The spark for my petting garden idea came from a memorable moment with my kids and a patch of Lamb’s Ear. Therefore, when choosing the plants for this project, Lamb’s Ear was the only non-negotiable. (When I asked folks on Twitter and Facebook for their “pettable” plant suggestions, I got 15 immediate “Lamb’s Ears!”)

Other than that, I was open. My only requirements were:

  • I’d choose plants based on texture, then for visual appeal.
  • I’d choose tough plants that could handle some handling, preferably by little kids.

Choosing the plants

One of the unexpected pleasures of planning a petting garden was that my garden books were less useful than just going to the nursery and touching plants. I tend toward over-research, so it was wonderful to be able to just follow my fingers.

Even so, I needed help. I worked with Lori Vollmer, co-owner of my favorite nursery Garden Fever to put together a garden that not only felt nice, but would thrive in my garden.

We strolled the nursery brushing our hands across the plants, putting promising candidates onto our cart. Of course, I grabbed the biggest Lamb’s Ear I could find.

“When I think of a petting garden,” said Lori, “I also think of scent. You know when you touch a plant and it leaves a lovely smell on your hands?” YES. This is why she’s the plant expert. From then on, it was touch-and-sniff.

In the end, we narrowed down our plant selections to balance plant height, foliage shape, color, texture, and scent. We chose a grass for its fluffy flowers and purple foliage, herbs for scent and taste, flowers for color (and playful fun), pettable ground cover, a nubbly trailing plant for contrast, and a succulent for fuzzy geometric interest.

Designing and planting the garden

We decided to make this a container garden to bring the plants up to fondling height. We chose a lightweight plastic container that was sturdy, attractive, and easy to move. Can you believe that’s plastic?

Luckily, I had a big bag of potting soil sitting in the garage, so I was ready to plant as soon as I got home.

According to Lori, the key to a voluptuous container garden is to pack the plants closely. I created a diagonal arrangement, with the taller foliage plants in back, the flowering plants at the midpoint (for color and contrast) and the low-growing ground covers, succulents and trailing plants in front.

I added another layer of texture with a mulch of polished stones. I love the modern flair this gave the garden, and the color tie-in with the container. I also knew kids would love playing with smooth, shiny stones.

Finally, I added a couple surprises I hoped would give passers-by a reason to pause: a fairy-sized set of garden furniture and a sign that gives kids express permission to touch the plants.

But is it really pettable?

The garden was barely planted before my young neighbors appeared. The moment I said the words “petting garden” they knew just what to do. “Feel this leaf, Mommy!” “Ooooh, this smells good.” “I can make the snapdragons open and close their mouths!” “Did you feel the stem?” “What’s this plant?”

My 10 year-old daughter got home from a play date just as I finished planting. She was just as excited as the younger kids, and she immediately filled the tiny chairs with plastic Playmobil dolls. My 13 year-old son took a break from his homework to admire the garden, exclaiming “Finally! We have our own Lamb’s Ear!” I’m not the only one who fondly recalled that years-ago moment on the way to the park.

Growing your own petting garden

If you decide to grow your own petting garden, there so many plants to choose from. Just be sure to choose a container that can hold enough soil to accommodate the roots of your tightly-packed plants, water regularly, and fertilize every couple weeks with a dilute solution of balanced fertilizer (or use a time-release formula such as Osmocote at planting time).

I love our petting garden! Thank you again to P&G and Go Mighty for helping me make it happen.

Special thanks to Lori Vollmer of Garden Fever for her patience and expertise. If you’re ever in Portland, be sure to visit this special neighborhood nursery. In addition to beautiful plants, Garden Fever has a fabulous selection of books, tools, and garden ornaments, and an incredibly friendly and knowledgeable staff. They also host events and lectures, most of which require a reservation but are free to the public. As my dog reminds me every time we walk by, they have dog treats behind the counter. On weekends they have treats for humans as well — a basket of homemade butterscotch chip cookies.

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