Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Kids & Containers

One necessity of Southern life that one must love about residing in Mississippi is how fast summer arrives. It seems that only yesterday we were in the frozen tundra of our ridiculous January, but now the leaves are that vibrant green that only appears this time of year, magnolias are blooming and the fresh, smell of cut grass is floating through my open backdoor (along with the dust from my ever efficient lawn crew). Oh, and the activity in Little Red Park across the street has picked up immensely...meaning school is out and summer is here. 

I have to hand it to my ever creative and always artistic southern mother for always having an activity for Maggie and me in the summer, well multiple activities. Growing up in the Delta, the number of organized summer activities were limited, so summers at our house were always spent creating something, cooking something, and living outside (normally building forts or secret hideaways for bikes). Looking back, I'd bet that our summer activities were the seed that planted my love of cooking, the outdoors, and utilizing my (luckily) inherited creative genetics. 

 Farmers Market Helpers

This post if for the creative moms in the Delta (or anywhere for that matter) looking to fill up the hours of the summer, creatively sans t.v's, computers, and I-pads. I'm not a mom, yet, but had the joy of doing a container design workshop at the Downtown Greenwood Farmers Market this past Saturday. As it turns out my most engaged audience members were the ones that were less than 4' tall. It got me thinking how great container gardening is for kids and why they would be so instantly drawn to it. Is there any better way to have kids engage in the outdoors or introduce them to the importance of our landscapes? I think not, and here's why: 

1. Size. Kids are small, containers are small, the plants that go in containers are small...pretty simple observation. Containers are the absolute perfect size for kids as they are the right height, the plants are manageable to work with if you have small hands, and the holes that need to be dug can be created with a small hand spade. It is as if you have a miniature, manageable landscape for even the youngest ones. 

2. Responsibility. Containers are a great way to introduce kids to responsibility when it comes to maintaining a watering schedule to keep the plants alive. (Consider this a precursor to the goldfish....) The reward in the responsibility is the beautiful plants that everyone can enjoy. 

3. Education. Container gardening is a great educational tool for a variety of topics, whether it be plant life cycle (seed, growth, bloom), butterfly, bird or bee habitat, vegetable production, etc. 

Juncus, Mexican Heather, Nirvana Vinca
4. Entertainment. As I've mentioned before, I find the most beautiful thing about our landscapes is that they are dynamic and ever changing. The same goes with mini-landscapes that are containers. Flowers bloom, butterflies appear, fruit ripens, bees come for pollen...through the lens of a young eye (or that of an older, but not much older landscape designer) could there be anything more wholesomely entertaining? 

5. Beneficial. The layers of benefits of a kid managed container garden run pretty deep. As the mom you have the benefit of filled containers on your patio, entertainment for your kid, and fresh herbs and/or flowers for your table. As the environment, you benefit from containers that nourish wildlife (such as bees and butterflies) that struggle to find viable food options. As the kid, you are learning about our outdoor environment and responsibility while having the entertainment of watching your container grow and develop. 

Here are some great themed container ideas to do with your kids. Plant now and enjoy the benefits throughout the summer. 

Vegetable Container

If the vegetable can be grown in your area in the ground, more than likely, it can be grown in a container. Often vegetables require larger containers for adequate room for growth and air circulation. Trailing vegetables, such as cucumbers and peas will require some form of support structure such as a trellis or cage. Tomatoes will require a support structure as well. Cherry tomatoes are a great vegetable for kids to try because they're production rates are incredibly high and are, again, small in size. Better Homes and Gardens has some great tips for vegetables here

Herb Container

herb container
Herbs are great for containers for a multitude of reasons, but mainly because herbs are manageable in size so don't require a lot of "fuss" while residing in a container.  Herbs come in a variety of shapes sizes giving an instant pop of color and texture to the container. They are fantastic on a patio as they have a wonderful fragrance. This herb container has the traditional thyme, oregano and basil. The purple is a Thai Basil I added for a pop of color, but cannot wait to work it in to some recipes. I snuck a banana pepper plant in with the mix just to see what happens. Notice I did not incorporate Rosemary, as it does much better in the ground in the Delta.  Herbs and vegetables are great for kids because they can run out and harvest and use their harvest for cooking. For a more in-depth look at herbs for containers check out the Better Homes and Gardens site

Herb side note: pinch the flowers and blooms off of all herb plants to encourage better flavor development in the leaves. 

Salad Container

This is one of my favorite ideas I've read about for a container, although I've never tried it. A salad container garden incorporates different varieties of lettuce that you can harvest for your salad. Now, lettuce is a cool season plant that grows best in the fall or early spring, so don't try this one right now. Salad greens are great because you can plant once, but harvest multiple times as lettuce will regenerate its leaves. 

Butterfly Container

A butterfly container is one that provides food and habitat for butterflies...at all stages of life from caterpillar to beautiful butterfly. I learned about a butterfly container on accident growing up as I watched my mother wage a war against a  pesky caterpillar eating all her parsley one summer...turns out it was the Swallowtail butterfly caterpillar... so, if you're planning on accommodating all stages of the butterfly life cycle...plan on having some caterpillars munching on some host plants as well as mature butterflies visiting blooming nectar plants. It is just as important to have food sources for the caterpillars as it is the actual butterfly when it comes to a butterfly garden or container. Here are some great options for butterfly containers.  

Pollinator Container

You'be probably heard the buzz (or lack there of) on how our pollinator insects are struggling to carry out their pollination duties due to lack of plant diversity. Pollinators are an integral part of our ecosystem as so many of our food crops require pollination for production. You can play your part in helping these pollinators by planting a pollinator container. Here are some great Southeaster plants for a pollinator garden. Now most of our pollinator group consists of bees, so it may be best to have this container at a safe viewing distance to watch the bees but not have them in the middle of all your backyard activity or right by your backdoor. 

Cut Flower Container

Fresh cut flowers are one of the great luxuries in life, yet they are hard to come by in a small town. A cut flower container is a two for one deal...beautiful flowers outside and inside...as long as you don't cut all the flowers at once. Some great annuals for cut flowers include: Annual Phlox, Calendula, Cosmos, Lisianthus, Larkspur, Pincushion Flower, Snapdragon, Stock, Sunflowers and Zinnias. Some great perennials include: Alstroemeria, Delphenium, Calla, Blazing Star, Coneflower, Dahlia, Gerber, Hollyhock, Lily, Allium, and Pinks. Don't forget about our great southern bulbs such as iris, daffodils and tulip. Plant the perennials and bulbs one time and reap rewards year after year. 

Generally Beautiful Container

Last but not least, how about just a great container of plants, colors and textures you love... or, I guess, that your kid loves. You can't beat the wonderful combinations for which containers allow. Whether it be bright colors, contrasting textures, or varying heights container combinations are endless. Just remember if you go general to use the container rule of thumb: thriller (height), filler (mid-height), and spiller (something to spill over and soften the edges of the container). 

general "beautiful" container with a diverse mix of colors and textures

A few general things to remember about containers: 

1. Check the light source and make sure you select the right plants for the right amount of light. Don't try to grow shade plants in full sun and vice versa. 
2. If watering is going to be an issue (lots of summer vacations planned) choose more drought tolerant varieties of plants. 
3. Choose a creative container for your plants, especially if you are working with your kids on one. Just about anything can become a container as long as there is adequate drainage. 

Containers are fantastic landscape features throughout the year, but especially during the blooming/growing summer months whether you have kids or no kids. But if you're looking for an added activity to fight that early summer boredom, why not counter it with a kids' container garden in a theme that benefits both you and your littlest gardener. 

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