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Kids can turn the kitchen into a personal laboratory as they watch green plants spring up from ordinary foods -- with your help. The most commonplace things -- dried beans and spice seeds, as well as onions and sweet potatoes -- can sprout into eager green plants that are fun to observe (though they're not very tasty to eat).
Terrariums are easy to assemble and don't require much maintence. Let kids choose their favorite succulents, then place the terrarium in a spot where everyone can enjoy it.
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It's easy to get started. The water and sunlight required come direct from nature; the heat in your house will provide adequate warmth (this means your garden can grow no matter the season). Most of the other items needed you'll most likely have on hand: cotton balls or paper towels, and glass jars or plastic containers.
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Growing Beans and Lentils
Beans are seeds, and while they don't look alive, they are. They're simply "sleeping" -- dormant until sunlight and water wake them up. Placed in a covered glass jar with a wet paper towel, the bean soaks up the moisture, swells, and bursts open its outer shell. The glass jar lets in light, and its lid keeps the paper towel from drying out. Soon roots, shoots, and two leaflike things called cotyledons appear. Cotyledons store nutrients for the growing plant. They eventually shrivel up, and real leaves take over, absorbing the sunlight, oxygen, and water the plant needs to grow.
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How to Grow Beans and Lentils
How to Grow: Spritz a paper towel with water until it's very damp but not soaking wet; place in a glass container -- we used a canister for the beans and a jam jar for the lentils. Drop in about a dozen dried beans or lentils; cover jar, and set in indirect sunlight so it's neither too hot nor too cold. A plant will angle its leaves toward the light; to make yours grow straight, turn the jar around halfway daily.
How Long It Takes: Expect to see shoots in five to ten days.
For More Fun: Try some different kinds of dried beans, such as black beans or navy beans, and compare how fast they grow.
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Certain vegetables -- potatoes, onions, turnips, beets, and carrots are some of them -- grow both above and below the ground. Their green leaves, stems, and vines grow on top of the soil; the parts we eat, called tubers, bulbs, or roots, grow underneath. Those serve as the plants' personal food supply, storing energy for the leaves above. And they take water and minerals from the soil they grow in.
When you place these vegetables in jars or dishes of water instead of the soil in a garden, it's like having X-ray vision. You get to see the entire plant: leaves and stems, the main root, and the thin roots, called feeders, that the plant sends out into the water searching for nourishment.
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How to Grow Root Vegetables
How to Grow: For onions and sweet potatoes, fill a jar with water. Insert three toothpicks 1 inch into vegetable so the bottom third of the vegetable will be underwater. Set in indirect sunlight. Change water when it gets cloudy to prevent rot. For radishes, beets, and turnips, twist off greens. Cut away bottoms (a parent should do this); set tops on small rocks in a pie plate. Add water to cover vegetable by 1/ 8 inch. Set in indirect sunlight. Change water to keep it clear; an adult should shave off parts that get slimy.
How Long It Takes: You'll see some green growth in about five days for onions and sweet potatoes. Greens will appear on vegetable tops within three days.
For More Fun: Cultivate pineapple and carrot tops on rocks in a pie plate as well.
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Fruit and Spice Seeds
Seeds are everywhere: Some we eat by themselves, such as lentils and peas; some we add to food, like the mustard and caraway seeds found in spice jars; and some we toss away, such as those in oranges and papayas. But set one of these seeds in soil, and you'll witness the magic it contains. It still needs basic tools to get started -- sunlight, water, and warmth. In soil (or in potting mix), the plant can live longer because its roots take nutrients from the dirt.
The papaya and mustard seeds planted here are a lot like the beans, lentils, and underground vegetables: They are all angiosperms, which means they can develop seeds and flowers (though the plants in our projects don't get big enough to reach that stage). Angiosperms begin as seeds that can grow into plants that produce, well, other seeds, which create -- you guessed it -- plants, and on and on!
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How to Grow Fruit and Spice Seeds
How to Grow: Fill a jar or plastic egg carton with soilless potting mix to 1/4 inch from top. Press down on mix; moisten slightly. For papaya, place 10 to 12 seeds (first wash and let dry 24 hours) on mix. To help seeds stay in place during watering and to keep in moisture, cover with 1/4-inch layer of undyed aquarium gravel. For mustard seeds, sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon seeds in each section of carton; close top. Set containers in indirect sun. When shoots appear, remove top and spritz with water every two days.
How Long It Takes: Pale shoots and leaves will appear in two weeks or so for papaya and two days for spice seeds.
For More Fun: Plant seeds in a fun shape -- an initial or happy face. Cover with a clear plastic top.