Dirt, worms and spiders may be the perceived domain of little boys, and flowers and butterflies the purview of girls, but the singular act of gardening holds enough enchantment to entice them both.
“You never know what you’ll find when you turn over a spade in the dirt,” says Louise Hassen, a children’s docent at the San Francisco Botanical Garden and the founder of two-year-old Children’s Garden Co. in San Anselmo. “It’s like being a nature detective.”
The constant discoveries capture the interest and imagination of a curious child, she says. “I find it fascinating that (kids) have a longer attention span when they’re working in the garden. I’ve worked with children from 10 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon and not once did they say, ‘I’m bored.’ They were completely into what they were doing.”
That’s the effect of a well-designed children’s garden, she adds. “It should be a place where kids really want to go out and explore all the interesting components—the flowers and berries and butterflies. Every day in a garden should be different. It keeps it exciting.”
From simple raised vegetable beds (starting at $855) to enclosed ones ($3,555 and up), from elaborately themed (think Princess, Cowkid Corral, Pirate’s Hideout) to custom designed, Hassen creates distinctly child-friendly gardens. They’re filled with easy-to-grow flowers and vegetables, often embellished with colorful hand-painted backdrops and play structures and enclosed to give young gardeners a sense of privacy and place.
Hassen was born in England but reared in South Africa, where her parents were avid gardeners. She recalls coming home from school and “walking around and checking on every single plant. My favorite thing was hanging out in the garden. It’s like being on a merry-go-round; you sit there and the seasons come and go so quickly and you see the scenery change in your own backyard.”
Regrettably, she notes, “unlike (in) England, where everyone is a gardener, Americans often think of a garden as work and just one more thing that they have to maintain.” And today’s parents, she gently suggests, “feel they have to constantly entertain their children, which is exhausting, but they just have to open the back door and tell the children to ‘go outside and see what you can discover.’”
Every Children’s Garden Co. garden comes with a simple maintenance schedule and a free introductory gardening session for the children. Hassen also offers a variety of optional maintenance assistance packages to help children manage their gardens, as well as customized at-home gardening classes.
Chase Whitney, 11, and his sister, Alle, 8, have been nurturing their San Anselmo garden for two seasons now, ever since their parents, John and Jenny Whitney, asked Hassen to install an eight-by-eight-foot enclosed raised vegetable bed in their yard. “I really wanted them to experience what it’s like to plant things and see them grow and spend time outdoors and in nature,” Jenny Whitney says. “They go in the garden all the time to pick things—strawberries, edible flowers, radishes, broccoli, snap peas, lemon cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, even the big tomatoes. They eat those like they’re apples.” The garden has even become the main attraction for playdates: the kids and their friends gather there to sample fruits and vegetables, pick flowers and play games.
That happens also in the Stinson Beach garden of Gardner Robinson and interior designer Kendall Wilkinson, who have two young boys, Parker and Spencer. “It truly is a fantasy place for them,” Wilkinson says. “Our neighbors’ children come to play pirates and tag and build incredible fortresses in the garden.”
The family collaborated with Hassen to create a beach house garden that satisfied everyone—for the parents, a low-maintenance, aesthetically pleasing space that was authentic to the setting; for the boys, a surf-shack theme complete with a capacious playhouse, an old rowboat to hold toys, and a garden bursting with beans, strawberries, carrots, herbs, sunflowers, cosmos and dahlias. The boys “feel ownership over their vegetable garden and the surf shack and a sense of responsibility in maintaining it,” Wilkinson says.
She credits Hassen with creating “one of the most rewarding experiences” for her family. “The boys have taken to her; she has such a way with children.”
Hassen’s newest program, launching this spring, is a children’s gardening club at her five-acre Sonoma farm. It will have Marin kids tending their own plots, picking olives, learning about beehives and engaging in other garden activities. When they’re ready to go home, tired and happy, she’ll send them off with the fruits and vegetables of their labor, along with such seasonal goodies as a bottle of olive oil, a jar of honey or a lavender sachet.
The Children’s Garden Co.
862 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., #298