Gardening for the Birds--and for Healthy Kids

Gardening for the Birds--and for Healthy Kids

Susan J. Tweit
Published: 03/18/2008

With spring on its way and my garden beckoning, I've been thinking about a conversation with Frances E. Kuo, director of the University of Illinois Landscape and Human Health Laboratory on her research on kids with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and time spent in nature.

Kids who spend more time playing outside, said Kuo, showed significantly improved focus, better ability to concentrate, complete tasks, and follow directions. The greener the outside play space, the more relief from their symptoms.

In fact, research by Kuo and her colleagues showed that time spent outside in green places worked as well for kids with ADHD as medications, and in some cases was more effective--with no side effects. So they've started a campaign to get all kids outside and into nature--for their health.

That has me thinking about gardening and kids, and combining the two to benefit birds and butterflies as well. One way to get kids outside is to have them plant their own garden. It doesn't have to be big--a couple of patio-sized pots would do. If "their" plants attract birds and butterflies they can watch, all the better.

It's probably easiest to start with annual plants, because they grow fast, providing quick results. Birds and kids love sunflowers (pick varieties bred for pots), scarlet runner beans (their red flowers are hummingbird magnets), and morning glories (another climber). For butterflies, easy annuals include zinnias, nasturtium, and dill or fennel.

If you've got a bit of ground, try a few native plants appropriate to your site. Search out plants with edible berries, seeds birds love, or nectar-bearing flowers. For hummingbirds, pick plants with red, tubular flowers (in my part of the world, penstemons and agastaches are better than feeders because they offer insects and roosting habitat too). For butterflies, look for flowers in oranges, yellows, and purples, the wavelengths that these fluttering nectar-sippers see best.

Start with a small plot or a few pots, four or five different species, and a few kids. Then add soil, organic compost or aged manure, water, and see what happens. Gardens can weave surprising magic!