Playtime in the Garden

Herbs can teach life lessons for children of all ages.


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Georgia Douillet lives and gardens in Housatonic, Massachusetts, with her husband and daughters.

Photography by Dawna Edwards
Special thanks to the Carpenter and Sanchez families for their talented young models.

About five years ago, sunflowers started appearing in the pages of glossy home-decorating magazines, in the craft departments of chain stores, and perennially at the center of all suggestions for children’s gardens. Of course we can all appreciate these strong, bright, flowering plants. This year, as ever, they sprouted from the most unlikely spots in my gardens, where I just don’t have the heart to pull out the year’s volunteers. But never in her four years has my daughter Lia paid them more than a passing glance. If their appeal to children is universal, I am missing something.

The herb garden is another matter, however. From the time she could crawl off the quilt (where I placed her, hoping in vain for a few moments of gardening time), the small circle of herbs in our side lawn has been a daily destination. For this reason, I have begun to rethink the whole notion of the typical children’s garden scheme. Often such designs revolve around a plot of vegetables, a few cute flowers, and the ubiquitous sunflowers and bean tepee. It is a pleasant picture, but also one that is labor-intensive, requires patience, and is perhaps better suited to older children. Consider creating an herb garden like our herb circle (see page 44). It is appealing to little children—even babies. Its perennial plants are low-maintenance and ever-changing, and this herb garden is always alive with possibilities for discovery and play.

The former site of an underground (not leaking!) oil tank, it had been excavated and filled the winter my husband and I bought the house. It seemed a shame to turn open ground into mere lawn; there it was filled with loose earth (and asphalt chunks, candy wrappers, and fist-sized rocks) just waiting for plants. It was also, fortuitously, nearly round. I spent an April afternoon clearing the debris and using a stick-and-string compass to perfect the circle, then I edged it with bricks salvaged from under our front porch. A few chives and oregano transplanted from other parts of our yard joined clumps of basil and parsley seedlings, and voilá! We had an herb garden.

In another month (with slightly more physical effort on my part), we also had a baby. The saga of our garden might have ended there, as do so many projects taken on prior to the onslaught of life with an infant. But this garden is right outside our kitchen window, about 5 feet from where we eat all of our meals. It is also directly below the window of the upstairs nursery. No matter where I sat to rest or to nurse, there it was, offering a place to focus my daydreams. And daydreams I had. Wouldn’t it be nice if it held some healing herbs for me, or some chamomile to help us through those nervous weeks of little sleep? Or better yet, some echinacea, for the fourteen or so assorted maladies Lia and I passed back and forth our first winter.

By the garden’s second summer, Lia was crawling. I came to realize that the first attribute of any good children’s garden design is durability. Our little seedling alpine strawberries bounced back agreeably from her clumsy maneuvering. A formidable rosemary was too big for her to crawl over and responded to her curious investigation by giving off its glorious aroma.

Fragrance and learning

Indeed, fragrance can be a great introduction to the joys of horticulture for children. Many of us recall the smells of our early childhood as the clearest memories of all. By the time she was one-and-a-half years old, Lia seemed to know and seek out the fragrant rosemary and the lavender. Late into autumn, our “smelling good” forays were almost a daily occurrence.

As my daughter has grown, so has the fledgling herb garden. Its design has been altered many times. While I have many ideas about what it “should” look like, thinking of it as Lia’s garden has kept me from being too impatient with its less-than-perfect design. Each season offers its own delights, helping to mark the natural rhythms of the year. Even on the coldest days, there are plants to smell and taste, sometimes buried beneath a crust of snow. In early spring the Johnny-jump-ups and snowdrops bloom, even before the snow has melted completely from around their stems. We fill spaces with annuals. We do the transplanting work together, as well as thinning and watering. In fall comes the extra joy of frosted parsley, picked and eaten so fast its lace of ice crystals melts on the tongue. Even in winter, when sage leaves hang limply from the battered stems and tiny thyme leaves look black against the snow, we enjoy this garden.

The garden offers many teaching opportunities. It illustrates some life lessons in small, graspable ways that I hope will become intrinsic to my daughter’s later world view. With the clear cycle of the seasons, a garden inevitably teaches about life and death. Tending and caring almost always makes things thrive, but seasons change and a killing frost comes, or a weak plant simply will not grow, despite the best of our efforts. We can play a nurturing role but also see that greater mysteries are at work. Pests come and feast on our plants, and they, in turn, are eaten by the dragonflies and ladybugs. The garden is about far more than plants; it is a tiny world of living things, with a balance between who eats and who is eaten and a time to live, to change, and to die. Pretty heavy concepts, when one begins to examine them, yet ones we are aware of and curious about from very early on in life.

Looking closely at the plants, my daughter and I talk about size, shape, and color. Which leaf is bigger, common sage or ‘Berggarten’ sage? How does the leaf feel? How do they look alike, and how are they different? Each, by its special properties, adds something to the garden.

The herb garden offers lessons in botany, beauty, cuisine, and social acceptance all in one, receivable at any level your child is ready to understand. Dividing plants or picking bouquets to give to friends teaches how the pleasure of gardening includes sharing.

