Plants need soil, water, sun, and air in order to live and grow. Minerals in the soil dissolve in water, and the plant roots suck them in; this is the plant's "food." The water travels up the plant stem and out to the leaves. In the leaves, the plant mixes this food with carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is in the air.
The plant leaves use the minerals and water from the soil and carbon dioxide from the air to grow. A special substance called chlorophyll (klor-oh-fill) is in the leaves. Chlorophyll and sunlight together make it all happen.
It's truly amazing what plants can do! The best part is that while the plant does all this mixing and growing, it gives off oxygen from its green leaves. Oxygen is what people and animals breathe, and it's very important for them to survive. You can see why we depend on plants!
Plants grow from seeds — even towering trees started from seeds. Each seed contains the beginning of a new plant and enough food to start its life. As the plant inside the seed grows, it pushes its way out of the seed. It needs air and water in order to do this.
As soon as the tiny plant gets roots, it needs more food than was stored inside the seed. Now it is ready to take food from the soil. It does this through tiny hairs that grow on the roots. The food in the soil dissolves in water and passes into the root hairs. From there, it moves from the roots up into the stem and out to all the parts of the plant.
How Plants Drink
Want to see how a plant sucks up water? This activity will show you.
Celery or a white flower
Glass of water
Put several drops of red or blue food coloring in a glass of water. Put a piece of celery in the colored water. Within hours you can see the color begin to travel up the celery stem. The plant is pulling the water up to get it to the leaves. Try putting a white flower, such as a carnation, in colored water. Within a day, the color will have tinted the blossom.
Tint the water dark red and the celery will turn red, too! You can see how plants move water up to the leaves.
Food coloring in water will tint white carnations. The tips of the petals will change color first.
You'll need some tools to work the soil, of course. You can save old forks, spoons, and kitchen scoops. Use a turkey baster to water hanging plants or delicate seedlings. Scissors are useful when you are taking cuttings or clipping away seedlings to thin a row. Look around and you may find lots of discarded items that can be useful in the garden. There are many tools and pieces of gardening equipment that you can make for yourself, too.
old forks and spoons
You'll need something to carry your garden tools out to your work area.
Plastic milk jug
Markers, decals, stickers, and other things to decorate with
Use scissors to cut away the top front section of a plastic milk jug. Decorate it with permanent markers, decals cut from adhesive-backed paper (like Contac), or stickers. Some useful things for outdoor gardeners are gloves, a trowel, old forks and spoons, scissors, plant labels and permanent markers to write on them with, and a ball of string for tying up plants that need support. Indoor gardeners need a tote to keep their special equipment in, too. Some things you will want to use for indoor plants are a water dropper, tweezers, a magnifying lens, popsicle sticks, and old forks and spoons.
Cut out and decorate a plastic jug. Fill it with your gardening tools.
Watering Your Plants
Plants need plenty of water. When the soil seems dry, water it thoroughly. Use enough water to wet the roots that are deep in the soil. Stop watering when the soil is evenly wet. Never let so much water into the garden or plant pot that it stands on the surface; you'll drown the plant! Here's an easy activity for making your own watering can.
Plastic milk jug
Hole punch or large nail
Cut away the top part of a plastic milk jug with scissors. Punch holes in the front with a hole punch or large nail. Fill it with water and try pouring out some water to test it. Add more holes if the water pours out too slowly.
Punch holes in a plastic jug.
Make a Scoop
Make simple scoops to use indoors or out.
Plastic milk jug
Cut around the handle of a plastic milk jug. You can make scoops in several sizes to fit your different needs. Keep a large one at the compost pile, another at the potting bench, and a small one for digging little trenches for planting seeds.
Cut a plastic 1-liter pop bottle to make a scoop.
Cut around the handle to make a scoop.
Use your scoop to dig and plant.
Make Straight Rows
When you're making an outdoor garden, you want the rows to be nice and straight. Here's a simple way to do that.
Cut a piece of cord a little longer than the length you want the plant row to be. Knot each end to a stick. Push one stick into the ground at one end of the row, and then take the other stick with you to the opposite end. Line up the sticks so that the cord runs straight, right where you want it. As you dig a trench and plant seeds, follow the cord and your row will be straight. Move the sticks and cord from row to row, as you work across the garden.
Make straight rows with sticks and cord.
Plants have special names, and with so many growing things you may forget who's who. Make labels so that you will always remember.
Cardboard or Styrofoam Popsicle stick and a hot-glue gun (with
grown-up help), or thin wire and a hole punch
Cut strips from plastic bottles.
Print names with a permanent marker.
Cut a strip from the side of a plastic bottle, and print the plant name with a permanent marker. Or you can use some old scissors (cutting metal makes new ones dull) to cut a piece from an aluminum pan, such as one from frozen foods. Use a ballpoint pen to write the name on the metal. Put a piece of soft cardboard or Styrofoam underneath as you write, so you won't accidentally tear the metal as you press on it. Print large, careful letters, and then use a hot-glue gun to attach the sign to a popsicle stick. Push it into the ground next to the growing plant. For trees and shrubs, punch holes in the ends of the sign and hang it from a branch with thin wire.
