Monthly Archives: March 2010

Plants kids can play with #3 A Seuss plant

This week’s plant was chosen by my 7 year old daughter. In her words, “Mummy, you should write about Marigolds. They always look sunny, sometimes funny and I like eating them too.” As that sounded Seuss-like to me, how could I argue? So here’s our tribute to the humble French Marigold (Tagetes patula) and some tips and ideas on how kids can have fun with this sweet plant.

With only a little bit of love and lots of sun, French Marigolds will reward you with a splash of colour from mid-spring through to late autumn and sometimes beyond. In Sydney, we’ve had success growing them during our mild (generally frost-free) winters. Virtually foolproof they can be grown from both seed and seedling.

Given the rapidity with which they grow and the fact that they are also so quick to flower, they are a very rewarding choice for the often impatient young gardener. They can be grown in containers, pots, old toys and the garden itself (mass plant for a stunning effect). We’ve even grown them in a pair of old shoes.

So where’s the play to be had with this plant?

Go hunting in the toy cupboard and find a toy that has seen better days. Old tonka trucks are ideal. Encourage your child to fill the truck with potting mix, plant the seedlings, water gently and voila, instant Marigold patch.

If your child already tends a vegetable plot, suggest that they plant some Marigold seedlings throughout the area. Known as a companion plant, they’ll send insects such as White Fly packing from your fruit and veggies.

Marigolds come in a range of sizes and colours (warm-hot on the colour wheel) so grab some colouring in pencils, pick a few blooms and let your kids explore the concept of mixing primary colours to create some (secondary and tertiary) masterpieces.

Pick individual petals for use as hair or a skirt in a “nature drawing”.

Pick the blooms and make a flower salad (combine with other flowers such as Nasturtium, Basil, Rocket, Viola, Rose, edible Sages and Lavenders). The taste of Marigolds is a bit peppery, with the petals themselves having the mildest flavour.

Encourage your child to pick the petals to sprinkle over their meal to add a bit of zing! They look fantastic sprinkled over rice and pasta dishes or dips such as hummous. (The leaves can also be added to salads or steamed for use as a green vegetable).

Play “the smelling game“. Along with some Marigolds, pick a couple of other plants with noticeable scents (eg. rosemary, roses, chocolate mint, basil -basically anything “smelly” you can find) and place them all in a box with a lid – a shoebox is ideal. Blindfold your child and have them pick out the plants one by one and try to identify the plant by smell (and/or feel). Marigolds have a pungent, earthy scent. My daughter describes it as smelling “like a carrot that’s just been pulled“.

Well that’s it for this week. I hope you find a little bit of #playoutdoors fun in each and every day.



Filed under Australia, Cooking, Food, Gardening, Health, Imagination, Kids, Outdoors

Love me, love my conkers – Plants kids can play with #2

Welcome to number #2 in the series "Plants kids can play with“.

This week we feature the majestic Liquidambar styraciflua. Also known as Sweet Gum, it is native to eastern North America. However, it is also a common tree here in Australia in large private gardens, public parks and gardens and streetscapes (in temperate areas). So why and how do kids play with such an large tree?

First of all it sits somewhere near royalty in the climbing stakes: When I was a little child we had an enormous Liquidambar in our front garden. Its branches were in all the right places and the shadowy crown acted as the perfect hideout. I was convinced it was my very own Magic Faraway Tree. My sisters and I could get to the very top as the branches were strong and oh, the view! Everything was dragged up this tree over the years, including a full tea set, blankets and pillows and our dog which was no mean feat as she was a Bassett Hound. My children are now very lucky to have three Liquidambars in our garden at the farm. These trees have strengthened their beautiful little bodies as they scramble up and down, helped with gross and fine motor skills and provided hours of ‘babysitting’ duty for me.

The leaves, being palmate in shape provide a myriad of craft opportunities. We have used them for stencilling leaf ‘hands or people’, making clothes for peg-dolls, used them in our sets for fairy play/capture/attraction and used the leaf tips when making ‘baby birds’.

In autumn, the leaves come into their own. From a muddy yellow, through to a pearly black and all the colours in between, the Liquidambar puts on a beautiful display as autumn progresses. We have spent hours trying to match (on paper) the various colours found on the tree. Whether kids manage to match the colour or not is incidental; just encouraging them to explore the concept of colour in this way is great fun. And when the tree loses its leaves altogether, we spend time sketching the ‘skeleton’, or outline of the tree on wintery afternoons.

