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Get kids involved in nature this summer with a farmstead native garden.

June 9, 2016

3 Min Read

One of my gardening mentors was Laurie Otto, founder of Wild Ones. The way she gardened in the Milwaukee suburbs was welcoming to neighbors. Her garden style invited walkers off the street like a public park.

It provided views into the natural world and living diversity in an otherwise homogenous neighborhood. Children visited regularly. They walked paths through the native gardens accompanied by friends and parents who felt good about what their neighbor was doing. As a parent, I sometimes worry about the world my child will inherit, and so I celebrate acts of neighborliness when they happen, which gives me hope.

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What better way to do that then to take up gardening with friends and family. It is a great way to get kids away from screens and into the outdoors.

Here are a few ways to attract wildlife at home and perhaps teach kids about the food chain--the sun feeds plants, plants feed insects, and insects feed baby birds and other animals.

Best plants for beginners

If I had to start with one plant for children and families, it would be common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca). It is perhaps the favored milkweed for monarch butterflies, whose caterpillars feed on the leaves. It is best planted in full sun in large areas where it can spread in its haphazard fashion, popping up here and there, adding an element of surprise each spring. Other milkweeds include swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata); butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa; for dry sites with clay) and purple milkweed (Asclepias purpurascens; for shady sites).

A close second exciting plant for children is eastern blazingstar (Liatris scariosa), which is the butterfly magnet in my garden. It has similar pollinators and predators to milkweed, plus one very interesting surprise that kids tend to see before adults because it's hidden. It's called the wavy-lined emerald moth and the caterpillar of this small moth sticks pieces of flower parts to its back to mimic the flower that it loves to eat. When it is on blazingstar it has purple petal pieces stuck to its back. When it's on black-eyed Susan it has yellow petals or purple anthers.

Other blazingstars include marsh blazingstar (Liatris spicata) and prairie blazingstar (Liatris pycnostachya). Keep in mind that voles and crows love eating the roots of blazingstar. I replant them every year to keep up.

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Create exciting environment

Bird feeders are terrific at attracting birds up close and help complete the food chain story. Our feeder is outside the kitchen window where we sit for meals. When the sun is out there is something at the feeder, mostly birds but an occasional squirrel. We call out the birds by name: nuthatch, woodpecker, titmouse, cardinal, blue jay, goldfinch and so on. We get excited when rose-breasted grosbeaks show up in spring, and hurry to fill the platform feeder with more sunflower seeds when it is runs empty.

Beneath the feeder, juncos and sparrows scratch the ground for fallen seeds. We add mulch to the area beneath the feeder to keep it tidy as plants tend not to grow there.

Pathways through the garden inspire adventure to children, especially when they meander amongst a wide variety of native plants that attract wildlife. Benches and boulders to sit on encourage people to linger in the garden. Locate them in shade and make them comfortable. Viewing wildlife in the garden takes time and repeated visits. The more time spent in the wild garden, the more you will observe.

Horticulturist Scott Woodbury is the Curator of the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, where he has worked with native plant propagation, design, and education for more than 20 years. He also is an advisor to the Missouri Prairie Foundation's Grow Native! program. 

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