Gardening with Kids: Potted Vegetables and other Edibles
The Gardening with Kids Series
With my hands in the dirt for most of the spring and summer, it does indeed feel like Earth Day everyday. Even when I should be wearing gloves, I like the feeling of soil in my hands, especially as it gets warmer. We all know that kids like getting their hands dirty or in dirt, sand, mud. No manicures for us anytime soon, but we got dirty planting vegetable seeds over the last week. More sprouts, more anticipation of blooms and vegetables that are easily grown in pots on your balcony, terrace, stoop, or patio. We are moving into a new house in a few weeks, so I am pretty much exclusively planting things in pots this year, no time to landscape or grow beans while unpacking.
This week we started tomatoes and cucumbers by seed in wee little mini windowsill greenhouses. We potted up some basil, made a cat grass/wheat grass planter for our kitties or health shakes, planted some baby lettuce green and planted some climbing beans in a larger pot for a trellis.
Potted Tomatoes and Cucumbers
Since it is better to start tomatoes and cucumbers in warm protected environments, I use the mini greenhouses. I bought mine at Home Depot, but I know they are available at any gardening or home improvement center. Optimally, you do not want extremely hot conditions, where they might dry out the soil (it must always feel moist to the touch), no cold temperatures (below around 20 Celsius or 68 Fahrenheit), since tomatoes like the heat. Cucumbers aren’t as picky and grow fine without a growlight.
The mini greenhouses are basically a tray filled with tiny compacted peat pellets that expand when you pour warm water on them. The instructions that come with them are very good. They also come with a cover to keep your seedlings moist and warm, which is very important for both the tomatoes and the cucumbers. Ideally you would put an inexpensive fluorescent shop light above the tomatoes. Again, home improvement stores sell these and you could balance a light on two large cans of food or other small plant pots overtop of your tomato seeds. Be creative. Tomatoes, they love themselves some heat and light. I have one grow light I balance on top of my seeds using large, tall tins of tomato sauce. *smile* This isn’t completely necessary especially if you live in a warmer climate, which most of you probably do, but it will increase your germination rate. Water your peat pellets or pot from the bottom, using warm water, that will help as well. Cucumbers don’t need near as much coddling. You decide what you are prepared to do, the grow light is ultimately going to give you better and faster results.
We planted three kinds of tomatoes, tiny tims, small yellow tomatoes which are low acid and very sweet, and a mixture of other kids of larger tomatoes. In every moist pellet we put 3 of the same pellet seeds. You might be so lucky that all three germinate, but don’t take chances. Use at least two seeds per pellet or small pot, which could be used instead of the mini greenhouses.
Starting both tomatoes and cucumbers from seeds have a couple of important factors, they need to be warm and they need air. If you are using the mini greenhouses, you should give your seeds some air for an hour or two everyday. Check them carefully to make sure they don’t look white or fuzzy, which indicates too moist and too warm! Charlotte’s job since seeding has been to take the lids off and check for sprouting. Check regularly to make sure they are moist to the touch, feel the soil or pellet, water from the bottom if possible, usually once a day.
Keep on eye on your veggies-to-be. If you read the back of the seed packet carefully, you will feel more confident in how deep to plant your seeds, and how long it will take them to germinate or sprout. Both cucumbers and tomatoes will have to be transplanted into larger pots. Once the tomatoes have their first tomato-y looking leaves, 5-6 of them, you can transplant them into larger pots. We will put them in a larger pot so as not to have to repeat the transplant process. This is an excellent resource on starting tomatoes from seed. Garden Web.
Tomatoes take 7-14 days to germinate, so be patient, but cucumbers only take 5-7 days. We were very excited to see the big leaves on our sprouts. I keep reminding Charlotte that these plants will equal cucumbers in a few months (typically becoming edible within 50-65 days after planting). Another important fact on the back of seed packets is that they will tell you how long it will take before you can eat your vegetables! How long until you get a crop? Again, the seed packets will tell you how long until you can eat your vegetables, depending on the type you grow. Some of the tomatoes we started mature enough to harvest and eat within 57-70 days, another variety says 100 days. Also, you should get some stakes for your tomatoes; they might get so large and need support, you want to keep them upright and not floppy.
Potted Wheat Grass (aka Cat Grass)
This weekend we planted wheat grass, also known as cat grass, in a small vertical container that we bought at the dollar store. Some people use it for decoration as a table centerpiece, pureed in a health drink, or for their cat. Your cats will likely enjoy nibbling it especially if they do not go outdoors, like ours. Keep the wheat grass moist and cover it with some folded newspaper until you see sprouts (usually around day 3 or 4). The newspaper’s dark, moist conditions facilitate germination. It should take another 7-9 days to get a nice lawn looking crop of grass. You can trim it to look more attractive if you are using it decoratively, otherwise, cut some off for your juicer or let your cat have a go at it! We hope it transform into this:
Charlotte really enjoyed planting the wheat grass. The seeds barely need to be covered with soil, but they got a good mixing at our house! Again, keep the soil moist and you probably need to water them once a day. Twice or more if they are outside in hot sun, check that moisture level with a finger in the soil.
Growing Baby Lettuce
The lettuce was done pretty much exactly the same. We used about half of a packet of small, mixed baby greens. You can probably get 2-3 crops of lettuce over the season depending on the weather. Pick the leaves when they are young and tender, and you may get a nice salad in less than two weeks, depending on weather conditions. Lettuce does not mind growing in a cooler environment, just avoid frost. Sprinkle the seeds on the soil and rake them lightly with your finger tips. You could try this same method with baby spinach as well. Keep the soil moist, but not soaked, to a finger depth of the first knuckle, yours, not your child’s. If you are unsure about moisture level, grab a bit of soil and squeeze it, you do not want water to leak out of your hand, but stick together in a clump.
Potted Scarlet Runner Beans
The last vegetable we planted was Scarlet Runner Beans. These are fantastic for two reasons: they are tasty and bloom prolifically with lots of red flowers. They can also grow up a trellis of up to ten feet! Who has that kind of room? When your bean vines reach the top of your trellis, gently bend them down so they can grow back up again. You can use plant ties to help with this. We planted our beans in a large pot about 18 inches high, tapering down a little. You plant your beans about an inch deep, again, check the back of your seed packet, cover them with soil and water them in. They also take about 7-14 days to sprout. You can make a trellis out of a serious of twigs, bamboo stakes, use tomato cages, or buy a trellis made for climbing plants at the home improvement store. Keep those beans moist, like the rest of your edibles!
Two more links I found that are excellent resources on kids in the garden: Kids Gardening and Gardening with Kids.
You can follow JenB’s gardening passion at JenandTonic.
Published April 29, 2008. Last updated August 21, 2013.
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