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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Savvy Seed Collecting

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

Some of the most important parts of plant cultivation occur after fruits and vegetables matures. So far my blog posts describe seedling care and daily garden maintenance. After harvest, what happens? What about collecting or saving seed from your prized flowers, vegetables, fruits or trees?

Will the seeds we collect be viable?

These are all fair questions from a beginner seed collector. If you want your plant to be ever-giving, here are some tips to extract its seeds.

  • Choose a flower, vegetable, fruit, or other amazing plant in your garden. Make sure it came from non-GMO and open-pollinated seeds. These plants are viable and can pass on their genetic traits. Photo 1 shows popular vegetables and flowers that produce seeds you can save. These include lettuce, beans, tomatoes, squashes, eggplants and cucumber. Irises, marigolds, hibiscus and sunflowers are flower seeds you can also collect.

Garden Bonus! Download this fun seed saving envelope activity. Happy Seed Collecting!


Photo 1. Clockwise from Top Left: Hibiscus; marigolds, lettuce; squashes; cucumbers; eggplants. These plants produce seed you can save.
  • Collect seeds from plants that have favorable features or traits. If you like your corn’s flavor, color or size, collect the seed. Or maybe your gardenia’s petals were huge and produced a brilliant yellow. Save the seeds so you can grow more! Seed saving may generate custom garden full of plants you curated and collected.
  • Once you pick a plant for seed collection, observe how the seed matures and how the plant sheds the seeds. For instance, cucumbers and eggplants chosen for seed collection need to stay on the plant longer than the crops chosen for eating. The seeding cucumbers and eggplants are only harvested when the seeds mature. Mature seeds can withstand drying and storage. Do some research and ask fellow gardeners about your target plant. Observations of your personal plants form the best guidance.
  • Identify the type of seed your desired plant produces. Do they have dry seed cases like sitaw beans? If your plant has dried seed cases like many bean varieties, garlics and onions, then remove the seed head by hand. Then use a paper bag to catch the individual seeds inside the seed head. Other gardeners may shake the mature seed pods or seed heads so they fall into a bucket.

Or maybe you have a plant with seed pods split open? Or perhaps the seeds naturally pop out of the seed case? Will you be threshing or winnowing to separate some seeds from their seed cases? Or, like mango, will you remove your seed from the older, fleshy fruit? Once you find out your plant’s seeding behavior, then you can use the best way to catch and harvest the seed.

  • Make sure you use the correct method to clean and store your seeds. Fungal diseases, rain, hungry insects and even hungrier birds can threaten your seed collection process, so be vigilant.

Saved seeds can be stored in paper envelopes, water-tight jars, camera film cases, and glass jars. Some gardeners then store the containers of seeds in a refrigerator or a cool, dry, dark cupboard.

Make your batches of seed are labelled. Labels can include the seed collection date, plant names, and the plant’s notable traits or features.

Garden Bonus! Download my seed saving envelope activity. Creating unique seed envelopes or other types of seed containers can inspire you and curious, young gardeners. Happy Seed Collecting!

Growing Children’s Creativity

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

For families with children or teachers with young students, a garden can be an opportunity to create and celebrate fictional stories, characters and fantastical worlds. A garden can be reminiscent of a child’s favorite book characters, cartoon scenes, or computer game landscapes.

Children (with the aid of adults) can sketch gardens with plants, sculptures, and visual art inspired by their favorite fiction. Teachers can also use a themed garden design to engage students with new literature.

While planning, children’s garden ideas can reflect the character’s personality or a landscape depicted in their favorite book, movie, cartoon or video game. Here are some sample prompts to launch the child-designer’s brainstorm:

  • What adventures did your favorite character go through?
  • Does your favorite character have favorite colors or favorite foods?
  • In the video game, what are some amazing worlds you experience as a player?
  • Does your favorite cartoon character say funny things or do funny activities?
  • Do any of your favorite movie characters live on other planets or fantasy worlds that amaze you? Describe or draw them.

Based on the responses, you and the children can choose plants, sketch designs, plan murals, build mini sculptures, or paint quotes from literature or media. The plants can be ingredients to the characters’ favorite foods. The mural can replicate a scene from the character’s adventure. The flowers can be the favorite color of the computer game character. A character’s funny quotes can be painted in large letters across a garden fence or on the plank of a raised bed. If the child’s favorite story has notable architecture like a castle bridge, a treacherous maze, or magical doorway, you can integrate a small version of this feature in the garden. The possibilities are boundless.

As you brainstorm, be open to children’s creativity and expression. The more exciting the garden planning, the more they may feel connected to the resulting garden.

