Besides simply growing plants, children love to get involved in plant "projects"--making things using plants or growing unusual plants in unusual ways. Here's a "starter set" of fun and easy ideas:
Growing a sweet potato plant. Most of us have grown a sweet potato at some time in our lives, probably when we were kids. It's this easy: Buy a sweet potato or yam, preferably at a health food store where you can buy potatoes that have been organically grown and will sprout much more quickly. (You might want to buy two or three and start them at the same time just to be sure your child gets one of them to sprout.)
Insert the potato into a wide-mouthed glass or jar of water supported by three or four toothpicks--the bottom half of the potato in the water, the top half out--then place it in a bright window away from any extremely cold drafts. Check the water level daily and add enough water to keep it to the top of the glass or jar as it evaporates. Then just sit back and be patient. Roots will develop, then foliage will begin to sprout from the top.
In five or six weeks your sweet potato will send out dozens of long, beautiful, ivy-like vines, which, alas, will begin to turn yellow and die after a few more weeks. The bad news is that at that point you'll have to discard it, but the good news is your young gardener can already have three or four more going to take its place.
Growing a pineapple plant (Ananus comosus) . This is another plant that's easy and fun for kids to grow. Simply have them cut the top two inches plus the foliage off a store-bought pineapple and set it in a tray of water deep enough to cover the pineapple but leaving all the foliage above the water. (Be sure to pick out a pineapple with as nearly a perfect top as you can find, lush, full and free of brown tips. This will be the beginnings of your plant.)
In a couple of weeks, roots will form, and then the pineapple should be planted in a six- or eight-inch diameter pot of commercial potting soil, the pineapple part below the soil, the foliage part above.
The pineapple, which belongs to the bromeliad family, needs good, bright sunlight--a western or southern exposure is best--and you should instruct your budding green-thumber to keep the soil slightly moist and keep fresh water in the center of the rosette. Make sure he or she sprays the pineapple plant frequently, as pineapples like lots of humidity.
In time, and with luck, the plant will "flower," producing a tiny pineapple about the size of a golf ball.
How to grow sprouts. Sprouts, such as alfalfa sprouts and bean sprouts, are available in markets all over the country as a delicious and nutritious addition to your children's salads and sandwiches.
But they're much more fun for a child to grow himself, and easy as can be:
The best place to hatch a sprout is in the kitchen, away from bright light. Besides alfalfa, the most common beans for sprouting are mung, soy, garbanzo, lima, kidney, navy, and pinto. You can also sprout the seeds of mustard, sesame, barley, oats and garden peas. To grow sprouts, place several dozen beans (or a handful of seeds) in a container, barely cover with water, cover the container, make sure there's always a bit of water in the container, and with ordinary luck the young gardener should have sprouts within a few days. You can also sprout seeds or beans between two damp paper towels or even on a damp sponge.
Bonus: since kids can grow sprouts themselves, you're liable to see your children suddenly developing a taste for a food that's "good for them."
There are any number of pits or seeds from your grocery bag that your child can plant and relish watching grow, including citrus seeds of all kinds, mango pits and unroasted coffee beans.
Propagating plants. Making new plants from old is great fun for kids. And for the most part nothing is easier.
For instance, they'll love growing their own vegetables from seeds. In fact, why not let them grow their own salad?
Get some lettuce seed, some radish seed, small carrot seeds, whatever--now's the time--and sow the seeds in a tray or pots of vermiculite according to the directions on the packets.
Cover the tray or pots with plastic wrap and place in a warm, sunny window, making sure to keep the rooting mixture moist.
When seedlings appear and reach a height of about six inches, pot the strongest in large pots or tubs and cultivate them in a sunny, sunny spot.
Growing plants from stem cuttings is another fun project for children.
Simply cut a piece or two of stem about six to 12 inches long from a vining or soft-stemmed plant such as a philodendron, pothos or arrowhead plant. Put the stem in a container of water, removing any leaves that are beneath the surface of the water.
A large root system will soon form, and your child can then either transplant his rooted cutting into a pot filled with commercial potting soil or watch it grow for up to a year or more in the water.
Making a bromeliad tree. In last week's article, we discussed these fascinating air plants, bromeliads, and pointed out that probably the truest air plant of the whole family is the Tillandsia, which comes in dozens of varieties. A fun project for kids is making a "bromeliad tree."
Begin by getting a large, sculptural branch, preferably with a few offshoots, or an interesting piece of driftwood. You'll also need a square piece of plywood for the base, several different and exotic Tillandsias, a bag of spaghnum moss, some waterproof glue, and some invisible fishing wire or thin picture wire. Nail the wood to the base, then glue the Tillandsias onto the wood and wrap the base of each plant with spaghnum moss and affix with the fishing line or wire. Spray the plants regularly. I put my bromeliad tree in the shower with me once a week and it's sprouting new pups constantly.
Making a dish garden. A lovingly hand-made dish garden is a gift for any occasion--birthdays, Mother's Day, Father's Day, whatever.
To make a dish garden, begin by getting a container that's at least three inches deep. It can be round, square or rectangular and virtually any size you want, but 12 inches long and 10 inches deep is about right. The aluminum baking tins available in most supermarkets are just right and very inexpensive. You can also purchase terra-cotta or glazed containers at nurseries, garden centers and discount stores.
If you're using the aluminum pans, your child might want to dress up his container by wrapping it in a colorful florist's foil. If so, do this first by folding the florist's foil of your choice completely around the container and on into the inside. Step two, add a single layer of pebbles on the bottom to provide drainage, then add about one-half inch of potting soil. Now arrange three or four small plants--the kind that come in 2 1/2-inch pots--in whatever manner pleases the eye. The only caveat: The plants used in a dish garden must be compatible and require the same growing conditions. No ferns with cactus, for instance, since the former prefers shady and moist and the latter likes it hot and dry.
Once your child has finished his planting, he can decorate the top with colored pebbles, bits of bark, little animals or other tiny figures. He is the artist and the dish garden is his canvas.
Rapp is a Los Angeles free-lance writer , the gardening editor of Redbook magazine and is heard Sunday mornings on KGIL radio.