Big Seeds for Little Hands

Want kids to develop a love of gardening? Get them growing early! Kids as young as preschool age are thrilled to plant seeds and watch their baby plants sprout from the soil and turn into big plants. Even picky eaters are usually willing to try a vegetable they’ve grown and harvested themselves. And what child isn’t thrilled to pick a bouquet of homegrown posies?

But small seeds like those of carrots and lettuce are challenging even for adults to handle. When young children are planting, keep things fun, not frustrating, by choosing seeds that are relatively large and easy to handle. Here are some suggestions for kid-friendly vegetable and flower seeds that are easy to sow and easy to grow. All of them are appropriate for sowing directly in the garden once weather conditions are suitable.

Peas: Peas are easy seeds for kids to handle because they are, well, the size of a pea! They are one of the first crops that can be planted in the spring – as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring or 5-6 weeks before the last spring frost date in your area. Early planting gives cool weather-loving peas time to produce their pods before hot summer weather hits.

Beans: These large seeds sprout quickly in warm soil, so wait until the weather is settled and all danger of frost is past, usually a week or two after the last frost date, before showing your kids how to tuck seeds into the soil. Bush beans grow quickly, need no support, and are ready for harvesting in just 7-8 weeks. Pole beans take a little longer to begin bearing and need some type of support, but produce a harvest over a longer period of time. All kids love having a special spot to play in and growing the fort themselves just adds to the fun. Growing a bean teepee is a great kids’ garden project. Erect a framework of 6-8 tall poles in a circle. Bind the poles together at the top; then plant 4-6 bean seeds at the base of each pole. Thin to the two strongest vines per pole.  As the vines grow up the structure, they’ll create a shady spot inside where kids can hang out.

Squash and pumpkin: Pumpkins are always a popular crop with kids. It’s exciting to watch the fruits develop and grow, getting bigger and bigger and changing color in time for Halloween decorating. Like beans, pumpkins and squash are warmth lovers, so wait until a week or two after your last frost date to sow seeds. Pumpkin vines are large, sprawling plants, so make sure you plant them where the vines will have plenty of room to roam.

Sunflowers: These are one of the most satisfying plants for young gardeners to grow. The seeds are large and easy to handle; they germinate quickly in warm soil, and the reward is towering plants with enormous, colorful flowers that provide edible seeds for snacking. Sunflowers are also great for making bouquets, as they are long lasting cut flowers, and they even attract beneficial insects to the garden! If you’re going for record-breaking height, plant varieties like ‘Russian Giant’ or ‘Mammoth’ and give plants rich soil and lots of water and sun.

Zinnias: Plant a rainbow! Most kids love bright colors, and zinnias come in just about every color except true blue. The seeds  are easy to handle and direct-sow once the soil is warm and the danger of frost is past. Mildew can be a problem in humid climates, so look for mildew-resistant varieties such as the Zahara and Profusion series. Then keep an eye out for the beautiful butterflies these flowers will attract to the garden.

Soil Microbes: Helping Your Tiny Garden Helpers

Want to drive a gardener crazy? Call that stuff plants grow in “dirt” instead of “soil.” What’s the difference? Dirt is what you track into the house on your shoes. Soil is an amazing and complex ecosystem that is one of our planet’s most valuable natural resources. It’s a mix of inorganic minerals, water, air, organic matter from dead and decaying plants and animals, and an incredible array of living organisms, ranging in size from microscopic bacteria and fungi to earthworms, moles, and shrews.

Show students a cup of soil taken from an undisturbed area of native soil and ask them to estimate the number of organisms living in it. Let them dig around in the soil to see if they can see any creatures in it. Unless they find a stray earthworm or possibly some tiny mites or springtails if they look closely, it’s likely they’ll say that there aren’t any living creatures present. But they’ll be off on the order of billions! While there may not be any that you can see with the naked eye, if you looked through a microscope at the same soil sample, you’d be overwhelmed. There could be as many as 200 billion bacteria, 20 million protozoa, 100,000 nematodes, and 100,000 meters of fungal hyphae in that cup of soil!