Growing up, I would have loved to grow a fruit garden adorned with art from Filipino folk tales. The legendary origins of makopa, piña, and manga would be great reference material. Or maybe I would have designed a mini terrarium inspired by Miss Honey’s cottage in Roald Dahl’s book, Matilda. Or maybe my classmates and I would have planted raised beds with pickling cucumbers in honor of Shel Silverstein’s poem Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too. We would have filled it with other edible plants you could pickle and flowering groundcovers that tickled.

Literary gardens are long-beloved destinations. Many botanical gardens around the world construct themed gardens inspired by historic literature like a Shakespearean play, a Dr. Seuss bestseller, or a classic like Alice in Wonderland.

I suggest you and your children (or students) plan a garden that directly connects to their contemporary literary or media interests. The contemporary stories may be a better channel to facilitate children’s creativity and engagement.

After the designs and brainstorming, the resultant garden can start out as a modest landscape. At the start, you can hang a gallery of framed artwork from your child’s planning process in the garden.

With more time, resources, and creativity, you may even build features from your children’s sketches. You may find the children increase their time playing and creating in the garden.

If children sustain their connection to the garden, you can further celebrate their passion for literature and storytelling. Maybe add tables for an outdoor art studio. Include a mini platform for stage plays. Perhaps more comfy seating can create calm reading nooks. As the children grow, the garden can continue to evolve and foster creativity for many years to come.

Related Articles about Children’s Gardens

Bees & Belonging

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu

Growing up, I always thought it was delightful when a person’s last name echoed their interest in nature. It seemed reminiscent of an quaint scene in folktales. Like “Mr. Green worked in his garden next to Señora Flores’ floral shop after they received produce from the farmer, John Boom”. These namesakes connoted an inherited path towards a desirable, verdant destiny.

Don’t get me wrong. I am proud of the life paths I independently laid.

Fortunately, all of us, with or without a floristic name, belong to an ecological heritage we can protect. This can be everyone’s legacy. 

But I understand the power and cultural influence of a namesake or a family narrative. For some, it can summon perseverance when hurdles seem insurmountable. Sometimes a simple last name or the mythical origin of an ancestor can offer a stronger sense of direction. It can feed an imagined belief that you are guided towards the right choices. I’ve found this angst and search for guidance re-emerging in my friends; especially as their senses of self were shaken by the pandemic.

Nearly 40, with solid self-knowledge, I recently discovered my family does bear a nature-based last name: Abella. This article celebrates the Iberian etymology of my grandma’s family name. “Abella” was historically related to a nickname for a busy bee (a buzzing, active person) or a beekeeper. It’s a charming extension of my well-established love of ecology.

So, onto our Bee-utiful environmental heritage and my design chat: Pollinators in Pollinator Gardens. 
5 of the 9 species of honeybees in the world are native to Philippines. At least 7 species of stingless bee species are found in the Philippines.

Globally and especially in the Philippines, pollinator gardens are vital to the health of our ecosystems, economies, and our food security. Pollinators, such as bees, butterflies, moths, beetles, and certain flies are the ecological foundation to farms, mangroves, and every type of forest in the Philippines. They enable plants to reproduce or bear seeds, nuts, berries, and fruits. Their massive impact on the health of our world is mind-boggling. Unfortunately, pollinators, like most of our vulnerable wildlife, face population destruction from agricultural chemicals, pollution, climate change, and habitat loss.

Below are design ideas to start a pollinator garden in your school, community garden, or home. Please note my design illustrations for this article emphasize the vegetation by muting the colors of the hardscaping (constructed areas and furniture).

Photo 1. Features in the Butterfly Yoga Garden.

1) Butterfly Yoga Garden. Build a shade house or sunroom that immerses you in a pollinator’s habitat (Photo 1 & 2).  The shade house is like a greenhouse with plants but usually built with green shade netting. If you’re in an area that does boil in the summer, consider building a sunroom. This building can have large windows or a clear PVC plastic sheeting roof like a traditional greenhouse. Alternatively, you can use white shade netting. Your flooring can be composted, mulched or covered with gravel. A portion of the flooring can be tiled so that you have add seating or yoga mats. This can be a peaceful place to meet friends, exercise, or meditate. The pollinator plants can be installed into the mulched or graveled flooring, raised beds, or other containers. Keep the greenhouse windows open so pollinators can visit and use your garden.

Photo 2. A closer look at the shade house or sunroom.

Some of the plants can be cannas, coreopsis, mint, or basil. Outside the shade house or sunroom, plant a pollinator-attracting fruit tree like mango, guyabano, jackfruit, or atis.

