Five year old green thumb
May 9, 2012 4:41 AM   Subscribe

I'm trying to get my five year old step son interested in gardening. We made a special flower bed for him and I to grow plants in together and he is really excited to grow "rainbow blossoms" in it. Help me make this as rewarding for him as possible!

I love gardening and I would love to be able to share this interest with my son. He already seems interested, he literally whooped and clapped his hands when I pointed out the flower bed that is now "his" flower bed. Since I told him it was his bed he has been talking about it alot, checking it for weeds, and basically just getting really excited. He is very clear he wants "rainbow blossoms" (aka. flowers in all different colours) so his father and I are going to head to the garden center in a couple weeks and let him help pick out flowers to grow in his garden.

(note: we live in zone 5)

So my questions are:
1. what sorts of flowers do you think will be the most exciting for him to grow but also relatively hardy and low effort? (I was thinking maybe wave petunias since they get so big and lush, maybe some pansies because they are all different colours?)
2. Are there any activities we could do to help him be and stay interested in it? He is fairly interested in science type things, so I was thinking of maybe germinating a runner bean or something with him in a glass jar so that he can see what a plant looks like as it is growing?
3. I'd like a few high-drama, super exciting flowers for him to grow so that he can feel really accomplished and excited. I was thinking of having him plant some sunflowers, but I've never grown them before. I was also thinking of sneaking a bulb for a Dahlia or Glad in there without him knowing so that he gets this huge amazing flower...

any other ideas? suggestions?
posted by gwenlister to Home & Garden (38 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: *alot = a lot

that is one typo I refuse to let go...
posted by gwenlister at 4:42 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was that age, zinnias were what my parents had me grow. They start from seeds, and were pretty idiot-proof as far as I remember.
posted by daikaisho at 4:55 AM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sorry, I know nothing about flowers, but this post about growing vegetables from leftovers got my kid all excited. Really great to see him taking care of the few pots we can place on our balcony. As he likes to cook too, he really looks forward to the harvesting.
posted by ouke at 4:58 AM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: Sunflowers! Simple, fast-growing, hardy and you can eat the seeds.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:04 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Definitely get some giant sunflowers - there's something so appealing about a flower bigger than one's head that towers over one! When my kids were little we were all entranced by the squirrels hanging off the sunflowers upside down stuffing their faces with the seeds....and they're easy to grow.

Dahlias or glads won't overwinter where you are so be ready to pull the bulbs in the fall if you want them to come back.

Echinacea (coneflower) grows prolifically and comes in both purple and white varieties. Irises are early bloomers - mine are starting now and I'm in zone 6, was zone 5 until just a few years ago.

Grape tomatoes like sweet 100's are very satisfying to grow and prolific producers of fruit.


Sedum will be pretty later in the season too if you're looking to keep things happening throughout the season.
posted by leslies at 5:07 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Is the flower bed in sun or shade?
If it's sunny, you have a ton of flowers to choose from! Snapdragons are fun, colorful and big - plus you can play with the blooms to make a 'mouth' that opens and closes. Zinnias are bright and impressive and easy to grow...
Sunflowers are usually a big hit with kids, since you plant a little seed and end up with a huge plant.
Purple coneflowers are easy, and later in the summer the goldfinches will seek them out and sit on the flowerheads to get the seeds.
Marigolds, of course, are really easy and very bright and colorful.
If you have the space to make a pyramid from sticks, you could plant the runner beans at the base points, and he will have fun watching the vines climb the pyramid - I built a big one in my garden center, and the kids (and adults!) loved to go inside and check out the view from there :)
I could go on and on...
posted by PlantGoddess at 5:08 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You're already on the right track with sunflowers. Easy and impressive for kids. I would add edibles--both edible flowers and maybe a kid-friendly herb or two (chocolate mint, for example). Also, look for pollinator, butterfly, or hummingbird friendly plants.

There are some fun kid-friendly edgers and mulchers--like glow rocks that absorb the day's sun and then glow in the dark at night, or cool geodes/agates/conch shells. Kids like to decorate their garden. Along those lines, making his own plant markers is fun, or a handprint stepping stone, or adding a small lawn art/gazing ball/bird bath.

A mix of annuals (for instant results) and seeds. A hummingbird sugar feeder over his garden is nice.

With my kid that age, adding one or two of these things a week is rewarding to keep him interested. Stagger your planting and decorating additions so he always has the satisfaction of seeing new pretties.

Tools that are his size and stored where he can get to them--watering can, small tiller or hand hoe. Make sure the soil is very well drained because he'll like watering it a lot.

