Playtime in the Garden

Herbs can teach life lessons for children of all ages.

| December/January 2001

  • Leaf size and shape comparisons are great lessons for small herb gardeners.
  • With the cycle of the seasons, a garden teaches about the cycle of life.

  • Photography by Dawna Edwards
  • Author Georgia Douillet with her daughters, Lia (at right) and Margo (on her mother’s lap), in their herb garden.

  • Photography by Dawna Edwards

  • Photography by Dawna Edwards

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.

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