Children in the Winter Garden by Coreen Weilminster, Children’s Program Coordinator

As winter winds blow and snowflakes flurry past the windows, gardens can still be a wonder to children. Winter is a terrific time for exploration, learning, and creativity in the garden. As a gardener and the mother of two young girls, I look forward to those short, quiet days spent together in contemplation, awe, and speculation. If you have a garden and young children (or grandchildren), here are some ways to enjoy both, together:

A Winter Walk in the Garden—A walk in the garden in winter offers the opportunity to study seeds, berries, and other adaptations that plants use to help them overwinter. Often a walk in the winter garden provides evidence of wildlife: tracks that tell a story, holes dug into the snow and earth by paws and claws, or hulled-out acorn shells on a snowy stump. These glimpses that animals are still active in such harsh conditions evoke awe and wonder. Children can think about which animals visit the garden in winter, and for what reasons. You may have discussions about which critters we miss in the winter, like the ruby-throated hummingbird, leading to a talk about migration and speculations about where they might be during the cold months.
Birds in the Garden—Winter is the best time to feed the birds. Children enjoy making their own bird feeders. Some easy, fun bird feeders include pinecones smeared with peanut butter and rolled in birdseed; small mesh bags of beef suet; hollowed-out orange halves filled with bird seed; dried sunflower heads; small ears of corn; and bouquets of wheat and other grains.
Compost—If you don’t already have one, a compost bin is a great project for kids in the winter garden. I send my girls to the compost bin every few days with coffee grounds, eggshells, apple cores, and other compostable leavings from my kitchen. As they empty the kitchen compost bucket, they can see how the contents of the compost bin change over time. Even in winter the worms are working.
Planning—Probably one of the best garden activities for children in winter is laying the plans for the upcoming growing season. Poring over seed catalogs, making lists, and researching intriguing plants can be fun for both you and your little one. Looking at the catalogs’ colorful photos of flowers and vegetables can melt even the most cantankerous case of cabin fever and make tetchy tweens nostalgic for summer. My favorites are Seeds of Change (http://www.seedsofchange.org/), Burpee (http://www.burpee.com/), White Flower Farm http://www.whiteflowerfarm.com/), and Smith & Hawkin (http://www.smithandhawkin.com/).
But with so much to drool over, how do you decide what to plant? Here is where your parental guidance comes in handy. Is your child an animal lover? Consider a wildlife habitat garden. Do your kids like to help in the kitchen? Perhaps they’ll be most interested in a vegetable or herb garden. Maybe you have a habitual flower picker (like my girls). Plan a perennial garden full of colorful, fragrant flowering plants, mixed with annuals. Or is your little one enthralled with insects? Then you need a butterfly garden!
There are many types of themed gardens for children: sensory gardens, alphabet gardens, pizza gardens, cultural heritage gardens, dye gardens, rainbow gardens, even moon gardens. Whatever garden you and your child decide to plant, make sure he or she is part of the planning process. Ask what other features the garden should have. Will it have paths, hiding spaces, trellises, statues, or sculptures? Help your child make a map of your yard or existing garden, being careful to consider how much sun the yard gets. Steering them in the right direction makes the planning process both realistic and more exciting.

I highly recommend the following books by Sharon Lovejoy for planning your garden: Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots; Trowel & Error; and Sunflower Houses: A Book for Children and Their Grown-Ups. Other books I turn to for inspiration are Dig, Plant, Grow by Felder Rushing; the Kids Can Press Jumbo Book of Gardening by Karyn Morris; and Walking the World in Wonder: A Children’s Herbal by Ellen Evert Hopman.
Lastly, take the time to read to your children about gardening. There is wonderful children’s literature on gardening. You can bet that curling up with your child on cold winter nights with a good book about gardens plants the seeds for sweet dreams. My girls especially enjoy Rosie’s Posies by Marcy Dunn Ramsey; How Groundhog’s Garden Grew by Lynne Cherry; and The Gardener by Sarah Stewart…to name a few.

Barbara Winkler writes, “Every gardener knows that under the cloak of winter lies a miracle…a seed waiting to sprout, a bulb opening to the light, a bud straining to unfurl. And the anticipation nurtures our dream.” Engage your children in gardening this winter—teach them what miracle lies under winter’s cloak.
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