And then there are the conkers. Oh the wretched conkers! When forming they make perfect earrings or a ‘bullet’ to shoot out of a home-made popgun. We’ve used them as counters and also painted them to make natural ‘marbles’. Once dried, however, the conkers are wicked spiky things, lurking in the grass just waiting for an unsuspecting foot to land on it with force. I estimate probably 40% of the Australian population has done exactly this at some point. However, the dried conkers do have an upside. They can be used as ‘stamps’ to dip in paint and roll around on bits of paper to make funky squiggles and shapes on the page. They also burn beautifully in the fireplace over winter.

If you have some space in your garden, consider this tree. If you don’t, take a walk around your neighbourhood and you are sure to come across them. Just watch out for the conkers!


Filed under Art and Craft, Australia, Gardening, Imagination, Kids, Outdoors, Play

Flowering gums, faeries and scratchy jumpers…

(With thanks to some of the clever people on the internet for the use of their images)

Corymbia (Eucalyptus) ficifolia

On the way to school this morning, the kids and I took a slightly different route to the one which we normally walk. Imagine our excitement (well, mine more than the kids really) when we came upon this beautiful Red Flowering Gum doing its thing. A plant of my childhood (they are more commonly found in Perth and Melbourne than Sydney), it instantly transported me back to the summers of my youth. There, I used to collect the (yet to flower) Gum Nuts for use as counters, money or for hurling at my brother when he threatened to ruin my cubby house. The flowers I collected for making blossom beds for faeries and pixies. And of course the empty nut became the perfect tea cup for the faeries and me during our outdoor afternoon teas.

My mother used to make beautiful arrangements for the kitchen table where she then introduced me to the delights of May Gibbs’ Snugglepot and Cuddlepie and the exquisite and intricate illustrations of Australian artist, Peg Maltby.

All memories I treasure, so it was just delightful to be able share this plant with my children. Needless to say, we are heading back to the flowering gum, under the cover of night, secateurs in hand, to pinch a few blooms.

I am constantly surprised by how easily the sight or scent of a plant can elicit powerful memories. The slightest whiff of Daphne and I am reminded of open fires, foggy mornings and scratchy woollen jumpers. If I see a Dahlia, I think of my beautiful Grandfather who struggled with these unruly plants for years – his favourite was ‘Bishop of Llandaff’. Peonies will always be associated with the joy of my wedding. Oleander, and I always hear the words of my mother “steer clear of this one kids”. Chickweed, and I remember having to collect our chooks’ eggs each morning. Mention the word Wattle and I instantly sneeze. And so it goes on…

Do you have any plants that transport you to another time or place? I’d LOVE to hear about them.


Filed under Australia, Gardening, Imagination, Kids, Outdoors

Plants kids can play with #1 – Agapanthus pirate play

Inspired by the fabulous Bethe Almeras, better known as the Grass Stain Guru and her mystery critter series, I’ve decided to start a regular post on the multitude of plants children can play with and be inspired by.

So, following a fun visit to our farm last weekend, I’m dedicating this first post to the humble, tough, showy and totally stunning Agapanthus.
Summer has ended in Australia and with it so ends the spectacular flowering season of Agapanthus (Agapanthus africanus). It is a beautifully showy plant that has a multitude of uses in both formal and informal gardens. A native of South Africa, it has adapted superbly* to Australia’s harsh environment where it can grow in the poorest of soils and will tolerate endless hot days with little or no water. There are many species, varieties and cultivars ranging from miniature (Agapanthus praecox subsp. minimus) to the stunning Dutch Blue Giant Agapanthus. Its colour range is from pure white, through light pinky purples to deep blue.

I adore this plant for its ability to be an instant ‘filler’ in tough spots and the fact that I can literally ignore it and still be rewarded with a beautiful, long lasting display each summer. Virtually impossible to kill, it makes a great plant to use for first-time gardeners.

It also makes a fabulous cut flower and will last up to two weeks in a vase.

But best of all this plant is a perfect plaything** for children during time playing outdoors. The scapes (or stems) of the plant make the perfect sword for a game of pirates, the delicate individual flowers (up to 50 on one umbel) make an ideal cup from which a fairy can drink and the long glossy leaves can be used to weave green wigs or baskets. And after flowering, the forming seed capsules can be used as pretend money or counters for board games. If you have a row or hedge of Agapanthus, kids can use them as racing lanes.

The only downside of growing Agapanthus in the bush? Snakes do like to hang out in the dense clumps of long strappy leaves – so make sure your children are aware of this and keep a good look out for any nasties.

Keep tuned for next week’s Plant Plaything – the majestic Liquidambar styraciflua

* Due to the similar climate and conditions of their native country, Agapanthus have become weedy in many parts of Australia.
** The leaves and sap can cause skin irritation and the rhizomes are poisonous. Best not to encourage play with this plant if your child has sensitive skin or is too young to understand that no part of the plant should be ingested.


Filed under Australia, Family, Gardening, Imagination, Kids, Outdoors, Play