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GARDENING : Take Kids, Add Dirt and Mix Well for Best Results


Get kids dirty so they can learn about life, gardening enthusiasts are telling parents.

Learn things such as patience, for instance. Nurturing a tender seedling into a healthy, mature plant demands labor and continued attention.

Other virtues gardening can instill are pride in work well-executed, respect for living things, habits of careful observation and thoughtful reflection and a strong sense of place.

That's the message the American Horticultural Society will be pushing this summer at its seminar "Children, Plants, and Gardens: Educational Opportunities," in Washington, D.C.

At least two Orange County institutions--the Decorative Arts Study Center in San Juan Capistrano and the Fullerton Arboretum--have already picked up on the idea.

A permanent children's garden was installed last month in the central courtyard of the Decorative Arts Study Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the study of the decorative arts.

The concept had been germinating in the center's Children's Council for some time, according to chairperson Mary Rowe, but it didn't take root until Sharon Lovejoy gave a slide presentation on children's gardens last summer.

Lovejoy is the author of "Sunflower Houses," the first in a wave of children's gardening books now on the market.

Using Lovejoy's book as a resource, the Children's Council drew up a list of features it wanted in the garden. Steve Kawaratani, owner of the Laguna Nursery, took over from there. He drew up a design incorporating these elements and hastily installed the garden between rains in February. Carol McElwee, a fellow member of the Garden Council, assisted Kawaratani with design, plant selection and installation.

One element Rowe wanted in the garden was a feeling of enclosure. Studies show privacy is an important ingredient in successful children's gardens. A place that seems a bit secret and out of adult view apparently feels more like a child's own.

A climbing rose over the arbor entrance and "walls" of vine-covered trellises partially veil the children's garden from adult eyes for the time being. Eventually, box hedges with clipped-out windows will form more permanent "walls."

Scale appropriate to a child was something else Rowe wanted. The entrance to the center's garden is only 4 1/2 feet high. Inauguration day demonstrated the effect this stepped-down scale has on visitors: Children seemed to find the garden irresistible and gravitated toward it immediately. Adults, on the other hand--perhaps because they had to stoop to enter--tended to hold back until a child invited them inside.

Decorating the interior of the garden at present are beds of vegetables and spring bulbs, a rainbow constructed of annual plants and a butterfly with a body of pebbles and wings patterned from primroses. The butterfly and rainbow will be permanent features, Rowe says, but in future seasons children will put in the replacement plantings.

The remainder of the garden will change to relate to exhibitions at the center or special projects for children.

Kawaratani, who will be conducting classes for children, says the thrill of growing things from seeds is what really turns kids on to gardening.

"I am a second-generation nurseryman and worked in the nursery since I was 9," he says. "But I was introduced to seeds by an elementary teacher, not my father, and it really got me excited about plants."

The center's diminutive garden is living proof you don't need a half acre to provide children with their own gardening space, Lovejoy says.

Most of the people installing projects from her book do so in plots 8-by-10-feet or less. Although the total space allotted for the children's garden at the center is bigger, Kawaratani says, the planting area is about that size.

"A small space shouldn't stop you from letting a child experience a garden," Lovejoy says. "There are lots of things you can do in a half-whiskey barrel on a patio."


The Fullerton Arboretum will also have a children's garden on the grounds by the end of summer.

The garden's first crop will include pumpkins, ornamental gourds, Indian corn and sunflowers. The garden will also contain a playhouse with "walls" constructed of the stalks of living sunflowers and a "roof" formed of blue morning glory vines swirling up the trunks of the sunflowers and across netting stretched between them. The sunflower house idea, like the rainbow and butterfly projects at the Decorative Arts Study Center, is taken from Lovejoy's "Sunflower Houses."

The children's garden is just one element in an ambitious program the arboretum envisions called "Growing Up Green."

"What we hope to have eventually is a full-fledged educational program in horticulture from preschool all the way through elementary," says Lorra Almstedt, executive director of Friends of the Fullerton Arboretum.

"We think if we can catch kids at 3 and continue to get them here periodically over the years, by the time they're adults they'll be much more attuned to their environment."

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