It is a wondrous moment when that first seedling emerges, even as winter still chills the garden outside. Starting garden plants from seed is a great way to introduce your child to the joys of gardening.
To make the process simple and fun, choose seeds that germinate quickly and are easy to handle. With their fairy-tale associations, beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are always a good choice.
Other good choices are listed below -- each has specific timing requirements, but many can be started indoors as early as late winter. For instructions on starting seeds indoors, see Seed Starting 101.
1. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa): Looseleaf lettuces, the fastest growing of the basic lettuce types, germinate in 4-6 days and mature in about 6 weeks. Choose 'Red Salad Bowl,' which does particularly well grown under florescent lights indoors, or try 'Red Sails,' whose delicate young leaves can be eaten 3-4 weeks after sowing.
2. Radishes (Raphanus sativus): Small radishes such as 'Cherry Belle' and 'Easter Egg' are the quickest growers, germinating in 3-5 days and maturing in as little as 3 weeks. With seeds large enough for little fingers and a germination period of only a few days, radishes are a great choice for kids. When direct sown in large pots, these cultivars can be grown indoors on a sunny windowsill.
3. Tomatoes (Lycopersicon esculentum): A mainstay of the summer garden and a favorite with children for their small, flavorful fruits, cherry tomatoes such as 'Mexico Midget' or the unusual 'Yellow Pear' germinate in 1-2 weeks and mature and ripen quickly once transplanted to the garden.
1. Calendula (Calendula officinalis): Brightly colored calendulas are easy to grow and have large seeds that are easy for kids to handle. Start cultivars such as 'Pacific Beauty Hybrids' and 'Greenheart Orange' to be transplanted into the herb garden -- their edible flowers and leaves can be used as flavoring and garnish in summer dishes.
2. Marigold (Tagetes): Ideal for transplanting to the herb or vegetable garden, edible marigolds like 'Queen Sophia' are easy to start indoors, have large seeds, and germinate in 5-7 days.
Pique kids' interest by demonstrating the connection between plant and seed: Show them a photo of the mature plant and a fruit or seed head from the plant. For example, if you are starting tomatoes, show kids a tomato cut open so they understand where seeds come from.
Let kids design and decorate labels for their seedlings, including the plant's name and the sowing date. They will love the excitement of waiting for their seedlings to emerge and the satisfaction of nurturing a plant from seed.