While the Burpee and Park Seed crowd have their noses stuck in catalogues and their heads full of big ideas, little gardeners can also have a piece of the spring action. All it takes is the seeds you already have in the refrigerator, on a kitchen shelf or in the trash.
Dried lima beans sprout in only two or three days: Put them between paper towels kept damp in a plastic bag, and see for yourself. Another easy plant is the carrot top, which forms lovely lacy foliage when placed in a plate with water halfway up the slice and kept in a warm, sunny place.
There are many little ways to involve a child in gardening. There's even a now-and- again kids' gardening program at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. Last spring saw 1,600 children in a new program for elementary schools, and summer 500 from camps alone. Some small visitors have written notes to Brookside and to educational horticulturist Pam Ludwig, who runs the program. A few of the letters go like this:
Thank you for telling us about how a plant gets his food and most of all for giving us a parsley plant. I've eaten most of mine and it fell out of its' pot. Sincerely yours, Anita.
Thank you Pam Ludwig for telling us about the seeds
One is illustrated with a crayoned coleus:
Dear Miss Ludwig, The plants were very lovely. I named my plant Porl. She is really nice and she is growing strong. I really like her.
Another is a paean to Brookside Gardens:
I like the flowers that smell like spear- mint candy. Feel like the springtime. That look so sweet, I love them! But the bus trip was bumpy. Gloria.
And look out for this one:
Thank you for taking us around the gardens. I had a fun time. I enjoyed every moment of the tour. Next time I want to take samples of everything. Yours truly, Ellen.
There are a lot of possibilities for enthusiasm, especially for the seven-to-11 set, which Ludwig finds the most responsive.
She worries, though, that some parents cause a child to lose interest by wanting things to be perfect: "They want the plant to grow. They get so involved themselves," she says. In planting a seed, for example, some parents will stand over the kids and tell them, "You've got it too deep, you've got it too high."
"It's OK if I tell them, but when mom gets in there and tries to do it for them, then I can tell that the child doesn't have much freedom to experience and try on his own," she says. "Most of the plants, if you plant them too deep, they're still going to grow."
Kids don't have to be neat when they're gardening, even if gardening to them is a tiny pot and a bit of soil. Yet Ludwig has seen mothers stop their kids in the middle of planting things to give them a handkerchief to wipe their dirty hands.
Brookside held a terrarium workshop recently, in which children selected plants and colored stones and put it all together. "It was a terrarium as long as it had plants inside and a cover on top," says Ludwig. "When we were finished we lined them up. You could tell which ones the children did themselves."
It was snowy the other day and a couple of kids who didn't get the word that a workshop was canceled left trailing streams of limp green onions. The project they would do at home was what Ludwig calls "gardening with garbage."
When gardening with garbage or with anything else at home with your child, keep it simple. Planting one or two seeds each in small containers covered with plastic bags is something even very young children can understand.
Make it fun and teach at the same time: Open up a lima bean to find the little plant inside. Then, without simplifying the explanation too much or making it too complicated, which will lose the child's interest, talk about the four essentials of germination you're about to put into practice.
For those who've forgotten, they are moisture, growing media (that could be half peatmoss and half perlite, or half milled sphagnum and half coarse sand, which together retain moisture and drain), temperature (different seeds germinate at different temperatures, but Ludwig suggests 65 degrees to 75 degrees F.) and good, viable seed. Seeds don't need sun; they can start without it.
There's a lot to take care of in a garden; planting and weeding may be overwhelming to adults. But being responsible for the care of one plant may keep a child's interest, even if it's just an old philodendron in the child's room.
"I think a lot of times at home, it's 'This is the flower garden, don't get near it, don't touch it,' " says Ludwig. "There's more to plants than just looking."
A CHILD'S GARDEN OF MISCELLANY
When first starting the seeds in the house in the wintertime, always cover the pot with a plastic bag with a few holes in it to maintain humidity. Then in most cases when the seedlings are up and growing, you can take it off. Citrus seedlings are the exception. Lots of people have acquired avocado trees from seeds, and there are kits for sprouting sprouts. Here are some other ideas from Brookside Gardens.
DRIED LIMAS -- These can be started in a pot, which has more permanence than a paper towel. After they've germinated, put the plants in a sunny spot. The soil should be kept moist and fertilized once every two weeks. Remember that most beans are climbing plants.
GARLIC & ONIONS -- Garlic looks like a root but is actually a stem. Garlic bulblets and onions will sprout in soil, but if they've already sent out a shoot, place them in a wine glass in good light. When the leaves get big, eat them.
ORANGES, GRAPEFRUITS, LEMONS & TANGERINES -- Plant up to an inch deep in moist, sandy soil an inch apart in a flat. Seeds will germinate in four to eight weeks, when each seedling should be transplanted to a three-inch pot. Cover it with the plastic bag to maintain the high humidity citrus plants need. Mist the plant every two or three days, but water only when soil is dry to the touch. The plant can remain covered indefinitely, as long as the plastic bag is big enough to accommodate the plant without touching it.
PEANUTS -- Buy unroasted peanuts still in the shell. Sow the two seeds inside in moist, not wet, soil. After the danger of frost is past, plant nuts or transplant plants outside, four to six inches apart, two inches deep, in rows three feet apart. Well-drained or sandy soil is best, in a sunny, warm spot. When flowers blossom, pollinate them. Once the flower dies, bend its shoot down until it digs into the ground -- to eventually make peanuts. Before frost, dig up the whole plant and air-dry to cure before removing pods. Yield is 30 to 40 pods per plant. You are now back where you started, only more so. Roast them at 350o for 20 minutes.
PINEAPPLE -- To make a pineapple-top plant, cut across a pineapple an inch below the leaves; let dry for two days. The pineapple is a bromeliad and moisture from the air keeps it going, so it doesn't need soil. But it may rot if left in water. Plant it in potting soil and keep the soil moist. The pineapple can be watered by filling the center "cup" formed by the rosette of leaves, or by misting the leaves every other day and covering the plant with a plastic bag with holes in it. Keep in a light but not sunny place. Spray fertilizer on the leaves if you wish. The roots it will slowly form just anchor the plant. Once the pineapple is well established, in eight weeks or more, try stimulating it to bloom by putting an apple beside it.
POTATOES -- Next time you see eyes staring up at you from the bin in a cool, dark place, cut the pota danger of frost is past, gradually get the plants used to spending more time outside.
TURNIPS & BEETS -- Like carrot tops, their tops will sprout in a dish of water. Place them on a bed of white pebbles, if you have them.
AT BROOKSIDE Seed workshops are planned for March 23 (age seven to 10) and March 24 (age 11 to 14) from 3:30 to 5. There will be a $1.50 charge for materials. Class size limited to 20. To register call 949-8230. Address: 1500 Glenallan Avenue, Wheaton. Some other child-oriented offerings: In the greenhouse, you can pick up a handout on a parent-child walk through the herb garden, greening up well around June. There are also plant puzzles available in the rack. And Brookside has a children's library, which kids can consult for school projects.