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Getting Kids Into Gardening, Part IV: Creativity in the Garden

Inspiring our children to develop an enthusiasm for gardening is a wonderful gift we, as parents or caregivers, can give them. This theme revolves around using the garden and its produce as an outlet for creativity. The following ideas will hopefully help give you some starting points for helping your children make the most of the garden in a myriad of ways. Use just one idea, combine several, or come up with your own ideas.

Mazes

Children are often fascinated by mazes. They can create their own living mazes, either on a miniature scale with low growing plants, or a full-scale hedge maze, if you have the room and can afford the plants. Get your kids to create a simple maze design on paper first (graph paper might be handy) and then lay it out on the ground using tent pegs or stakes and string. Alternatively, they could lay little stones or sticks out to mark the design.

Plant choice should be for plants which are fairly robust and bushy and easily cut to hold the design of the edges. They don’t all have to be the same type of plant either… let them be creative with design and colour.

As the plants grow the children will be able to see their mazes take shape. The plants will need to be pruned now and then to keep the desired shape of the maze. If you use edible herbaceous plants the pruned segments can be used in the kitchen or dried for later use. If not, add them to the compost heap.

Patterns and Words

Your children might like to plant things using different coloured foliage or flowers to create patterns or write words, such as their name. If they choose plants for both their name and the background with similar colour leaves, but ones that flower brilliantly for their name, then at flowering time their name will appear as if by magic! They could also plant a special short ‘secret message’ which will then be easily visible at flowering time.

Maybe they’d like to make a Valentine’s garden featuring a large heart of red toned foliage, on a green background. They could plant a Christmas tree garden, using green foliage as the tree, yellow foliage at the top in a star shape and little clumps of red foliage for baubles on the tree.

They could plant geometric shapes such as circles, triangles, squares or octagons. Maybe stars or symbols of some kind. How about trying to create a flag garden, with the flag of your country? Perhaps a checkerboard design, or a decorative pattern of swirls. The ideas are as limitless as their imagination!


Photo Credit: Alex Bruda

International Gardens

Let your kids turn an area of the garden into one themed on a specific country or location. This is also a good opportunity for your children to do some research into the aspects of gardens from other lands and how the people interacted with them. Naturally, the type of garden you can plant will depend somewhat on the type of climate you have, or can create. For instance if you have a shadehouse, or a greenhouse, you will be able to grow things in those that may not normally thrive in your climate.

Some suggested themes:

  • A serene Japanese garden with bamboo, raked sands, a pond with an arched bridge, a Japanese style water feature.
  • A Mexican garden with cactuses, succulents and red sand accents.
  • A Mediterranean garden with olive trees, grapes and tomatoes.
  • A tropical island garden with mangos, pineapples, bananas and other tropical fruits. Add some palm trees and some white sand and shells around a pool for your ‘beach’.
  • An Australian native garden featuring some of the beautiful native plants we have such as hardenbergia, tea trees, melaleucas, correas, grevilleas, bottlebrushes, banksias and eucalypts (be careful which varieties you choose, as some can grow very tall) and some logs to attract some of our native lizards. Don’t forget to check out what native plants are indigenous to your area too, as these will probably grow quite well and provide specific habitat and food sources to the wildlife that is also indigenous to the area.


Banksia

Dwarf Gardens

No, not a garden for dwarves — although who knows what might come and live in it — but a garden made up of dwarf and miniature varieties of plants. Lots of plants have dwarf varieties (which means they are smaller than their full size cousins) and there are also a lot of very tiny plants, or plants that have very tiny flowers, which could be included too. Mosses and lichens could also add to this garden.

Another thing your children might like to try is growing their own bonsai trees. These could be grown in small pockets of soil in a log or rock, or in their own small pots. They only need a small amount of soil because the idea is to keep them tiny, which includes their root system, along with careful trimming. They will need careful monitoring for water requirements, as the small amount of soil will dry out much faster than the soil in the garden.

A site with useful information on Bonsai can be found here.

Giant Gardens

This is the opposite of the above theme, where plants are instead chosen for their huge potential size, or the size of their leaves like a monstera or elephant ear, or trunks like a boab, or bulbs such as a ‘pregnant onion’.

You could also attempt to grow giant sized veggies, by choosing seeds which are genetically prone to large size, making sure the soil is rich with organic matter, giving them adequate nutrients and water and by keeping the plants at the right temperature, especially on chilly nights. A greenhouse is especially useful for this.

A site with some useful information on growing giant veggies can be found here.

Year-Round Flower Garden

The idea here is to create a garden that has something flowering all year round. This is not only beautiful, but also provides food sources for the beneficial creatures you want to have visiting your garden.

Your children can do a bit of research here, to find out what kind of plants flower at different times of the year… and will do so in your specific location. Get it right and they’ll have bunches of flowers for the house and a beautiful display outside, all year long.