Many of those microscopic organisms benefit plants, either directly or indirectly. (Of course, some soil microbes cause plant diseases, while others have no effect on plants, for good or bad.) For example, a special type of bacteria, called rhizobia, inhabits nodules on the roots of legumes (plants like peas and beans). In return for some food from the plant, the rhizobia take up or “fix” nitrogen (an essential plant nutrient) from the air, where it is not in a form available to plants, and change it into one that plants can take up and use. This is a good example of a symbiotic or mutually beneficial relationship between plants and soil microbes.

Mycorrhizae (my-cor-rye-zay) on plant roots display another symbiotic relationship. Mycorrhizae are fungi that form an association with the roots of specific plants (their name translates as “fungus root”).  The fungi receive nutrients from the plant; in return, they enlarge the surface area of the roots, allowing them to take up water and nutrients for the plant more effectively. 

There are also untold numbers of soil microbes that help plants less directly by breaking down organic matter in the soil and changing the nutrients it contains into forms available to plants. As these decomposing microbes break down organic matter, they also produce natural “glues” that bind soil particles into aggregates, enhancing soil structure and improving soil drainage and aeration.

What do all these millions and billions of garden helpers need to keep them thriving? Plenty to eat, in the form of organic matter that supplies them with the energy they need for growth and reproduction. Adding organic matter like compost to the soil keeps these beneficial microbes thriving. Remind your students of all the creatures they’re supporting as they spread compost on the soil in your school garden this spring!

Introducing Blogger, Susan Littlefield

My love affair with plants began as a young child at my grandmother’s side. I loved to wander through Grammy's gardens with her, marveling at the oddly shaped purple blossoms on the Dutchman’s pipe vine that scrambled up the porch trellis or the delicate speckled blossoms of tiger lilies that bloomed in her side garden. But my favorite spot was her backyard garden. Within the neat border of a white picket fence, a riotous mix of flowers bloomed with wild abandon. My grandmother believed that Nature's hand was a great designer and she was delighted when plants sowed themselves. Foxglove, cosmos and larkspur sprouted up amidst the peonies and phlox, but my favorite flowers were the tall spires of hollyhocks that came up year after year in places of their own choosing.

I grew my first vegetable garden when I was eight years old. I don’t remember now what sparked my interest in growing food plants (no one else in my family grew vegetables), but I do remember that my mom was, as always, eager to help me explore and learn by trying something new. I still recall the thrill of my first harvest from that small garden. Later, when my interest in plants had grown, she joined me for many trips to our local nursery so I could search out new perennials for my flower gardens. And when as a teenager I decided I wanted to try growing vegetables in a big way, she hired a local farmer to come and plow up most of our half-acre backyard – much to the dismay of my non-gardening father! That early encouragement set me on the path to degrees in biology and plant and soil science and a career in horticulture that’s spanned more than three and a half decades.

It also gave me a blueprint for introducing my own two children, now grown, to the wonders and joy of gardening. I loved sharing with them the delicious taste of home harvested fruits and berries and the beauty of trees, shrubs, and flowers in the landscape. But we also delighted in discovering all the living things that frequent a garden – from birds and toads and bunnies to earthworms, fungi, and insects of every kind. Even pests and diseases are fascinating if you overlook the fact that they’re competing with you! We marveled at the weird fungus called corn smut (it’s even edible, I’m told, but we never dared to try it) and learned that the ferocious looking tomato hornworms in our veggie garden would metamorphose into large, night-flying sphinx moths, cousins of the amazing hummingbird moths we observed sipping nectar from our petunias! Gardening with my kids showed me firsthand the important role it can play in cultivating curious minds, healthful bodies, and an ethic of environmental stewardship.

