Steps for Designing a Children’s Garden

April is National Garden Month! Gardening has always been a great way to grow food, connect with nature, and stay physically active, but home gardening has been on the rise since last March as a result of the 2020 stay-at-home orders. As this article attests, unemployment, food insecurity, and just plain boredom led to increased sales in seeds, plants, and supplies. That’s worth celebrating!

To recognize National Garden Month, I am sharing with the community a joint effort to design a children’s garden at a local park. As part of a larger collaboration between UC Master Gardeners of Napa County and the City of Napa Parks and Recreation, the Las Flores Learning Garden will demonstrate drought-tolerant plantings, food gardening, and, most interesting to me, an area dedicated to our community’s youngest growers.

Our canvas is currently a 2,500-square-foot lawn of rectangles of varying sizes. Here’s the view of the area (facing north toward Culpepper St.

Taking the advice from resources for how to start a school or community garden, the very first step we took was to assemble a team. Six fellow Master Gardeners with kid-tested or teacher-approved experience signed on to meet monthly to brainstorm, research, and draft the elements of the space.

In the first month, we made a list of the most common features of children’s gardens, taking inspiration from the botanical gardens or living museums we’ve visited, as well as from online photo galleries (see Resources below).

When it was safe to meet in person, we gathered at the garden site and carefully measured and walked the perimeter of the space, locating important features such as water, access points, and existing structures. We also noted general characteristics such as sun/shade coverage, slope/drainage points, and wind exposure. We paid special attention to any views we want to block (e.g., a dumpster) and or places to keep sight lines open for security reasons. Finally, we began to make a needs list.

As we started to refine our vision, the most critical factor to keep in mind is: who is the garden for? Not only are we considering how children’s garden needs differ from our own adult perspectives, but specifically identifying what children might use the space and how. We took some great tips from the book, Gardening with Emma: Grow and Have Fun, the only title on the market written by a kid. [The author, Emma Biggs, co-presented a session at the National Children and Youth Garden Symposium in 2018 and I’ve been following her on Instagram ever since!]

Biggs, S., Biggs, E. (2019). Gardening with Emma: Grow and Have Fun: A Kid-to-Kid Guide. United States: Storey Publishing, LLC.

Our next phase of planning will be to include the voices of local children. As part of the virtual garden club, Dirt Girls Grow Indoors, I’ve started to collect ideas from youth between the ages of 8-11. So far, this is what they’ve said:

  • messy paths
  • interesting edible plants
  • a living wall, vines
  • flowers, but not super pretty flowers (because then people will pick them)
  • places to sit
  • bug houses, stepping stones
  • a fairy garden
  • succulents
  • plants with crazy names

As Emma points out in her book, “Kids are not grown ups!” Naturally, a children will feel invited to engage and explore if the garden offers features that align with their perspectives.

You, too, can design a garden for children, whether it be a backyard, daycare or preschool, public or private school setting. Remember to ask the kids what they like first!

You can also give input for the Las Flores Learning Garden design! As part of the upcoming Earth Day Napa 2021 event, I’ll be offering a live workshop.

I look forward to hearing your ideas on April 22nd at 6 pm!

Preregistration required.

Resources for Designing a Children’s Garden:

It's Our Garden: From Seeds to Harvest in a School Garden: Ancona, George,  Ancona, George: 9780763653927: Books
Our School Garden!: Swann, Rick, Hale, Christy: 9780998436630:  Books

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