Tropical, Tactile Gardens for Children

By Michelle Domocol
Back to Inflourish Cebu

In previous posts, I’ve introduced ways to initiate a children’s garden. Whether you’re a teacher, caregiver, or designer, you can find numerous ways promote plant appreciation in young gardeners. Trust me, it’s all worth the effort. There’s nothing like seeing younger gardeners cultivate their curiosity for the Earth.

The trick is engaging children’s sensory powers. We can build:

And what’s left? What other senses can we amplify with a magical garden? How about our human tactile powers…our sense of Touch?

Luckily, we live in the tropics. In our tropical humidity, we can grow a spectacular range of plants with prickly, feathery, furry, sticky and other peculiar textures.

For this initial introduction into plant textures, I’ll share a garden path design with smooth exteriors. This garden walkway is designed with touchable, tropical plants.

After the garden is built, you and your young investigators can learn how these smooth, durable plants get nutrients. This garden design features shiny, smooth Bromeliads, Succulents, and Philodendrons (Photo 1). They all possess specific ways of storing water and collecting nutrients. Luckily, these plants aren’t fragile and can withstand the tactile pressure of curious explorers.

Photo 1. Garden paths (Right) and planted stairways (Left) with tactile tropical plants can be fun outdoor learning spaces

Here’s a sample activity to help you how you and younger generation explore tropical plant textures. Remember you can adjust this activity to suit your specific budget, timeline, students’ learning preferences, and resources. You can always start with a small garden and then expand later when more resources are available.

Puzzling Paths with Tropical Touchables (Photo 1)

  • Choose a humid, sunny spot in your garden with space for a walkway. You can also adapt this project for stairs as well. The garden site can be in your home, at school, or in a community space. This will be the site of your tactile garden, the Puzzling Path with Tropical Touchables.
  • Tell your students about your special Puzzling Path project.
  • With your students or children, introduce each other to plant textures with selection of bromeliads, philodendrons, and succulents. You can explore outside in a park, at a plant nursery, or do a group internet search. You can gauge their level of involvement. For instance, 2nd graders may want to lead the plant research and design process.
  • If possible, let them choose bromeliads, philodendrons and succulents that are commonly available. Allow them to choose varieties that spark enthusiasm. Maybe they are attracted to the plants with the brightest colors, coolest shapes, and/or the plumpest appearance.
  • When you are planning your path, make sure you have gaps around each stepping stone. The gaps will be planting space for the small succulents. You can have additional planting space by adding a row of planting space on both sides of the stone walkway. See illustration below for a sample design (Photo 2).
Photo 2. (Left to Right): An illustrated closeup of a Puzzling Path; My suggested layout for the Puzzling Path design.
  • The path should be wide enough for you and the children. I suggest you make the path wide enough for at least 2 children to pass through comfortably (Photo 2). You and the children can also determine the space between each stepping stone. Mark the path outline with flags or strings. You and your youthful garden crew can customize the design.
  • Once you’ve determined the dimensions and layout of your walkway, choose a set of stepping stones. You can go to a rockery or hardware store to choose limestone, plastic, concrete, brick or other low-cost flat stones (Photo 3). I recommend choosing stepping stones with a 3-inch thickness. You can add a few medium boulders on the outer border, next to your bromeliads. This adds more textures and height (Photo 3).
  • With the help of a professional construction crew or landscaping professionals, dig out a flat path that is 5 inches deep. You will excavate the existing terrain to install the paving stones and plants. Make sure the construction crew uses layers of landscape fabric or plastic to suppress weeds. They should also add a layer of sand and soil to ensure the stepping stones are level and sitting at the same height.
  • Go to a plant nursery or farm and pick young, small plants to fill the space around your stepping stones. Choose locally available bromeliads, succulents and low-maintenance philodendrons. These young plants will grow bigger after you’ve inserted them into your garden path design (Photo 3). As they grow, the will fill in the gaps in your garden path.
  • Here’s a sample plant list for your puzzling path (Photo 3):
    • Bromeliads like Neoregelia spp.
    • Jade plant groundcovers from Crassula spp.
    • Small, clumping Echeveria spp.
    • Philodendron cordatum
    • Aloe vera
Photo 3. In my illustration, I feature jade plants and echeverias around limestone stepping stones. Purslane and hardy sedum succulents are also included.
  • Now for the botanical magic. You and the children can now plant and insert the succulents in between the stepping stones. The planting space beside the walkway is reserved for the larger bromeliads, philodendrons and succulents.
  • Make sure all your plants’ roots are covered by soil. Supervise your beginner gardeners to make sure each plant is not damaged while planting. Water the plants after the intial planting. Monitor the plants weekly. If you or your young explorers notice dry soil, water your Puzzling Path. In general, these tropical touchables are hardy and don’t need frequent watering.

I hope you enjoyed my ideas for engaging sensory gardens. I look forward to sharing more outdoor learning inspiration. Happy exploring!

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