So it’s a privilege to work with KidsGardening.org, helping to bring the joys and benefits of gardening to kids everywhere. In my blog posts I’m looking forward to sharing a little of what I’ve learned over many years of gardening – sometimes practical tips; sometimes ideas or information I find interesting or inspiring. And I’d also like to hear from you, the educators, volunteers, and parents who are out in the garden with kids making good things happen – please feel free to use the comment section below to connect. If you have a gardening question, I’ll do my best to provide an answer. I’m also eager to get suggestions for topics you’d like to see covered in future blog posts, and hope you’ll share your own experiences and ideas for connecting kids to the wonderful world of plants.

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Forging New Connections with our New Blog Format

One of our goals at KidsGardening is to establish a strong connection with those of you around the country—educators, parents, and community members—who are actively working to bring the many benefits of garden-based learning to youngsters through school, community, and home gardens. We want to develop dynamic and meaningful relationships with all of you who are out there “in the field,” cultivating children’s minds, hearts, and bodies as well as plants. We hope we can pass along information and ideas that will inspire you and make your youth gardening endeavors more successful. And in return, we hope that you’ll connect with us through your comments to let us know about your real-life achievements and challenges and to offer your suggestions for how we, as a national organization, can help you get the resources you need to connect kids to the garden and to keep the world of school and youth gardening growing and thriving.

To this end, we are excited to share news of some changes we’ll be making to our Growing Ideas Blog. For starters, you’ll now see posts twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays, instead of just once a week. Next, four members of our KidsGardening staff will be posting regularly in rotation. Each of these staff members will bring a specific focus to her posts, one that reflects her unique interests, expertise, and experience.

Executive Director Emily Shipman’s background in sustainable development, agriculture, food systems, and food security reflects her interest in youth gardening as a catalyst for social change. In her posts she’ll be exploring both what we know and what we’re learning about the transformative power of gardening with kids. In addition to writing from her own perspective, she’ll be talking with advocates, practitioners, and thought leaders across the youth gardening spectrum, sharing their inspiration and information we all can learn from.

 

Senior Education Specialist Sarah Pounders has been active in the field of youth gardening for more than 20 years and brings wide-ranging experience helping educators integrate garden-based learning into the classroom. And as the parent of a 9 year-old and a 5 year-old, she also brings a parental perspective to the world of kids’ gardening, both as the garden coordinator at her daughter’s school and as an avid home gardener. In her blog posts she’ll offer ideas for ways educators and parents can enhance the learning opportunities and fun that gardening offers.

 

Education Specialist Christine Gall brings a wealth of hands-on experience in garden and food-based learning, both in school settings and in programs at educational farms. Her blog posts will be drawn from her personal experiences as an educator as well as her passionate commitment to connecting kids with healthful food systems.

 

 

Horticulturist Susan Littlefield brings more than 30 years of experience helping folks solve their gardening problems and get the information they need for successful growing. Her background as a garden writer and enthusiastic home gardener, along with the fun she had introducing her two now-grown kids to the world of plants, will help her connect in an accessible way with those active in school and youth gardening. In her blog posts she is looking forward to sharing practical tips and interesting ideas and information, as well as answering your gardening questions.

 

Please join the conversation! We welcome your feedback on our new blog format. We’d also like to hear suggestions for topics you’d like to see addressed or ideas for ways to make our communications with you more useful, as well as your thoughts and comments on specific blog posts. We hope our blog will become an on-going dialog, connecting the KidsGardening organization with the wide and wonderful world of kids’ gardening!

Seed Starting Tips

Susan Littlefield - Horticulturist

Although many parts of the country are still in the grip of winter's cold, the days are getting longer, and gardening season beckons, if distantly. It's time to start planning what to grow and when to plant it! Many of the veggies we grow benefit from an early start indoors. Now is a great time to begin gathering seed starting supplies and equipment so you’ll have everything you need when the proper seed starting time for your climate arrives. Here are some tips to help you have strong, thriving transplants ready for the outdoor garden at the appropriate time.

