Green Kids: A Toddler’s Guide to Starting Seeds

A Toddler's Guide to Seed Starting

Our yard would be mostly vegetable garden if its topography and Chris’s aesthetic preferences allowed me to do so. As it is, we have a modest but productive 10X15 garden in the back. While I could fill it with seedlings from the farmers’ market, my thriftiness and DIY-aesthetic motivated me to learn how to start everything from seed a few years ago. So every spring, I flip through the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog, order too much, and start the long process of bringing up seedlings. Except this year, I have a helper. Sprout – true to his nickname – joined me to start planting this past weekend.

Sprout also “helped” start seeds last year, although that was more about introducing him to gardening than him actually being useful. This year, I still could have done it faster and with less of a mess by myself, but he did actually contribute.

Unlike last year, when we had to do the planting inside, we had some amount of luck this time. I thought we were really far behind – we planted three weeks later than last year – but when I looked it up, we were right on time for tomatoes and basil. In contrast to colder-weather plants like broccoli, both tomatoes and basil seedlings are extremely susceptible to cold damage, so you don’t want to put them in too early.

The second bit of luck we had is that Sprout remembers gardening last summer. He adored picking cherry tomatoes ripe off the vines and stuffing them in his mouth before I had a chance to wash them off. While I would weed inside the garden fence, he would pull out the vines outside trying to get in. He’d fill his little watering can from the rain barrel and dump it on his feet while I used the big one to water the plants. Having books on gardening – especially Up in the Soil and Down in the Dirt – that we read all winter helped him remember. When I told him that we’d be starting seeds for the garden, he immediately understood the purpose.

Between starting in March and uncharacteristically warm weather, we had a lovely day to plant on Saturday afternoon. I set out the sanitized planters – a mix of traditional terra cotta pots and recycled Stonyfield yogurt containers – on the table on our back deck. Next to them, I placed a big metal bowl partly filled with water, the bag of seed starting mix, and Sprout’s step-stool so he could reach the table. Then, and only then, I retrieved Sprout himself. I’ve now done enough craft and cooking activities with him to realize having the mise en plase ready before introducing him is essential.

We started a little earlier in the seed starting process than last time. Instead of giving him the already-wet dirt, I added the seed starter to the water and let him mix it together. He stuck his hand in to the bowl, pulled it out, looked at it, and asked, “Need towel?” I shook my head and said, “No, it’s supposed to be dirty.” I stuck my own hand in and squished it. “See?” He watched and then stuck his hands in, slowly realizing the beauty of feeling mud form under your hands. From then on, he didn’t ask for a towel again!

Once the seed starting mixture was throughly wetted – probably too much – it was time to move it into the containers. Under my direction, he scooped up handfuls of mud and dumped them in the flowerpots. He was so enthusiastic that he would keep adding dirt long past when it was full enough unless I switched out the containers.

Once they were full, I told him to use his finger to make a hole in the dirt. Sticking his little index finger all the way in, he made quite a deep hole! After brushing over a bit of dirt to make the hole shallower, I asked him to make two more, on opposite sides of the container. As I ripped open the tomato seed packet and shook them into my hand, he exclaimed, “They’re so little!” I replied, “Yes, but they’ll grow into really big tomato plants. Do you remember?” I then gave him a couple of seeds and instructed him to drop a few in each hole. Not all of them ended up in there, but I’d rather waste a few seeds than skimp on them.

We then went through the same process with the rest of the pots. He was really focused as he went about the task, poking the soil and dropping in the seeds right where they needed to be.

In the future, I hope to involve him in sprouting our pea, bean, melon and squash seeds. (This process merely involves wrapping them in a wet paper towel, putting them in a zip-lock bag somewhere dark and waiting.) He’s also going to help Chris and I water the seedlings after they’ve sprouted.

After we finished, I said, “You were a great helper. You’re going to be a great gardener.” Stepping down the concrete steps outside our house, he turned to me and said with pride, “[Sprout] is a gardener.” Indeed you are, my love, indeed you are.