Mary, Mary, quite contrary, How does your garden grow? The nursery rhyme asks a valid question -- especially at this time of year. We've found that our own children eagerly accept the challenge in discovering the answer to that question by doing some of the simple projects below. With a couple of seed packages, sun, soil, and water, the entire family can observe the exciting process of plant life.
Before they begin, children can make a booklet or buy a thin notebook. Have them label the cover with the title ``My Plant Book'' and decorate with crayons. Inside the book, drawings, labels, procedures, and results can be recorded as the activities are completed. With our own children we used bean, sunflower, and squash seeds, but almost any seeds will do.
Wake up seeds. Materials: seeds, two small bowls, water. Set four seeds in each bowl and cover one set of seeds with water. Let set overnight and compare seeds in the morning. Explain that while the dry seeds are still dormant, the wet seeds have absorbed water, expanded, opened, and begun to germinate -- they woke up!
Watch seeds sprout. Materials: empty glass jar with lid, seeds, paper towels, water. Layer three paper towels and fold in half twice, the long way. Roll up the strip and place in jar for snug fit. Tuck seeds in jar between glass and paper towel, and water paper towels until wet. Regular popcorn works well with this activity. Cover jar loosely with lid and observe for several days, keeping slightly wet. Children will love watching the root grow down while stems and leaves push upward.
Prove that plants drink water. Materials: two glasses, food coloring, water, fresh celery with leaves, knife. Mix colored water (red and blue work best) in glasses and set one piece of celery in each, or split celery from bottom, putting half in each color. Explain that food coloring is necessary because water is clear and difficult to see. After a few hours, remove and inspect celery and leaves. Then cut cross sections of celery in various places to see how the water traveled upward.
Do plants need light? Materials: two paper cups, soil, seeds, water. Plant seeds in cups of soil and wait until they begin to grow. Then continue to water both, but put one in open daylight, the other in a dark spot. Observe and compare plant growth and appearance after one week, two weeks, and three weeks.
Root project. Materials: one sweet potato, jar or glass, water, toothpicks. Explain that potatoes, beets, sweet potatoes, and carrots are roots -- large roots with nutritious food in them. Fill glass about three-quarters full with water and set thin end of sweet potato partly in water. Toothpicks can be used to prop potato up if glass rim is too large. Within days, children will be delighted to see a mass of new roots and stems sprout.
Plant fruit seeds. Materials: fresh orange or grapefruit, paper cups, soil, water. When children eat the fruit, have them hunt for seeds and save them. Then germinate overnight in water and plant in soil about one-quarter inch deep. These seeds make attractive greenhouse plants.
Help junior gardeners. Invite and encourage children to participate in planning, planting, and cultivating a garden this year. Our five-year-old grew some tall sunflowers last summer, but he was equally proud to help make several double batches of zucchini bread from his one zucchini plant. And by storing them in the freezer, we were still eating the ``fruits of his labor'' long after the Christmas holidays.