Cut pieces from aluminum pans. Write on them with a ballpoint pen.
Use some cardboard as a cushion.
Glue to a stick or hang from a wire.
Young seedlings need protection from the hot daytime sun or the cold evening temperatures.
Plastic milk jug
Cut away the bottom of a plastic milk jug, and then cut slits up the sides to make a simple cover for tiny seedlings that have just begun growing outdoors. Spread the slits apart and push the ends into the soil around the plant. When the seedlings are stronger, put the hats away for next year.
Cut off the base of a plastic jug.
Cut strips up the sides.
Position it in the soil to protect a new seedling.
Prepare a Garden Spot
You'll need to decide where to put your plants, whether in a windowsill or the backyard. Wherever you decide, make sure there is plenty of sunlight. You can bring water to the plants with a hose, a bucket, or a watering can (see page 8).
You'll need pots and potting soil for indoor planting. You can purchase the soil in bags at garden centers. Lay a piece of a broken pot or crumpled aluminum foil over the hole in the bottom, so that the soil won't fall out. Put a layer of gravel in the bottom of the pot, then fill it with soil. Use a pan or saucer under the pot to catch water spills.
For indoor or patio planters, instead of buying pots, why not look around for things that will hold water and soil and let plant roots develop? Try using the bottoms of plastic milk jugs, milk cartons cut in half, cottage cheese containers, or even a basket lined with a heavy plastic bag.
To start seedlings you might want to save yogurt cups, Styrofoam egg cartons, and margarine tubs. Paper milk cartons cut in half lengthwise are good seed beds, too.
Broken pot pieces or
Pan or saucer
Ideas for seedling pots:
plastic milk jugs
plastic food containers
Styrofoam egg cartons
paper milk cartons
half a milk carton
Styrofoam egg cartons
bottom of a plastic milk jug
For outdoor gardens, you'll need some tools to turn the soil and break it up: a shovel, rake, hoe, and trowel. You may want to wear gardening gloves and a sunhat. Remember to wear sunscreen whenever you work outside, even on cloudy days.
Look over the garden spot and make sure the soil is dry and flaky. If it's still wet from rain, let it dry out completely; if you don't, you'll only make hard clods that no plant's roots can break through. When you're ready to plant the garden, till the soil by lifting it and turning it with a shovel. Then, break up all the clods with a rake and hoe. Pick out any rocks or sticks.
Rake it smooth, and then use a trowel or your finger to carve a shallow trench to put the seeds in. Follow the directions on your seed packet. It will tell you exactly how far apart to put the seeds and how deep to cover them with soil. When you are finished, label the row with a plant label so that you'll know what's been planted while you're waiting for the tiny plants to appear.
Gardening gloves, sunhat,
hose or bucket of water
Create Some Compost
You have probably not given much thought to soil before, but now that you are a gardener, you will begin to think of it as much more than just dirt. Soil does more than hold up a plant so it can grow. It is filled with the minerals that a plant needs in order to be healthy and strong.
Not all soil is rich enough for good planting. Some is too full of rocks and gravel; some is too thick and sticky; and some soil is too full of mineral salts. Plants are like people, they need healthy meals to grow strong. You can enhance the soil you use in your garden to make it even more nutritious for your plants.
To make richer soil, we must put materials that were once living back into the soil. Things such as leaves, twigs, salad scraps, and grass clippings — all these will rot away as they put nutrients back into the soil. As plant materials rot away into the soil, they make a mixture that we call compost. It's loose, fluffy, and full of minerals plants love. As you work in your garden, be sure to set aside a spot for saving plant scraps, clippings, and leaves in a compost pile, where they can rot to make healthy soil to use in your garden and flower pots. When you see how much better plants grow in compost, you'll know why gardeners call it "Black Gold"!
Here are some things that are good to put in the compost pile:
Newspapers (torn into tiny pieces)
Weeds pulled from the garden
DO NOT USE:pet droppings, meat scraps, colored newspapers, raw eggs, bones, butter or margarine, or other things that stink as they rot.
Outdoor Compost Holder
Use a plastic laundry basket to make a compost holder. Ask an adult to help cut the bottom of the basket away, using a pair of heavy-duty scissors or a craft knife. Find a corner of the garden to dig a hole 6 inches deep in the shape of the bottom of the basket. Set the basket over the hole and fill it with a layer of compost material, about 4 inches deep. Sprinkle soil over the layer, then add another layer of compost material, then more soil. Layering will help the materials rot more quickly. If you think of the layers as going "brown (soil), green (compost material), brown, green ...," you won't forget.
