There still might be a few thick and bitter kale leaves in the vegetable garden and the pansies might be trying to hang on even after their second bloom last fall, but what do little hands do when it's too cold to play in the dirt?
I'm talking about all those mini-me's out there; the young people for whom you designated a small plot on the edge of the vegetable garden or a securely cordoned-off square at the back of the perennial bed last summer. You know what I'm talking about; those gardens where you didn't necessarily expect to get much harvest when in mid-July the vegetables were abandoned for swim parties and campouts. You likely wouldn't nominate their flowers for blue ribbons at the fair either, but somewhere inside those good intentions was a spark of interest, even if that interest waned a bit when the weeds needed pulled.
So what do we do with prospective young gardeners when they can't get outdoors to play? We can't very well sit them in front of the television for six hours a day playing video games.
Here are a few ideas that might keep the interest fresh for young, but potential future gardeners.
It might not be too late to bring some of those plants inside for winter before the first really cold blast of winter takes out everything that was left behind. Some perennial herbs such as thyme and oregano can easily be potted up for a sunny window. If your little ones are enthusiastic about helping in the kitchen, pinching off a few sprigs of something or another to toss in the soup pot would be a delight. Tender perennials that won't withstand our winter, such as rosemary, look great in a container. Whenever I would bring a rosemary plant inside at the end of the season, my own children loved decorating it like a miniature Christmas tree with small strings of lights and tiny glass ornaments.
If there are no plants to bring indoors, starting herb seeds in a bright window is not only fun, but educational. Children love to watch things grow, especially if it means they can do something with their plants afterward. Herbs can not only be used to flavor foods, but their fragrance leaves a lasting impression on young senses.
But that's not all you can do for young gardeners.
Kids love to grow things, including flowers, but even more, they love to get messy. To keep children entertained on a cold weekend or, better yet, a snow day, now is the time to stock up on preparations for those opportunities. Terra cotta clay pots are not expensive and they absorb paint like the dickens. Stock up on colorful acrylic paints from the craft store, a few inexpensive brushes; a few sponge brushes, stencils, and a bottle of primer. Make up an easy craft box containing buttons, stickers and anything else they might like to use to decorate their flower pots. They can glue on pictures they've cut from magazines. Even gluing on interesting-shaped pasta isn't out of the question.
Once the containers are decorated, let your child fill them with soil and plant flower seeds. Marigolds and pansies make excellent flowers. They are fast growers and bloom quickly when placed in a sunny window and watered once a week or when the soil dries out.
There is something special about watching a plant grow from nothing to something spectacular. When you grocery shop, choose root vegetables that still have leaves attached. Some larger mega-marts have produce sections where you can find beets, carrots and even celery with the tops still intact. Leave at least one-inch of, and your child can plant that one-inch section leaving the root showing just a bit above the soil. Trim the tops to about 6 inches and add the cuttings to your soup pot. Put the plant in a sunny window and give it a nice drink of water. Within a few weeks, new shoots will be growing from tuber. You can do this with parsnips, rutabagas and even turnips.
For a fun vining plant that will grow up your windowsill and across your curtain rod, have your child do the toothpick-in-a-potato trick. Find a nicely shaped, potato of any variety. Sweet potatoes are particularly good for this and even avocado pits can be used. Stick toothpicks into the potato at about its mid-way point. The toothpicks sit on the rim of a glass to keep the tuber from falling all the way to the bottom. Place the tuber with the tapered side down. Fill the glass with enough water to cover the bottom half of the potato (or avocado pit). Place the glass in a sunny window and add more water when needed. These plants do not produce anything edible, but they are fun to watch.
What many people don't know is you can grow your own orange, lemon or grapefruit plants from the seeds of the fruit you buy from the store. You won't get fruit, of course, but you will get a glossy-leafed plant that makes an interesting conversation-starter. Simply plant the seeds and keep them in a warm, sunny window and keep them moist until the seeds germinate. After germination, give them a diluted mixture of a balanced fertilizer and water less frequently, allowing the soil to dry out in between.
The fun thing about plants is they are everywhere you can imagine. From your grocery store, you can plant dried beans and lentils, pineapple tops, onions, leeks and even garlic. What you get may not be the same quality as the original plant because many of those are hybrids and are grown under ideal conditions for a marketable harvest, but who cares? We're too busy having fun gardening indoors in winter.