Also--let go. His idea of what makes it look good won't be yours. My kid loves filling his containers/plot up with all kinds of weird stuff he finds or loves. I have a friend who's done themes for her kids' plots--fairy garden, tiny town (with matchbook cars), with fun results.

Friendly insect/animal release is fun, too--get a container of ladybugs and release them one week, or red worms. He can also manage his own small compost heap/container (they make very small compost containers) with his kitchen waste (encourages eating fruits and veggies) and work in worms into that.

This year, my 5 yo old and I are trying blending moss and diluted beer together in the blender, and then painting with it on a brick wall near his space for "natural graffiti" (you have to mist it).

We have had a lot of fun with this--it gets to be more fun then your own stuff because there are no rules and anything goes and you sort of let yourself make a big mess with it.
posted by rumposinc at 5:11 AM on May 9, 2012 [7 favorites]

Best answer: also why not grow just one giant pumpkin if you have space? Atlantic giant would be a hugely impressive one to grow. You also get to carve it yourselves when it's grown.

If not that then some of the more bizarre shaped gourds.
posted by Wilder at 5:18 AM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: rumposinc - His idea of what makes it look good won't be yours.

Oh, I couldn't give two figs what the bed looks like as long as it is exciting to him. I have my own big bed to have things exactly as I want them.

also, his bed is fairly sunny.

any activites people know of to get him excited in the science of it? I like the idea of releasing lady bugs/worms into his garden during the summer.
posted by gwenlister at 5:20 AM on May 9, 2012

Nasturtiums have big seeds, thus easy for little kids to handle, and germinate pretty readily once the soil stays warm. Their leaves are big enough to cover up empty spots in your flower bed, should there be any. You can get a pack of mixed colors. The leaves are edible, though peppery. Animals don't seem to like chewing on them.

Morning glory seeds benefit from a little soaking time before planting; wait till the ground has warmed up to sow. Once they're up, you'll need to put up strings for them to climb. It's the prettiest sky-blue flower I know.
posted by sevenstars at 5:21 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Thirding zinnias. They come in fantastic bright colors!
posted by MexicanYenta at 5:30 AM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: There are Lantana whose flowers change color as they bloom--mine start red and turn orange and then yellow. He might think that is cool like I do.
posted by hydropsyche at 5:50 AM on May 9, 2012

sweet peas have large seeds (that need soaking before sowing), and are climbers. the flowers are pretty and colorful and smell great. you will have to stake them eventually, or train them to climb on something. that's a fun project.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 5:52 AM on May 9, 2012

Sunflowers are simple and gigantic, which could be cool. Marigolds are super simple and more to his scale. Try starting some flowers indoors and moving the successful ones out to the garden. Show him how a little root pops out of a bean if you leave in in a damp paper towel in a jar.

He (with your help) could plant a mini farm that he is encouraged to play in with toy tractors and trucks. He is the farmer, so he has to be careful to water it (but not too much) and not to drive over the the plants (stay on the roads between plants, maybe marked off with little fences). You could builds bridges, barns, etc. It depends on the land and the stuff you have. When it's harvest time, the seeds will be the crops. So you could grow a forest of sunflowers, an orchard of marigolds, a park with decorative trees, maybe some cucumbers that you could get out of there one by one like big logs on the back of a truck, etc. If you do this (probably with just a very small garden or a small part of a larger garden), make sure it's laid out to give him access for walking, squatting, kneeling, sitting, and crawling in the dirt (fun!) around his farm, and that these access areas won't turn into mud when you water the plants.

And he (with a little helicoptering from you) maybe could keep a record of what he grows. He draws a picture and writes the name of everything he grows. Keep samples (press some blossoms) and take pictures. This is where he gets to play Dr Science, with samples and measurements and records and looking really closely at stuff with a magnifying glass (or even get a microscope you can hook to the computer and show big pictures on the monitor). Learn the parts of a plant from roots to petals and leaves. Make a calendar to track growth from planting to sprouting to blossoming to seeding. If he's too young for some of this stuff, you can do it yourself so you're ready to talk about it (how long it takes to grow things, etc.) and maybe in parallel keep your own journal/scrapbook/blog of the kid's summer in the garden. If it turns out to be a disaster in terms of growing flowers, it could still be a lot of fun for him (digging in the dirt!) and an education for you. Get a lot of pictures. Have a lot of fun. Get dirty as hell. Try again next year.