Keep the compost heap wet, and turn things over once a week with a shovel to let air get to the bottom. When the material has rotted away, lift the basket and you'll find a layer of loose crumbly dark material at the bottom — compost. Add it to your garden or flower pots to make things grow better. Set up your compost holder again, and fill it for a fresh batch of compost.
Plastic laundry basket
Heavy-duty scissors or craft knife (with grown-up help)
(see list on page 17)
Fill it with garden scraps.
Lift it off the pile when the compost has rotted.
Indoor Compost Holder
What if you can't compost outdoors? If it's winter, or you have no backyard, you can make a compost bin to keep indoors.
Large plastic box
(see list on page 17)
(from a fishing supply store)
Use an old plastic picnic chest.
Use a large plastic box — an old picnic chest, the heavy plastic kind, works very well. Layer strips of shredded newspapers, vegetable scraps, and kitchen wastes, along with soil, in the box. Coffee grounds, vegetable peelings, and even dryer lint go in the box. Never use meat scraps or other things that will smell bad as they rot. Add a handful of earthworms. You can buy them at a fishing supply store. Keep the materials damp with a spray bottle, and stir with the scoop every few days. You'll start to see compost when the material turns dark and crumbly. You can use it in flower pots or add it to your garden soil outdoors.
Sow Some Seeds Indoors
Both vegetables or flowers can start from seeds, so you can use these directions to plant whatever you choose. Some good flowers to grow from seeds are zinnias, snapdragons, sunflowers, marigolds, and nasturtiums. Good vegetable seeds to start are radishes, carrots, beans, lettuce, squash, watermelon, and corn. Once you have made your choice, gather your supplies and start planting!
Start seeds in paper cups, muffin tins, or egg cartons.
Egg cartons, or milk cartons
cut in half lengthwise
Spray bottle filled with water
Read the directions on the seed packet. They will tell you how deep to plant your seeds. Fill the cartons with soil, poke holes in the soil with your finger or the tip of a pencil, and then drop in the seeds. Gently cover them with soil and press firmly. Spray them with a bottle of water (wash an empty bottle of spray cleaner thoroughly and fill it with water) so that the soil won't be disturbed by directly pouring the water on it.
Make plant labels (see pages 11 and 12) with the name of the plant and the date you planted the seeds. The date will let you know when to expect tiny plants to come out of the soil.
Keep the soil moist. The plants will have two leaves in the beginning. When they get their second set of leaves, they are ready to transplant into a garden or a larger pot. When you transplant, do it gently and keep the soil in place around the delicate roots. Always lift plants by the leaves, not the tiny stem.
Label them with the names of the plants and the date they were planted.
Wash out an old spray bottle and use it to keep the soil damp.
A seed is a seed: grow some "wild" plants. Gather seeds from pinecones, acorns, dandelion fluff, grasses, or weeds. Get as many different types of seed as you can. Plant them in egg cartons and wait for your wild plants.
You can make paper pots where your seedlings will start out their lives.
Recycled typing or copier
paper, or newspaper
Potting soil and seeds
For each pot, cut a 4-by-7-inch strip of paper. Fold it ½ inch along one long edge. Roll it into a cylinder and tape. Flatten it, and cut four 1inch slits at the center and sides. Press it flat again to make a box shape. Fold the ends in along the slits. Tape the last flap to hold all the flaps in place.
Fill it with soil and sow the seeds. Label the pot with the name of the plant. When it's time to transplant the little plants in the garden, plant the entire pot in the ground. Gently remove the tape and open the bottom of the pot when you plant it, and the little roots will grow out easier. The paper will rot into the soil.
Press flat. Cut slits in the center through the front and back.
Bring the sides to the center, and cut more slits.
Make a box by folding the flaps in and taping them.
Fill with soil, plant seeds, and write the plant names on the pot.
You can make a little greenhouse to start seeds in before the last winter frosts are gone. Put it outside or on a windowsill.
Tape plastic wrap over a foil-lined shoebox.
Plant your seeds in an egg carton and put it in a clear plastic bag.
Potting soil, seeds, and water
Line the shoebox with the foil, taping it along the rim if necessary. Fill with soil, plant the seeds, and wet the soil. Stretch the plastic wrap across the top of the box. Tape it in place. It will seal in the moisture, and if you put it in a sunny spot, it will warm the plants, too. Lift the wrap whenever you need to add water, and remove it when the plants have two sets of leaves. You can also make a greenhouse from an egg carton sealed inside a clear plastic bag.
Seeds in a Sack
It's fun and interesting to watch new plants as they burst out of their seeds and send out tiny roots.
Wet paper towel
Plastic, sealable sandwich bag
Any kind of dry beans, such as
pinto, lima, or navy
Fold the towel twice, wet it, and lay it inside the bag. Place three or four bean seeds on top of the towel, and close the bag. You can leave it on a windowsill, but it's fun to thumbtack the bag to a wall and watch the bean plants emerge. When the plants have begun to get a good root system, plant them gently in soil.