A Child's Secret Garden: Grow a Backyard Hideaway

With a pile of long sticks, $5 worth of seeds and a 5-foot-square plot of fertile earth, you and your children can work together to create a midsummer hideaway. No prior experience is necessary.

When I first planted this garden with my children, it became a secret refuge, a place for hide-and-seek that even fooled our dog, and an object of wonder as tiny seeds were transformed into plants 9 feet tall or 10 feet wide. In the end, it provided food for the table, pumpkins for the front porch and a harvest ground for squirrels.

Preschoolers can plant and tend the garden as long as an adult has prepared the ground with fertilizer and/or compost. Children 6 and older can be given a yardstick to place seeds at correct distances and can help thin seedlings. (But if not properly supervised, preschoolers will sow 12 seeds per square inch and then can’t bear to thin baby plants.)

Plant your seeds in May, a month or two after cool-weather crops such as peas and lettuce.

Build a Teepee

Place three to six 8- to 10-foot poles in a 5-foot diameter circle and tie them together at the top. My children couldn’t imagine why we’d need to go so high, but the tall stakes became a lesson in believing that great things can come from tiny beginnings.

Plant the Walls

Plant several scarlet runner beans at the base of each pole. These will grow into a thick net of vines with vivid scarlet blooms. The first time we planted four seeds per pole. Unexpectedly, they all thrived and overwhelmed the hedge of corn around our teepee. Now we plant only two seeds per pole.

If you’re going to eat the whole beans, harvest them when they’re young and tender. If you want to see how long they’ll get, leave them on the vines. Our longest bean pod was 11.5 inches. If you let them get this big, the pods will be tough, but you can eat the deep purple beans inside.

You can substitute Kentucky Blue or any other pole bean for the scarlet runners, but you’ll miss the bright flowers. Don’t use peas because this cool-weather crop will be dead and brown by the time the rest of your midsummer garden grows. Heavenly Blue morning glories are a tall, climbing, non-vegetable alternative.

Install a Chimney

In the center of the teepee, plant two or three sunflower seeds to grow out of the top. My children couldn’t resist planting a few extra seeds. You’ll have to be ruthless and thin some seedlings to allow others to grow to full height. (I was a coward and did it when my children weren’t looking.)

Nothing grows as tall as a sunflower. One summer our plants grew 9 feet tall with stems 6 inches in circumference. The blooms were almost a foot in diameter. Eventually, the squirrels came. They perched on top of the nodding flowers and leaned over the edge to pry seeds out of the bulging heads. We were left with a carpet of shells under our teepee.

Sow a Doorstep

In the front of our teepee we scattered a doormat of radish seeds. These are a delight for children because they sprout in a week, mature in a month and can be replanted all summer.

Put Up a Fence

If you have more than 25 square feet of space, you can plant rows of corn like a fence on three sides of your teepee, leaving one side open for an entrance. Corn needs to be spaced 3 feet away from the beans, with 3 feet between rows. To pollinate properly corn should be planted in short, adjacent rows rather than in a long line. Sow seeds 3 to 4 inches apart, but thin to 12 inches apart when seedlings are 3 inches tall. Keep the strongest ones.

If you only have room for one or two rows, be aware that your crop may be sparse. Also, don’t make the mistake of using the preceding year’s leftover seeds as we did once. That works for peas and beans, but old corn seeds produce stunted, nonproductive plants. Last year, we had good success with space-saving baby corn (also called Asian or Japanese White Hulless), which has the 3- to 4-inch ears you see in salads or Oriental dishes. Plant them 1/2 inch apart and thin to 6 to 7 inches between plants.

Plant Pumpkins

An extra 25 square feet adjacent to your teepee is enough for two or three pumpkin vines. Pile the soil into a mound, about 2 feet across and 8 inches high. Plant six seeds on the mound; thin to the two or three strongest plants when the seedlings are 6 inches tall. Our unpruned vines grew to 10 feet, making a floor for the teepee and spreading over the walkway. It’s OK to prune them.

The yellow-orange, trumpet-shaped pumpkin blossoms make a stunning contrast to the scarlet runner beans. If you want to grow a really big pumpkin, pick off all the tiny balls except the one nearest to the center of the vine. Children can carve shallow faces or designs on pumpkins while they’re small, and watch the features grow. Or tie a string around the middle of a pumpkin to make it grow into a snowman shape. (A rubber band doesn’t work.)

A Note About Pests

We’ve always had a live-and-let live attitude toward animals in our garden and have never lost much produce. But if rabbits, deer or squirrels are a real problem, cover seedlings with wire cages, hardware cloth or bent chicken wire. Sink the wire ends a few inches into the dirt.

Tie together old aluminum cans or aluminum trays to rattle in the wind to discourage crows. Bait and drown slugs by filling small cans with beer or non-alcoholic beer and sinking them into the ground. Wash aphids off plants with a spray of water from the hose. Don’t use pesticides in gardens where little hands gather.

The beauty of growing a garden is that there’s no one right way to do it. Sow your seeds, pray for sun and rain, and enjoy your hideaway.

Wenda Reed is editor of Seattle's Child, a United Prenting Publication.