  1. Start by finding out the average spring frost-free date for your area. Experienced local gardeners, your local Extension Service, or online resources can help you determine the average date of the last spring frost (LFD) in your area. Next, refer to the chart to make a seed starting schedule so that plants will be at an optimum size for transplanting to the garden. Cool season crops like broccoli and cabbage are started early, but can go out into the garden early as well, before the last frost date has arrived. Warmth lovers like tomatoes and peppers need to wait until the danger of frost is past. Melons, cukes, and squash do best with no more than about 4 weeks of indoor growing.
  2. Want someone else to do the figuring? Check out the Seed-Starting Date Calculator from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Simply enter your last frost date and it will do the figuring for you for a wide range of veggies and flowers.
  3. Some plants don’t tolerate the transplanting easily. Plant seeds of melons, cucumbers, and squash in individual biodegradable coir or peat pots so that you can plant the seedlings, pot and all, without disturbing their roots. Homemade paper pots also work great for these plants.
  4. Most seeds germinate best in warm soil. Placing pots on a heat mat (available from garden stores) is an easy way to provide bottom heat. As soon as you see tiny plants poking through the soil, remove any coverings and move the container off the heat mat to a brightly lit spot.
  5. It’s hard to grow strong seedlings indoors with only natural light, even on a south-facing windowsill. Give them supplemental light from fluorescent grow lights to keep them growing strong. Keep lights on for 16-18 hours a day, not around the clock; plants need a nighttime break for best growth. A timer makes it easy to switch lights on and off on schedule. Mount the fixtures so the bulbs hang just a few inches above the tops of the young plants, raising them gradually as the plants grow taller.
  6. Brush your hands gently across the tops of your seedlings every day once they are a couple of inches tall. This little bit of regular movement will help seedlings develop sturdy stems. Or you can set a fan to blow gently across your young plants. The increased air movement will also lessen the likelihood of disease problems.
  7. Be sure to harden off your seedlings before you set them outside. This means gradually accustoming the plants to outdoor light and temperatures over the period of 7-10 days. Set plants out for just a couple of hours in a shady, protected spot for starters; then keep them out for increasingly longer periods of time in more and more exposed locations. Your young plants will then be ready to take off growing when they're planted out in the garden.
  8. Some kinds of plants do best when their seeds are sown directly in the garden. Peas, beans, spinach, corn, root crops such as beets, turnips, radishes, and carrots, and herbs like dill and cilantro generally do best when their seeds are planted where they are to grow directly in the outdoor garden.

Click here to Download Seed Starting Tips

Start seeds 8-10 weeks before last spring frost (LFD)

Start seeds 6-8 weeks before last spring frost (LFD)

Start seeds 4-6 weeks before last spring frost (LFD)

Start seeds 2 weeks before last spring frost (LFD)

Direct sow in garden

Onions: Transplant outside 4 weeks before LFD

*Kale: Transplant outside 2-4 weeks before LFD

*Lettuce: Transplant outside 2-3 weeks before LFD

*Cabbage: Transplant outside 2-3 weeks before LFD

Broccoli: Transplant outside 2 weeks before LFD

Peppers: Transplant outside 2 weeks after LFD

Tomatoes: Transplant outside 1-2 weeks after LFD

*Basil: Transplant outside 1 week after LFD

*Cucumber: Transplant outside 1-2 weeks after LFD

*Zucchini: Transplant outside 1-2 weeks after LFD

*Melon: TranspPlant outside 2 weeks after LFD

*Squash and Pumpkins: Transplant outside 2 weeks after LFD

Spinach: As soon as soil can be worked; approx. 8 weeks before last spring frost (LFD)

Peas: 4-5 weeks before LFD

Beets, Carrots, Radishes, Turnips: 4 weeks before LFD

Cilantro: LFD

Dill: LFD

Beans: LFD or later

Sweet Corn: LFD or later

* Seeds of these crops can also be sown directly in the garden at the transplanting date or later. Starting seeds earlier indoors will give you an earlier harvest.