It's playtime at these local children's gardens, which feature bug-eating plants, aromatic herbs and some cool toys.

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At local children’s gardens, kids can find a whale-shaped garden bed, “scratch and sniff” plants, a sit-upon tractor and carnivorous plants that snatch and dissolve bugs.

This month is a great time to visit these public gardens in Seattle, Bellevue and Lake Forest Park at the height of the growing season.

All the children’s gardens (see sidebar on C2) differ in layout and size but share at least one key feature: They’re fun.

This means plants that encourage smelling or touching, such as roses or soft-petaled lamb’s ear (Stachys byzantina). Organizers dub herbs such as rosemary and mint “scratch and sniff” plants because they release their scent when leaves are slightly crushed.

“The sensory properties of a plant is what dictated our choices,” said Liz Bullard, executive director of the Seattle Children’s PlayGarden. “We wanted things that were interesting to the kids. It’s more than just being pretty.”

A tepee and a tunnel

A small bog garden at the Bellevue Demonstration Garden boasts carnivorous pitcher plants and Venus flytraps (Dionaea muscipula). An eye-catching plant at Magnuson Park’s children’s garden is the giant-leafed gunnera, which also goes by the common name “dinosaur food.”

“Our plant palette is really diverse,” said Cindy Hazard, a Master Gardener and coordinator of Magnuson’s children’s garden. Magnuson’s highlight is a whimsical new whale-shaped bed with a sturdy sculpture tail and eyes and a grass-spouting horn. A rock-lined path winds up a small hill for an overlook and grassy area for rolling down (requested by kids when designers asked what they wanted in a garden).

“We encourage families to come through and get inspired from what they see growing,” said Hazard, a mom of three. “Kids love it; they get really engaged.”

Another standard is a walk-through structure draped with a bean vine (usually scarlet runner bean); visitors will find a tepee at Seattle Tilth; a house at Animal Acres Park; and a crawl-through tunnel at the Bellevue Demonstration Garden. Sturdy, long-blooming flowers such as sunflowers, nasturtiums and marigolds are also common.

“The children’s garden has a little bit of everything,” explained Cecilia McGowan, a Master Gardener who coordinates the Bellevue children’s area. “These are easy-to-grow things: You put the seed in the ground and it pops up. We want to show families how easy it is to have a garden and to garden with kids.”

The Bellevue children’s garden is also organic: “We want children to be able to get up close and personal with all the plants,” McGowan said.

Many children’s gardens are part of larger community gardens, including P-Patches, that are wonderfully lush and beautiful to visit as long as children are courteous of privately tended plots. At the flagship Bellevue Demonstration Garden, families can wander around themed sections devoted to herbs, shade plants, roses and dahlias. There’s also a small sensory garden with spiky cardoons and scented geraniums, a native-plant walk and many vegetable trial beds.

Everyone’s included

The Seattle Children’s PlayGarden added a few new playground toys to its home at the Colman Playfield. But the garden, with a wheelchair-accessible perennial border and raised vegetable beds, is the project’s nexus.

“Children with special needs spend way too much time inside,” Bullard said. “They’re limited on what they can do at neighborhood parks. By using nature, all kids can find something fun to do.”

When children with physical disabilities carry buckets from one part of the garden to another, they’re practicing balance and coordination. “That’s exactly what they’d be doing in a therapy gym,” Bullard says, “but here it’s a lot more fun — and it’s with a purpose.”

The nonprofit is trying to raise $2 million for several projects, including a garden house and play plaza. Plans also call for formal raised beds, water feature, orchard and pens for chickens and rabbits by 2009. “It will be a mix of everything we think kids will love,” Bullard said.

“It’s so important for kids to be able to explore the environment in an unstructured way,” said Jenny Gamache, who led the PlayGarden’s recent summer camps.

Playing with dirt is a camp staple, but Gamache also encourages kids to view plants with an artistic eye. Campers used watercolors to paint garden scenes and turned turnips into veggie people.

Alex Fick, 8, of Shoreline, planted beets at a PlayGarden work party this spring. During camp late last month, he was delighted to harvest those same beets. “This is his favorite place in the world,” said his mom, Sammie Fick. Though Alex is deaf and has developmental delays, he’s fully included in all the projects. “It’s the highlight of his summer.”

Stephanie Dunnewind: 206-464-2091