Watch your little seeds grow

Now that Lia has developed greater dexterity and memory, we plant seeds together and watch the miracle of their germination and growth. Divisions are large and sturdy enough for her to replant, requiring a whole different set of skills—and muscles—than the fragile seedlings require. The alpine strawberries are fun to raid. At two, she popped each one, half-squished, into her mouth (still learning about colors—which are green, which are red and ripe—and gaining the coordination required to pick the tiny fruits). This year, as her imagination blossoms, an equal number seem to go into pretend stews of strawberries, herbs, and dirt. We cook together using our garden herbs. Best of all, during her fourth summer, I began to send Lia out to the garden after herbs I needed while cooking. Most of the time, she returns with the right clippings in hand. She always enjoys the opportunity to help, and I enjoy a few moments’ time to concentrate on my cooking. With very young children, it is important to safeguard against accidental plant poisoning. Be careful to plant only things that are safe to ingest. This goes for the rest of the yard as well, as it is almost impossible to convey to a young child that she can eat anything from the herb garden but shouldn’t touch mommy’s big pokeweed over there. Once, Lia came trotting over from our front yard, chewing busily. Panicked, I demanded, “What are you eating?” “It’s only thyme,” she said. Knowing she had not been near the herb garden, I came closer and smelled her breath; sure enough, she was working on a big chaw of it. “Show me where you got that,” I demanded, incredulously. She led me to our front yard, where she had correctly identified a large patch of wild thyme.

A garden built to suit

A child’s herb garden can be designed to suit the interests of both young gardeners and their parents by incorporating herbs that are good to have on hand for active children. Aloe, mint, and catnip are great old-fashioned remedies for minor burns, bad tempers, and tummy aches, and chamomile has a calming effect on both parent and child.

One of the plants I treasure is a ‘Lady’ lavender given to Lia by a friend of mine as a baby gift. It was just a tiny rooted cutting at the time. I recall that I planted it on the day Lia’s umbilical stump came off, and in a fit of sentimentality, I tucked that little memento under the plant’s roots. Now the plant is hardy and robust and blooms several times each summer. Lia loves to hear the story of her umbilical cord.

Most of our plants were chosen because I use them frequently in cooking. Basics such as sage, rosemary, basil, and oregano, as well as rows of thyme, marjoram, and parsley, divide the circle into sections. A few others are nice to eat right in the garden, such as mint and alpine strawberries. Lemon balm flavors our ice cream, and catnip was added as a ticket to visiting the neighbors’ new kitten. Perhaps in the future there will be theme wedges—pizza herbs, herbs for pets, or herbs for crafting, such as teasel and strawflowers.

For the moment, Lia finds the garden, in all its durable luxuriance, useful for her own notions. I enjoy the prattle from the kitchen window, as she goes about discussing her latest recipe for “Dog’s Soup,” plucking leaves and stopping occasionally to munch on something. I enjoy snacktime, eating thyme scones, and talking about the garden. Many summer evenings find Lia and her dad at the window, drawn by the hum of a resident hummingbird. It is there again tonight, visiting each flower on the indigo salvia planted in the middle of the circle. Every year, we select a different plant to grow as an accent in the center. The spring Lia was born, we planted a dramatic (but toxic) orange angel’s-trumpet. Last year, our giant potted rosemary held court there. This year it was bay. Next year, who knows? An annual dill? Potted tender perennials? Perhaps lemon verbena? A birdbath? Or maybe, just maybe, a couple of sunflowers.


This key lists the herbs planted in the author’s herb garden—illustrated at right. While variety provides intrigue for little ones, planting variations of the same plant—you’ll see there are many types of sage in this garden—creates an opportunity to compare similarities and differences.

1. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum)
2. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
3. Purple sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’)
4. Common sage (S. officinalis)
5. Leeks (Allium porrum)
6. Berggarten sage (S. o. ‘Berggarten’)
7. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
8. Dianthus ‘Little Boy Blue’ x = Crocus tommasinianus
9. Cottage pinks (Dianthus plumarius ‘Musgrave’s Pink’) x = Snowdrops and `Blue Pearl’ crocus
10. Golden oregano (Origanum vulgare subsp. vulgare ‘Aureum’)
11. Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus)
12. Lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina) x = Crocus tommasinianus and ‘Geranium’ narcissus
13. Dianthus ‘Tiny Ruby’
14. Chives (A. schoenoprasum)
15. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)
16. Alpine strawberries (Fragaria vesca) x = Crocus tommasinianus and ‘Geranium’ narcissus
17. Lemon and tangerine marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia)
18. Bay laurel (Laurus nobilis)
19. Oregano (O. vulgare subsp. hirtum)
20. Star of Persia (A. christophii)
21. Dwarf sage (S. officinalis ‘Compacta’)
22. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
23. Cottage pinks (D. plumarius ‘Inchmery’)
24. Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia ‘Hidcote’)
25. Lavender (L. a. ‘Lady’)
26. Tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus var. sativa)
27. Winter savory (Satureja montana)

Xs indicate other plants within each numbered area.

There are many possibilities for herbs in a children’s garden. In addition to the herbs listed above, consider including plants such as mints, chamomile, dill, sweet violets, marjoram, Johnny-jump-ups, pansies, or basil.