If flowers all year aren’t really practical for your situation, a beautiful effect can be obtained by using different coloured foliage. All kinds of shades of green, red, orange, yellow, silver and blue hues can really enhance a garden at any time of year.

Perfume Garden

Not only can a garden smell divine, but it can provide the raw materials for making your own fragrant products. Let your children choose a variety of plants with strongly fragrant flowers such as jasmine, carnations, wallflowers, sweet peas and frangipani and certain roses. A lot of the newer roses are bred for colour, not scent — this can also be true of other varieties of flowers also — so make sure you know what variety you are choosing to grow. A lot of the old heirloom varieties have a lovely fragrance, so make sure you look into those.

Don’t forget scented leaves such as lemon scented verbena, scented pelargonium and all sorts of herbs. The zest of citrus fruits and ground spices can also be used. Some things will take quite some time to grow to flowering stage, others will be much quicker, so they can experiment with different scents as they appear.

The fragrant petals, leaves and spices can be dried and used as pot pourri, placed in little bowls around the house or tied in little net bags and hung in your wardrobe, slipped into drawers or wherever else you want a lovely scent.

You can also make your own fragrant essential oils and perfumes.

To make essential oil:

  1. Cut the flowers before they open. You can use a single type of flower, or try mixing some to see what fragrances work well together. You can also add leaves of scented plants (chopped), spices (ground) and citrus zest.
  2. Use a wide necked jar with a tight fitting lid. Add about 300ml of mild scented oil, such as olive, canola, safflower or sesame.
  3. Add around 8 tablespoons of petals and anything else you wish to add. Be careful how much spice or strong herbs you add as these can easily overpower your petals.
  4. Put the lid on the jar tightly and place it on a sunny windowsill or a safe sunny place outside, protected from rain.
  5. Shake the jar every 12 hours.
  6. After about 48 hours, cover a glass bowl with a piece of muslin or a fine strainer and pour the oil through this, into the bowl.
  7. Return the oil to the jar and replenish with new petals etc. You can repeat this process as many times as you wish until the desired strength of aroma is obtained. After doing this a few times, you may like to try leaving the last batch of petals to soak for up to 6 weeks, as this often intensifies the fragrance.

Your essential oil is now ready to use, and should be stored in a dark bottle with a tight lid or stopper. It should keep for up to 6 months like this.

For perfume, combine some of your essential oil, a small amount of alcohol such as vodka and a little distilled water. Quantities will vary depending on the strength of the essential oil and the result you want, so some experimentation may be needed to get it right. Put in a little perfume atomiser bottle ready for use.

Dyes, Paints and Inks

The rich colours in some plants can be used to make your own dyes and paints, so your children might like to grow some strongly coloured plants for this purpose.

Some of the best ones are beetroot and deeply coloured berries such as blueberries, blackberries, loganberries and boysenberries, but anything with a fair bit of colour can be trialled. Try things such as carrots, tomatoes, red cabbage, red grapes, deeply coloured dark rose petals and dahlias. Experiment with barks, lichens and deep green leaves and even grass. Coffee beans and tea leaves can also be used. Think about the plant based foods that tend to stain clothes, as the raw materials in these will possibly make good dyes.

To obtain the colour from your plant material, blend well in a blender with some water, then strain. Or you can boil the plant material in water until it develops a rich colour.

To dye fabric, add some water to your colour extract — you will have to experiment with ratios, depending on how much colour is present in your initial batch — and then either just soak the item in the liquid overnight or boil it in the liquid in a big stockpot. Adding salt may help set the dye.

Warning: there is no guarantee that this dye will set permanently so wash separately from light coloured items when it comes time for laundering. A gentle hand-wash is probably advisable, at least to give you an idea of how well the dye has set in. If the wash water contains a lot of colour, you know that it is coming out of the fabric. This may only happen once or twice and then the remaining dye will remain in the fabric, so check the colour of the wash water each time. If the water is clear, or almost clear, it is probably safe to wash the item with other items, on a gentle cycle.

To make paint, mix some strong colour solution with either a home-made flour and water paint mixture (like you might make for finger-paint, where you add coloured paint powder to the mixture), or with some linseed (flax) oil. The linseed oil paint is good for using on outdoor wooden items, such as a cubby, fort or benches, as the oil helps protect the wood from weather.

Want to write a secret message to a friend? Then grow a red cabbage!

You can make a pH indicator solution (instructions below) which can not only be used to tell you the pH of a substance, but can be used to detect secret messages as well! Simply write the message in lemon juice and allow to dry before giving or sending it to your friend. When your friend paints the red cabbage pH solution over it with a paint brush, the lemon juice will change colour, because the acid in the juice is reacting with the pH indicator, and reveal your message!

Two simple ways to make red cabbage pH indicator/secret message decipherer:

  1. Finely grate your red cabbage, then place in a glass bowl. Add enough boiling water to cover the cabbage. Leave mixture to steep until the water cools to room temperature. Strain. It is now ready to use.
  2. Using a blender, blend chopped red cabbage with nearly boiling water. Be careful not to overfill and to use common-sense as you are dealing with very hot water which could cause serious burns if it sprayed out of your blender. This process is probably best carried out by an adult or teenage child, not little ones. Also, check that your blender can cope with very hot water. Strain ready for use.