2) Pollinator Garden Party. Pollinator gardens are enriching opportunities to teach students about insect life cycles and plant-pollinator relationships. They are especially attractive to teachers, parents, and caregivers averse to “butterfly kits” or any learning tools that capture wild animals. Instead, you can build a mini-environment like an outdoor garden classroom to exhibit natural cycles.  Observation decks and educational signs are additional tools that can help you facilitate outdoor engagement with nature (Photo 3).

Photo 3. Learning tools in the Pollinator Garden Party.

Some pollinator plants you can cultivate with your class are katmon, pili, native orchids, gardenias, magnolia trees (like champaka), cinnamon tree (Cinnamomum camphora) or flowering varieties of passionfruit.

There are numerous activities you can host in a pollinator garden. Here are some sample activities:

  • Ask garden visitors and students to wear, pink or yellow at the garden. These colors attract pollinators. This can lead to a class conversation about floral color and insect vision.
  • Create an outdoor gallery sculptures or photos taken in the garden with your class to study the phases of butterfly life cycle.
  • Conduct “treasure hunts” or a “bio blitz” to help children identify and discover different pollinator plants and evidence of a pollinator’s activity (like insect bites on a leaf)

3) Citrus Home Garden. At home, you can create a garden that attracts beautiful native butterflies and stingless bees. Start building a collection of potted dwarf citrus trees or venture into a back yard citrus orchard (Photo 4). Pollinators love the blossoms of lemon, lime, kumquat, pomelo, mandarin, and limonsito (calamansi) trees. You’ll have a delicious harvest. And you’ll create a needed haven for our diverse pollinator friends.

Photo 4. Citrus Home Garden concept.
Related Articles about Pollinators & School Gardens:

March: Food x Flower Gardens

By Michelle Domocol

Back to Inflourish: Cebu Blog

In Cebu, March is a great time to start or expand your Food x Flower gardens. These seeds or young plants can be arranged in containers or beautiful borders around a walkway. Photo 1 (top) shows a welcoming border garden in Healing Present. In March, you can start planting gotu kola, heliconia, basil varieties, and celosia. Photo 1 (bottom) shows what these colorful additions look like when they bloom and mature.

Photo 1. (top) Healing Present’s border garden; (bottom Right to Left) Gotu Kola, Heliconia, Basil Varieties, Celosia

When we held workshops and retreats in Healing Present, we had many visitors, supporters and retreat participants from Bohol. To celebrate their Healing Present advocacy, I want to feature some vegetables and groundcovers you can plant in Bohol. Some of these featured vegetables are

  • eggplant,
  • ampalaya,
  • lettuce,
  • tomato,
  • bok choy,
  • mani-mani (peanut grass groundcover)

Below is a garden design that includes the featured vegetables. Photo 2 shows a planting map with raised beds. Each raised bed has vegetables, flowers, or groundcovers that are grouped by their similar nutrient needs. For instance, eggplants and tomatoes absorb lots of nitrogen and similar micronutrients from the soil so they are placed in the same raised bed. These groups in Photo 2 are designed for crop rotation.

Photo 2. Planting Map and Crop Rotation Diagram of Raised Beds with featured vegetables

The arrows in Photo 2 show each group will be planted in a new raised bed each season.  This diagram shows how  planting design changes from one season to the next. So in Season 1 Tomatoes and Eggplants are grown in the Top Left raised bed.  The next growing season they are planted in the Top Right raised bed.

Crop rotation is a method to ensure your soil provides the nutrients your vegetables need to grow well. When gardeners and farmers plant the same vegetables in the same place every season, the soil loses its minerals and nutrients. They have been absorbed by plants that were previously planted and harvested.  Instead of depleting the soil quality, you can rotate crops.  After you harvest your vegetables in one area, the soil can sustain a second group of plants with its a different unique set of nutrient needs.

But how do we know what plants have similar nutrient needs? This is only a brief introduction to crop rotation. More details and examples will be highlighted in upcoming articles and downloadable info sheets.

There are nuanced techniques in crop rotation.  For example, after two seasons of rotating crops, some gardeners let a raised bed or farm plot rest. They add layers of vermicompost to the resting plot.  They may also plant green manure or leguminous groundcovers like mani-mani into the resting plot. These plants do not heavily absorb nutrients. They can actually add nitrogen into the soil. 

Crop rotation one of the many  organic methods to manage soil quality.  Rotated crops can ensure tomatoes have a vital supply of calcium and manganese from their soil. As a result, we get luscious and disease-free tomatoes. Nutrient-rich soil also produces large, green leaves in bok choy and lettuce. In short, better soil quality means thriving plants and a nutritious harvest.