One of the most enjoyable experiences for an adult gardener is to introduce a child to the fun and satisfaction of growing houseplants.
In 22 years, I've had the joy of introducing thousands of children, some as young as 2 years old, to indoor gardening in classrooms, on television shows and in their homes, and their intense interest and wonder about growing things never ceases to amaze me.
Besides being a terrific hobby, tending an indoor garden--having to water, feed and groom their own plants--helps give kids a sense of responsibility.
And growing plants is an easy, gentle way of getting children used to the concept of life and death. Throwing away a dead plant won't be as traumatic as burying a pet but the lesson will be just as clear.
There are, of course, certain plants that are better suited than others for a child's first gardening experience. Small children cannot and should not be expected to be as attentive to detail as an adult, and they should work with hardy, easy-to-care-for plants at first.
I recommend the following plants as beginner plants for kids. They are philodendron, pothos, dwarf palms, arrowhead (nephthytis), snake plant, dracena, peace lily (spathyphillum), Chinese evergreen, grape, ivy (cissus rhombofolia) and cactus plants. (Children especially like old man cactus (cephalcerous senilus) or one of the little grafted "Moon Cactus" specimens that are sold all over town.)
All these plants need an absolute minimum of attention. They will thrive in relatively low light, although the more light the better. None of them needs to be watered until the soil has dried out, once a week at the very most, and all will withstand all but the worst neglect.
Kids growing these plants will experience that satisfaction we all feel when our careful nurturing of a plant produces a new shoot, or perhaps even a flower. We've helped create life.
But since children have such fantastic imaginations, they're almost always going to be attracted to the more unusual or "fun" plants, such as the Venus' flytrap, living rocks, prayer plants or the sensitive plant.
Some of these more "beautiful" or exotic plants that many kids find irresistible--including plants such as miniature violets or gorgeous, fluffy ferns--are somewhat difficult to maintain for any length of time, even for the most experienced gardeners.
But once your child has gotten the beginning tinges of green on his or her thumb through successfully raising one or two of the easier plants, don't be afraid to let the young person try some more challenging plants.
Here are care instructions for some fun plants.
Carnivorous plants--Venus' flytrap (Dionaea muscipula); pitcher plant (Nepenthes spp.) and cobra plant (Darlingtonia californica). These three plants are all examples of carnivorous, or insectivorous, plants. They actually eat tiny insects, such as small flies, which you or your child will have to catch and feed to the plant once a week. Or, if you prefer, bits of hamburger once a week will keep them thriving.
Venus' flytrap is particularly interesting and the most readily available commercially, although all three of these plants are available through the mail from Peter Paul's Nursery in Upstate New York. The address to write for a catalogue is Peter Paul's Nursery, Route 4, Canandaigua, N.Y. 14424; telephone (716) 394-7397.
Venus' flytrap is a light-green perennial with a leaf at the end of each stem that's divided into halves. These "traps" have tiny "teeth" that close up when hairs on the inside of the leaf are agitated.
The cobra plant has hollow, light green pitchers with downward pointed hairs to entrap the insects. The top is hooded and has translucent windows and a cobra-like, purple-spotted forked "tongue."
Pitcher plants have hollow pitchers that hang from a leathery tendril and have a lid that closes to keep out the rain. Insects are lured into the mouths of these carnivorous plants by color and scent. In the case of Venus' flytrap, they're then clamped into an inescapable trap where enzymes digest them and keep the plant thriving.
In the pitcher plant, they drown in the pepsin liquid that's inside and are then digested, and in the case of the cobra they're pulled in by hairy "teeth."
Since they need warmth (around 70 to 75 degrees is ideal) and humidity, the best place to grow any of these carnivorous plants is in a terrarium exposed to filtered light. This will protect the plant from dry, killing air.
To grow them outside a terrarium, keep the potting mixture--use sphagnum moss, not potting soil--extremely moist and the humidity high for best results.
Sensitive plant (Mimosa pudica). What is the magic appeal of the sensitive, or action, plant? The slightest touch on its dark green, feathery leaves will cause them to close up tightly, to reopen only several minutes later, when it seems to sense that danger has passed! (This reaction may be the plant's defense against herbivores.)