The hardest part will be patience. Plant and wait. Water a little but not too much or too often. Don't pull anything out of the ground before its time. When there's nothing to do with the flowers, it's time to play with the trucks and diggers in between the plants or in a special area of dirt reserved just for digging fun.
posted by pracowity at 5:54 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Morning glories are beautiful and you can train them up a little trellis. And 2nding Lantana (I'm a particular fan of the Miss Huff variety). Butterflies love them, Gulf Fritillaries in particular.

Asclepias and yarrow also do well in sun are are excellent for attracting butterflies. Add some monarda ("bee balm") and you'll have all sorts of great flying insects around. They're perennial to boot!
posted by jquinby at 5:55 AM on May 9, 2012

Be warned - morning glories are a horribly invasive weed - I've regretted planting them ever since after years of pulling them out where I didn't want them although they are pretty.

For added fun you could order a preying mantis egg case and have some really interesting predatory insects to watch!
posted by leslies at 5:57 AM on May 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh - one more thing. If you have the space, birdhouse gourds are fun. They can also be trained to climb and while you can't eat the resulting fruit, you can do fun things with them. They're very easy to start indoors and then move outside. I did this with my son's cub scout den and it was great fun. We grew the seeds in clear plastic solo on a windowsill and then transplanted them when they got about 6" tall. We did them last year too in a square-foot garden and trained the vines up a tree.

Yeah, on second thought, maybe scratch the morning glories. They look nice on a fence, but might be a bit too much for a small plot.
posted by jquinby at 6:02 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh oh oh (last one, promise) - if you want more science in it, plant some parsley. Not too exciting to look at, but it will attract black swallowtail caterpillars, which are crazy-looking but turn into beautiful butterflies!
posted by jquinby at 6:05 AM on May 9, 2012

Milkweed is another problematic one - really interesting pods, the only plant that Monarch butterflies use as food source but actually prohibited in many places for their invasive nature. I grow them anyway - they're cool and Monarch butterflies are awesome.
posted by leslies at 6:16 AM on May 9, 2012

I'm doing a mostly vegetable garden with a 6 yr old. A neighbor gave us a cosmos plant and it just flowered- we're in coastal Georgia- and my young friend loves it. I do not have a green thumb at all, if I can grow it in very poor soil anyone can. Here's a link about what to plant if you want to attract butterflies.
posted by mareli at 6:26 AM on May 9, 2012

As for the science aspect of the garden, how about a compost pile? If not for food-stuffs, weeds and such.

For colorful, easy to grow sunny annuals, how about Nasturtiums. The seeds are huge and easy to handle, and you can eat 'em, though they're a bit spicy. The bushy ones have a knack for filling in empty spots in a garden.
posted by bricksNmortar at 6:28 AM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: Don't underestimate food plants , maybe grow some veggies of some sort. A pot of strawberries always goes down well with kids.

My niece and nephew have helped my mum garden since before they could walk and have great memories of helping their Grandma gardening, things they have loved growing included :-

Strawberries, cherry tomatoes, snow and pod peas, radishes,(though they wouldn't eat they they grew so quick it kept them interested) and giant sunflowers. Chives, a pot of mint, basil and other herbs, they loved it when they were asked to get some herb to go in dinner when we were cooking. Also anything with a bulb seemed to interest them more to plant for some reason so daffodils and the like.

The kids loved it when we raved about how great tasting the veggies they grew were as we were eating them and a lot of them you can eat raw in the garden while doing other things, we never had a chance to take fresh peas in the house for dinner as they all got eaten in the backyard as a treat.
posted by wwax at 6:32 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I don't know a thing about gardening, but when I was a kid we grew strawberries and peas, and I absolutely LOVED going outside to eat them straight off the plant. If that's an option, I would definitely grow some food-plants in addition to the flowers.
posted by insectosaurus at 6:48 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Chives are fun because you can eat them and they also have pretty purple flowers.

+1 on sunflowers, marigolds, snap dragons, nasturtium.

I have fond memories of helping my mom "dead-head" her flowers in the garden, too. Take advantage of the little fingers and destructive appetites.

If you plant the flowers in rainbow order, I bet he will be pleased with his real rainbow of blossoms when they bloom.
Also, planting in concentric circles or making patterns with the seeds could be neat.
posted by rmless at 6:58 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Four o'clock Flowers are a lot of fun. Almost impossible to kill, and a single plant produces flowers of more than one color. But what's most fun about them is that the flowers open and close every day.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:01 AM on May 9, 2012

I think celosia might appeal to a five-year old (they're bright-colored, soft, and kind of funny-looking), and they're pretty easy to grow.

