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THE CALIFORNIA GARDEN

Something to grow on

For children, a tiny seed offers the promise of something magical and new; the memories of a child's first giant sunflower or first strawberry plant can last a lifetime.

August 14, 2003|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Morning glories open at daybreak, but moonflowers wait until after dusk. And 4-o'clocks? Better check for their blooms about 5; they're pretty lazy. If you poke the touch-me-nots, they shrivel up and play dead. But the cactus, known as Old Man, will stay put while you groom its tuft of white hair with a Barbie brush.

Kids everywhere are discovering the wonder of plants -- their distinctive personalities, their surprising quirks, their comical sides.

From the simple to the elaborate, children's gardens are cropping up all over the country -- in backyards and on balconies, in windowsills and schoolyards -- as parents and educators seek to prove that having fun doesn't always require batteries or protective headgear.

At Altadena Christian Children's Center, a small preschool, children harvest baby carrots and lettuce for a beloved white rabbit. At Learning Castle, a private school in La Canada Flintridge, they plant vegetables and edible flowers in a raised bed constructed on a field of concrete.

In Cambria, about nine miles down the coast from Hearst Castle, thousands of visitors a year tour Sharon Lovejoy's home garden, a horticultural fantasy land where kids can rattle gourds, string hollyhocks into necklaces and munch on cherry tomatoes.

Lovejoy, author and illustrator of three books on children's gardens, wanted to create an old-fashioned garden to share with her son, Noah, as well as the public; she named it Heart's Ease after one of her favorite flowers. Grapevines entwine a wire and wood playhouse, and the property is abundant with roses, lemon verbena, lavatera and nasturtium. But by far the most popular flowers with the children are the colorful heirloom hollyhocks, particularly those with deep maroon, almost black, blossoms.

Lovejoy has vivid memories of poking around her grandmother's Highland Park garden and of picking wildflowers together on the hillsides of the Arroyo Seco, where she learned the difference between sweet fennel, which is edible, and poison hemlock, which killed Socrates. "See the red dots on the stems of the poison hemlock? They're like drops of blood," her grandmother instructed her.

"We tend to underestimate kids," Lovejoy said. "But they carry that sort of knowledge with them [forever]."

For children, a tiny seed offers the promise of something magical and new; the memories of a child's first giant sunflower or first strawberry plant can last a lifetime.

Catherine Spinuzza, who recently started a garden with her 3-year-old son, Jack, said her parents allowed her to plant anything she wanted in a small area next to the family's farmhouse in upstate New York.

"It was so nice to have something that was mine that no one else could touch," said Spinuzza, 40. "It was something that I could be creative about."

She planted marigolds, pansies and petunias. In the center of the garden was an iris. Nearby, Spinuzza planted gladiolus bulbs in freshly tilled dirt. It took awhile, but the tall, spiky flowers finally bloomed, setting the little garden aglow in orange and red.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," Spinuzza said.

When Jack started showing interest in gardening, she took him to the nursery, where they gathered seed packets for zinnias, miniature sunflowers and morning glories for his plot of ground. Then Jack spotted a wispy perennial covered with furry brown blossoms resembling cattails -- his favorite, he decided. Back at their Sierra Madre home, they used a child's spade to dig a small hole for the plant in the middle of the garden. Jack informed his mother that he was naming the plant Sully, in honor of the family cat, Sullivan. Finally, a cattail he could pull without anyone screaming, "No!"

Besides cultivating a sense of wonder, there's a benefit to gardening no parent underestimates: It entices children to eat their vegetables, especially if they are lavender radishes or carrots the size of ping-pong balls.

Soozee Van Dyke Woods said she struggled to get her two young children, Chance, 5, and Savannah, 7, to eat tomatoes -- until they planted them in their Sierra Madre garden.

"Both my kids are taking them right off the vine and eating them," she said. A few weeks ago, the youngsters discovered another treat on one of their tomato plants: a large green horned worm. The squishy bug seemed to appear out of nowhere, like a creature in a Harry Potter book.

Delighted, the children named the worm Bumbles and put it in a box, where they fed it tomato leaves and water. They eventually transferred their new pet into a container filled with dirt, allowing the worm to burrow into the soil.

"We read a book that said tomato worms must be able to go underground for 16 days," Van Dyke Woods said.

The family hopes the worm reemerges in a week or two as a moth that will flutter around the moonflowers after dusk.

For Lovejoy, such lessons are about much more than science. They instill lifelong values.

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