Starting Seeds with Children

Reader Contribution by Mary Lou Shaw

In our busy world, many of us yearn for more quality time with our children and grandchildren. It may feel difficult to compete with electronic devises for their time and attention. Perhaps that’s why we overlook the simplest of things, the things that could be both fun and intriguing for all ages. I’m suggesting we begin with seeds.

A seed looks so simple. But when put in soil indoors and cared for, it grows into a little plant that is dependent upon our nurturing. After planting it outdoors in May, we are able to harvest food from it in the summer. That’s an ongoing adventure that computers can’t compete with!

If you’re thinking that you’ve not done this before and therefore can’t teach it, I disagree. Learning things together with children creates a powerful relationship. This is true whether the child is four or 14 years-old. Besides, I’m going to give you the basics here so you can’t fail!

Late March is the time to begin seeds indoors in Ohio. The seedlings will be ready to plant outdoors after the May 10th frost-free date.

Getting Started

Soil: “Starting soil” can be bought in small amounts and is now available in local stores. A seed-starting mix is light and fluffy. It is also sterile to prevent fungal infections that cause “dampening off” of seedlings.

Containers: Individual containers, like paper or Styrofoam cups, work fine for beginning a few plants. Just be sure to create drainage holes at the bottom. Toilet paper tubes also work and have the advantage of being available and biodegradable. A container that easily breaks down allows you to plant little seedlings directly in the garden, pot and all.

To create containers from toilet paper tubes, make four, vertical, one-inch cuts at one end. Fold these ends inward to create the bottom of your pot. Fill each pot with pre-moistened potting soil up to one-half inch from the top. Placing pots together in a water-proof container will help keep them upright.

Light and Heat: Your plants will thrive on 14 to 16 hours of light a day. A south-facing window can do a good job, but if nights are cold, you’ll want to take the plants down off the window sill for the night.

Seeds: Purchasing seeds require some tough choices because there are so many beautiful packages to choose from. Allow children some choice in what they want to grow. Practically speaking, you might have to take into consideration what outside space is available for the mature plants. Hybrids offer plants that are better suited for containers. However, I would will willing to have a pumpkin growing in the front flower bed if that’s what it takes to maintain my child’s enthusiasm!

Planting Seeds Indoors: Plastic or newspaper on the kitchen table provides the workspace you’ll need. Have children involved in assembling the soil, water, containers and seeds.

Seeds should be planted no more than four-times their depth. Put only a couple seeds in each pot. The seed package will give you directions. Watering is done gently, often with a sprayer. It’s crucial that the soil remains moist, even when sitting in the sun. A plastic cover on the pots helps to hold moisture until the plants emerge.

As soon as the plants come up, uncover them so they can breathe. The first leaves you see are called “seed leaves” and aren’t the true leaves of plants. The true leaves come next. Have the child touch and smell the true leaves of a tomato seedling. It already smells like a tomato!

Feeding seedlings: When plants get their true leaves, thin them to one plant per container and begin feeding them. Quarter-strength fish emulsion, used once a week, is recommended.

Care and transplanting: The plants will have about six weeks indoors before the frost-free date allows them to be planted outside. During this time, they need plenty of sun so they don’t get “leggy.” They also need nutrition, water and ventilation. It’s better to water the base of the plants so the leaves don’t stay damp. An overhead fan or some breeze is also helpful to prevent fungal infections.

If a plant is growing too big for its pot—as zucchini and pumpkins are bound to do — then transplant them into a four-inch pot.

When May arrives, it’s time to “harden” your precious seedlings. Put them outdoors on nice days for a few hours where they will be protected from the wind. In this way they won’t be stressed when planted outdoors.

Even small yards usually have growing space that provides the required six hours of sun a day. Containers work fine. Even a sack of compost-soil can support a mature tomato or zucchini plant. A sack becomes a container by putting drainage holes in the bottom and cutting a rectangle in the top. Instant garden!

Harvest: What you and children harvest from your plants may be far more than food. Starting seeds indoors together allows you to share feelings of excitement and accomplishment. Additionally, there’s no better way to have children eat vegetables than by growing vegetable for themselves!

Mary Lou Shaw is a homesteader and author. Her book, Growing Local Food, is available from MOTHER EARTH NEWS.

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