If you wish to use this liquid to also test the pH of some substances, such as vinegar, bleach (caution!), bicarbonate of soda etc. the chart below shows you what the colour changes indicate.
What does this chart tell you about the lemon juice used in your secret message?

pH Colour
2 Red-Orange
4 Purple
6 Violet
8 Blue
10 Blue-Green
12 Greenish-Yellow

Other plants can also be made into pH indicator, such as red onion, blueberries, plums and red grapes.

Crafts

You can use certain plants for a stuffing material for home-made toys, such as milkweed, cotton grass, various rushes seed heads and other plants with fluffy seed heads.

Try growing plants which you can use to make your own paper. Some of those you could try are flax, paperbarks, pampas grass, broom and hollyhocks. This page has instructions for making paper, both using plant materials and by recycling old paper.

You can also use dried flower petals for decorative accents in your home-made paper.

Dried flowers are great for craft purposes. Make beautiful bookmarks, coasters and placemats by laying a design of dried flowers and leaves on a sheet of appropriate sized paper. Use a tiny amount of glue to hold if really needed, but be cautious with this. Laminate the item for a nicely preserved and useful piece of floral art.

Use lavender for pretty lavender bags. Flowers can be glued on card or wood to make attractive wall hangings. Add your name and make it a name plate for your bedroom door. Glue flowers and cones etc. around picture frames, or onto small cardboard or wooden boxes to create your own personalised box for jewellery or keepsakes. You can also set flowers and cones into plaster to create all kinds of things.

Everlasting daisies and statice are particularly good for craft purposes, as they are already dry-ish in nature and hold shape well. And don’t forget gumnuts and other seed pods and dried leaves. Gum leaves and autumn leaves can be particularly lovely. Microwaving flowers between pieces of paper towel is a good way to dry them. Or use the good old method of placing them between the pages of a heavy book.

Some plants dry quite well on their stems- such as kangaroo paw, banksia, gumnuts and pinecones – and can be used in dry vases to make attractive lasting arrangements.

Use the wood from cut or fallen branches to carve into interesting shapes or patterns. Create ornaments or useful items.

Creative Expression

Invite your children to find inspiration in the garden for writing poetry and stories.

Do the sounds in the garden create ideas for songs and music? Can your kids make up tunes or sounds from an instrument to represent a buzzing bee, a butterfly flitting from flower to flower, a chorus of frogs and the various birds that visit your garden? How about a flower opening, the wind whistling through the trees, or a slow snail making its way across a leaf? What else can they find to represent in musical form?

What could you grow to create musical instruments from? Some you might like to try are reeds, bamboo and gourds.

Photography is another great way of creative expression in the garden. Follow themes such as insects, birds or red flowers, or maybe even a theme that is more open to creative interpretation such as Resilience, Beauty, or New Life. Perhaps they would like to focus on the minute elements of the garden, such as tiny insects, veins on leaves and water droplets. What about a time-lapse series of a flower opening, or a new seedling making its way into the world? Trees and their often beautiful bark can make another lovely photographic study. You could also choose a part of the garden to photograph in each season so that you record the beauty and variations each season brings. The scope really is virtually endless, once they begin to really see and view the garden through the magic of the camera lens.

The garden abounds with opportunities for nature drawing. Flowers, birds, spiders and their webs, butterflies and many other creatures and plants. Plant some seeds and draw them as they emerge and develop to tell the story of their growth. What about the patterns they can find in nature… intricate spider webs, the layout of petals, spiralling fern fronds…. Can they create pieces of artwork incorporating those?

As you can see, the garden can provide a lot of scope for enhancing your child’s creative experiences. They not only get the joy of growing things but of using them in all kinds of creative ways. They learn how to make things themselves, from what they have grown, rather than just learning to rely on buying everything from a shop, skills which may be increasingly useful in times to come. It also gives them a greater respect for their garden and a broader understanding of where things come from.

Help your children develop a deep enjoyment of the garden, which will continue to be a part of their lives as they grow to adulthood… a love and skill-set which they can then pass on to their children and then to their grandchildren, hopefully forming a continuing chain for generations to come.

5 Comments

  1. Thanks so much for the kind comments! I’m thrilled that you enjoy my articles… and get inspired by them. :)

    More to come at some point… including a new series I’m working on… so ‘stay tuned’!

    Anthea.

  2. Nice article. Would love to be able to help kids create a maze of bushes with edible foods (berries and such).

  3. Great thought Katie! If you had different fruits and berries at different points, it would be exciting… not quite knowing what might be ripe and ready to eat around the next bend… :)

    You could even make it part of the maze adventure to see if they could collect each type of fruit on a list, from fruits you know are ready to pick.

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