Seconding cosmos, also--one of my kids grew a bed of those when she was eight or so and they worked out well. They're a tall flower and that appealed to her--the growth is easy to watch.
posted by dlugoczaj at 7:01 AM on May 9, 2012

like rmless mentioned, dead-heading is a fun project and marigolds are a good flower for that.
posted by lakersfan1222 at 7:09 AM on May 9, 2012

My most distinct childhood garden memories are of growing carrots. Watching the progress of the tops is great, and then there's the whole "it grows underground!" conversation. Also, fresh carrots are so delicious!
posted by snorkmaiden at 7:21 AM on May 9, 2012

If you're planning to stay where you are for a long time, grow some perennials. It still means the world to my mom (and I'll confess, to me too) to see the perennials return every spring that she and I planted together when I was five.
posted by Stacey at 7:44 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'd also go for radishes as they grow very fast and it's fun to pull them up and see how big they are. And they're edible. Kids love to eat stuff right from the garden.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:33 AM on May 9, 2012

Nasturtiums are also cool for the way that a drop of water will sit on the leaves like mercury.

Seconding any plants you can eat, my nephews and nieces enjoy rubbing all the edible leaves to release the smells.
posted by Gomez_in_the_South at 8:41 AM on May 9, 2012

Best answer: Definitely zinnias, they are the coolest. The best part about them was the idea that by picking them it would make more flowers grow. That totally impressed me when I was small. Zinnias are also very easy to draw. I remember my taste in flowers being based pretty strongly on if I could draw them to my satisfaction or not. So that meant sunflowers, zinnias, daisies, but also almost all of the herbs and groundcover that have interesting shaped leaves, as well as all the spring bulbs like tulips, crocuses, daffodils. Pansies were a huge hit after I found out you could eat them - I was convinced different colors tasted differently, like Skittles.

If this kid is hellbent on having a real rainbow, you're going to have to get something blue. I suggest looking into delphiniums and seeing what's available in a proper blue (not purple!) for your zone.
posted by Mizu at 9:12 AM on May 9, 2012

Pansies were a huge hit after I found out you could eat them - I was convinced different colors tasted differently, like Skittles.

YES. Definitely grow some edible flowers! My husband is into those and has made a great impression on several children in the kindergarten class where he works as an aide, as well as on our kids' friends. I remember him standing in the garden during one of our daughter's birthday parties talking to her friends about eating nasturtiums, and the kids that were willing to do it. Very cute.

(Do make sure you impress on your boy that only SOME flowers are safe to eat and he shouldn't eat anything without asking you first!)
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:55 AM on May 9, 2012

YES to snapdragons! Their heads were the best toy of my childhood.

for science:
-a grow-a-butterfly kit
-an ant farm
-hydrangeas for color changing fun
posted by ghostbikes at 10:53 AM on May 9, 2012

I had a flower bed when I was a kid and I thought chocolate cosmos was pretty much the best thing ever. It really does smell like chocolate.
posted by embrangled at 11:14 AM on May 9, 2012

Perhaps for next year: Shumway's Land Of The Giants Kids Garden.

Worm farm? Windowsill recycled veggies (as mentioned above)? Coloring book? Make Popsicle stick plant labels? Soybeans (for edamame!)?
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:12 PM on May 9, 2012

This or some other fort making device might be fun.
posted by oceano at 9:56 PM on May 9, 2012

I'm a tad biased but I think and awesome thing to do with a young child is to get them to grow dwarf cacti and succulents. Something long lived, smallish suitable for a windowsill.

The beauty of some of these plants, cacti in particular, is that they can withstand and even enjoy neglect and they can grow for decades (how cool would it be if I had a plant that I owned since I was 5!). The rewards these plants provide can be slow (3+ years to flower for some) but they can be used to teach responsibility - watering once a week, inspect for pests, repot every few years, etc....

Succulents are cool because you can easily propagate from leaves which is neat to see. Little plantlets forming form the end of a echeveria leaf can teach a lot about the will to survive. Also some are fast flowering and showy like Echeveria elegans (mexican firecracker). They are half-hardy and need to overwinter indoors on a windowsill.

I also think growing sempervivums (houseleeks or hens and chicks) is fun - they are fully hardy and multiply exponentially and can survive neglect.

You can also grow succulents or cacti from seed (mesa garden has a huge seed list) using the 'baggie method' on a windowsill. A small planter of mesembs such as lithops (living stones) or titanopsis would set your son up with a very cool show-and-tell item in a year or two.
posted by srboisvert at 5:30 AM on May 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

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