When you think about gardening and preschoolers, a spindly bean sprout emerging from a half-pint cardboard milk carton might come to mind. Every child deserves to be initiated into a "green thumb society" with this classic gardening activity.
But there's another favorite my kids enjoyed when they were young, even before they could say "rutabaga." We called it a saucer garden. It uses kitchen-scrap throwaways from vegetables such as carrots and beets, offers life lessons about care and responsibility and, like the bean seed, this simple garden grows to maturity before the kids go off to college.
Here's The Fun:
A pie pan, a 12-inch plastic drainage saucer from a flowerpot or a large glass or aluminum plate with a rim.
Sprinkle clean pebbles you have collected into the container randomly, or cover the bottom completely. Pour water in it to barely cover the pebbles. Keep a cup with a spout or a pitcher nearby so your child can be responsible for keeping fresh water in the saucer at all times. A spray bottle mister is a fun tool, too, for giving sprouting plants a shower now and then.
Carrots are generally sold with their "tops" already cut off. Now you'll grow them back again. While preparing dinner vegetables, slice off the top 3/4-inch of several carrots. Set them cut side down on the container or pebbles, making sure they are almost completely submerged in water.
Keep the water level consistent; it can evaporate quickly. Move to a sunny window when sprouts appear within a week or two. The carrots are especially charming with their feathery green growth.
For extra whimsy, let your kids' creativity sprout, too. Place plastic miniature animals and Lego figures in the container to create a jungle or enchanted island scene. Or, add a few marbles, colorful clear beads and sparkling gems for a platter of jewels.
Extra growing idea: You actually can re-grow celery.
Cut off the bottom inch of the bunch and place in the container along with the carrot tops. Set it base side down and cut stalks facing upright in the water. When tiny leaves begin to form from the center of the base, they'll grow, turning a darker green.
At this stage, you can plant it in soil in a flowerpot or container with drainage holes, covering everything but the leaves. Water regularly. Eventually, transplant the growing base to your outdoor garden. Stalks will start to grow back for you to eat.