Playtime in the Garden

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Leaf size and shape comparisons are great lessons for small herb gardeners.
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With the cycle of the seasons, a garden teaches about the cycle of life.
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Author Georgia Douillet with her daughters, Lia (at right) and Margo (on her mother’s lap), in their herb garden.
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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

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
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

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.

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