The sensitive plant can be difficult to cultivate outside a greenhouse but it is possible. Give the plant filtered eastern light, water enough to keep the soil moist, and--this is the key to success--keep the humidity as high as possible.
Planting M. pudica in a terrarium is the best idea, as long as the glass container you choose has a large enough mouth to allow your child to reach in and activate the plant from time to time, which, after all, is the point of growing it.
Outside of a terrarium, spray frequently and keep the plant on a tray filled with pebbles and water.
Sensitive plants are usually small and inexpensive when put up for sale, so always buy one when you run across it.
Prayer plant (Maranta leuconeura). This beautiful, delicate, low-growing plant has paper-thin, dark-green oval leaves splotched with deep brown spots. The leaves of another common variety are streaked with red. Because of these distinctive markings, the prayer plant is sometimes call "rabbit tracks." If properly cared for this plant will produce tiny white flowers.
There is another group of plants, called Calathea, that will react similarly to the Marantas. The most common Calathea is the peacock plant (C. makoyana) .
The prayer plant is a great favorite with children because of its habit of folding its leaves upward at night--as if in prayer. The reason: In its native habitat, this helps the plant store moisture during the night to quench its thirst.
Although this plant is fun to grow and lovely to look at, it can be somewhat difficult. The most common problem is for the leaf edges to dry out and turn brown or yellow. This typically happens soon after you bring the plant home. You can try to correct this problem by spraying the plant more often and decreasing the amount of light it is getting. An eastern exposure is perfect.
Panda plant (Kalanchoe tomentosa). I really like this plant, and most kids find it irresistible. Its soft, fleshy, spoon-shaped leaves are covered with what feels and looks exactly like white velvet.
Like all succulents, this plant is very easy to care for. Give it lots of bright light and very little water--let the soil dry out completely between waterings.
Since the panda plant comes in an infinite number of spectacular forms and shapes, it's a must for children, and grown-up succulent collectors as well.
Living rocks (Lithops spp.) . Living rocks are flat or round-topped succulents that are part of one of the most fascinating groups in the plant kingdom. There are dozens of varieties, but they all look remarkably like rocks. In fact, when arranged with real rocks, it's almost impossible to tell which ones are the "dead" rocks and which ones are the living. Kid are always fascinated by these plants.
The care of living rocks is, like all cactus and succulents, easy.
Keep them in bright sunlight and water them only when the soil is bone dry. If you want your living rocks to bloom, see that they get cool winter nights--temperatures between 40 and 50 degrees.
You can buy lithops, or living rocks, in any nursery that has a good collection of cactus and succulents.
Bromeliads, or air plants, are lots of fun for children to grow. Especially the genus Tillandsia, which will grow and propagate simply glued to a board, rock, seashell or whatever. Somewhere between a cactus and a foliage plant, bromeliads are epiphytes--they live on, but not off of, a host, taking their nourishment directly from the air.
Besides the most common bromeliad, the urn plant (Aechmea fasciata) , which is ubiquitous with its flat, gray leaves and showy pink and purple "flower" growing from the center of the "urn," I run into novelty bromeliads all over town-- small but exotic Tillandsias glued into cute little objects such as seashells and then magnetized to stick to your refrigerator door. Kids love these plants, which require only an occasional spraying or dunking to stay alive.
Another great thing about bromeliads is that without any help from anybody they produce offsets--or "pups," as these baby plants are called--from the sides of the mother plants right next to the base. These pups can be left on the mother plant or sliced off and potted up (or hung up or glued up) on their own when they're about 2 months old.
Most of the better nurseries and garden centers in the Southland carry some bromeliads, but if you want to see virtually every possible kind of bromeliad there is (mostly Tillandsias) and all the various fun things that can be done with them creatively, visit Rainforest Flora at 1927 Rosecrans Ave., Gardena; telephone (310) 515-5200. They've got literally millions of bromeliads.
There are lots more fun plants for kids, but in the final analysis, the best way to decide what's the best plant for your child is to take him to the nursery or garden center or plant shop and let him pick out the plant or plants of his choice. Just make sure to take home the names of the plants and proper growing instructions.