Is there anything better on a chilly day than to browse through seed catalogs, dreaming of spring blooms? Actually, I think there is—sharing those seed catalogs with kids and inspiring the next generation of garden gurus.
Designing an alphabet garden with a child is a great way to get your gardening fix, while reinforcing ABCs with itty bitty gardeners or teaching older children about planning for edible and decorative landscapes. During the rainy, snowy, cool months, planning an alphabet garden is a fun, not-too-messy art activity. Let the child take the lead in picking plants and designing the garden on paper, while you provide gentle guidance about the plants' growing requirements (sun versus shade, for example.)
Several years ago, I designed and installed an alphabet garden at our children's elementary school. Alphabet gardens provide many learning opportunities that tie into a school's curriculum...but they provide an equally fun learning opportunity at home. In fact, by providing kids with their own plot to plant an alphabet garden, they're empowered to decide upon plants, creatively design the site, read about each plant's growing requirements, and learn the simple tasks of caring for a garden. Observation skills and wildlife care all tie into the learning opportunities with an alphabet garden.
First, though, create the alphabet garden inside with the child.
- Seed catalogs (or downloaded photos from seed suppliers, if (like me) you can't bear to part with your catalogs)
- Glue stick
- Markers or crayons
- Paper or poster board (bigger is better!)
Remember to guide your child as he or she designs the garden. Together, decide upon a location in your garden, or determine where to install a new plot in your yard for the alphabet garden. Help the child sketch out the garden space on paper or poster board, allocating 26 spaces for plants.
After the initial set-up of the paper garden plot, look through seed catalogs for plant photos from A to Z. (When designing an alphabet garden for children, I stick with common names to make gardening more accessible for kids. Not many children will understand Latin.)
Good seed catalogs will give you specific information about the plants' needs, so help your child pay attention to the following:
- Sun requirements
- Size of plants (tall plants may shade smaller plants or large plants may crowd out neighboring plants)
- Water needs
Once the plants are selected, have the child cut out pictures of the plants and arrange the pictures on the poster board. Let the child take the lead, but help ensure adequate spacing for the plants.
Combining edible plants with ornamentals is a terrific way to teach children about edible gardening. Some plants for an alphabet garden include:
Aster · Beans · Catmint · Daisy · Eggplant · Forget-me-not · Goldenrod · Hollyhock · Ice Plant · Johnny-jump-up · Kale · Lettuce · Milkweed · Nasturtium · Oregano · Peas · Queen Anne's Lace · Rosemary · Snapdragons · Tomato · Umbrella Plant · Violet · Wormwood · Xeranthemum · Yarrow · Zinnia
When the plan is complete and the weather begins to warm, check for your area's last expected frost date for spring planting here. Now, the real fun begins!
Alphabet Garden Supplies:
- 26 different plants or seed varieties, one for each letter of the alphabet
- Prepared garden space
- 26 "ABC" plant markers—stones, wooden letters, handmade plant labels.
It's time to make the child's plan for the alphabet garden a reality! Order seeds to start indoors or direct sow, purchase transplants, or plant some transplants and start the others from seed—it's your call! Stress the importance of practicing organic gardening methods, both for the edible plants, as well as the health of pollinators and wildlife. It's never too early to teach kids the benefits of organic gardening. After all, planting dill to attract caterpillars doesn't make any sense if you douse the dill in pesticide, right?
Let the child take the lead in planting, but offer support and gentle guidance, such as reminding kids to handle seedlings carefully, as well as ensuring adequate spacing. Discuss the plants' needs for food and water, as well as sun, to help them grow strong.
Encourage creativity for the garden décor. Smooth stones painted with the letter and name of the plant make good markers. Wooden letters on dowels from craft stores are adorable, but they can be pricey. (I used these for our school alphabet garden.) Old metal spoons hammered flat and inscribed with the letter and plant name are good, durable, recycled options. Additionally, scare crows are fun decorations to add to an alphabet garden, along with rocks painted like ladybugs. A broken terra cotta pot turned upside down turns into a toad home, and natural decorations like pine cones, stones, and sticks can turn into a fairy home in the alphabet garden. Let the kids' creativity run wild!
Most importantly, have fun with the process of growing the plants, picking flowers, harvesting foods, and sharing time with kids in the garden. After all, who will grow our next generation of garden stewards if not us?