blue sky. With subtle instructions children could also plant lovely wildflowers, learning the basics of soil, seed, patience, and reward. Imagine how they would respond when family, friends, or guests commented on fantastic clarkia, California poppy, tansy-leaf phacelia, and other easy-to-grow species of great beauty. (And these wildflowers can be grown in containers if space is a consideration.)
Teaching a child about the uses made of native plants by Native Americans is another possibility. Experience together acorn pancakes, simple basketry, natural soaps, and flutes from the fast-growing Mexican elderberry. A crown woven of native grasses and wildflowers is beautiful when fresh and a wonderful keepsake as a dried arrangement. As a child grows there is always a next level of wonder and interaction available in a living garden imaginatively designed and made available to the child.
Providing excellent raw material for a child’s memories is an essential part of parenting. What is our demeanor when in the garden with our children? It should be one of happiness, contentment, curiosity, and purpose. Their memories should be of their parents teaching them, helping them, sharing in little discoveries, not memories of hard work and sharp comments. Leave the day’s irritations behind you and match your tone to that of the gentle, interesting, and generous garden. The lessons a garden can teach are endless and parents who do the preparation and research before engaging in shared projects direct the young mind to expect pleasure from discovery and excitement in its anticipation.
Don’t the years fly by? As children grow into a young adults, what will their feelings about our natural world be? Won’t they be more inclined to preserve a section of coastal sage if they remember playing in fragrant artemisia and salvia? Having marveled at the little flock of tiny bushtits working their way through a loose hedge of lemonadeberry, will they not more readily see the connection between native plants and the animals they feed? If they have been brought up playing under an oak tree and hearing all the stories about the animals which depend upon it, won’t they be more likely to vote to save an oak woodland nearby? If the small water feature in the back yard includes various native sedges and rushes, won’t their understanding a bit of that system prompt them to worry about the health of the few riparian and wetland habitats left? Perhaps it will. Very probably, positive experiences in their home garden will extend to larger interactions with the surrounding parks and natural areas. Very likely, it will make them think about such issues seriously, and that is a huge step.
And what a wonderful added benefit it is when a native garden wonderland serves to bring parents and children closer together, adding to the depth, richness, and warmth of their relationship.