Friday, February 12, 2010

Seed starting with children

Valentine's day is soon upon us and an assortment of children ranging from 1 month to 4 years old are descending upon my house tomorrow for a holiday celebration. Valentine's Day conveniently falls on a holiday weekend this year and, being a government employee, this means I have Friday to prepare and Monday to recover. I figured this party would be a nice activity for the folks who aren't going out of town for the long weekend. It was also a way for me to get around the usual birthday party ritual of opening a pile of gifts, which always leaves me slightly queasy.

I do understand that en masse gift opening is a treasured part of most American childhoods, as are sweets and party decorations. However, with a Valentine's party, my son could host his friends and revel in balloons and cupcakes without Mommy wincing inwardly as he greedily tears open a gift of a toy gun, baby video game console, or other such contraband in this liberal hippie household. Even my husband, who is less earnest than me about only having peaceful, nutritious toys, resents the influx of plastic and electronic noise-making clutter that comes with every new round of gift giving. I still laugh sympathetically at the memory of a birthday party we attended last year wherein the two year old birthday girl received, no doubt from a loving but childless relative, a three hundred piece miniature plastic grocery store set. I could see every parent in the room calculating the hours of pickup represented by an afternoon with that box. I do recognize that all of these gifts are given in the spirit of love and give us an opportunity to teach our son about generosity and gratitude. Nor have I arrived at the point of some parents who insist on no birthday gifts or who make their kids donate everything to charity. Those folks are doing their best to raise their kids as they see fit, and I commend them, but that is a little too extreme for my tastes. So for now, I will have quiet family birthdays involving books and a small toy and which focus largely on food and candles. And I can use other holidays - like this Valentine's Day! -- to host a guiltless gift-free party for my son's little friends.

I realized as I planned this party that, as the hostess, I could easily fall in to the same gift trap I was seeking to avoid. Goody bags and party favors also usually involve lots of mass-produced and near-disposable plastic baubles. The easy answer to this would be candy - and lots of it! -- but I know my crowd. While some of the parents wouldn't care about a sack of chocolates or lollipops, I know that many are trying to raise their kids without exposing them to the usual amounts of over-sugared, high-fructose corn syrup snacks. For that reason we are serving apple bread refashioned as Valentine's cupcakes. I am making fruit punch, though -- it's a party after all! Kids can have some juice, can't they? Everything in moderation, including moderation. But what to do about the party favors? That's when I realized my ace-in-the-hole: my saved seeds from last year.

I went on a seed saving jag this fall, and now have many baggies of seeds stored in my basement. I saved most in amounts that cannot be reasonably planted in my tiny garden. After sharing many with gardening friends, I still have plenty of beans, tomatoes and various flowers. I also have too many seed packets, partly from my winter tradition of seed catalog impulse purchases, and partly from the generosity of gardening friends who are looking to unload a similar overstock. I decided that the perfect party activity would be to decorate a small pot, fill it with soil and plant a few seeds. Thus, each child can leave with a party favor, and one that will likely last longer than a plastic water gun from Target.

Now, what seeds to plant? I feel that I have three ways to go on this: exciting seeds, fast germinators or ones with cute holiday references. By exciting, I mean seeds that toddlers will enjoy using: large, brightly-colored and satisfying to manipulate. Minuscule seeds like cactus or begonia are nearly impossible for my adult hands to handle. Even larger ones like marigolds would be hard for chubby fingers that still fumble with shoelaces. Corn and peas are big and bright and also have added value as being recognizable to little ones. A scarlet runner bean, however, is just the thing: black and purple, large and with a pleasantly smooth surface. I also happen to have a large jar of them from last season.

There is an argument to be made for planting fast germinating seeds: most garden websites advise parents to use these seeds since rapid results should keep the kids readily engaged in the process. Browsing the blogs and websites of elementary school teachers, I found lists of seeds that are reliable for fast, high-percentage germination. Of the seeds I have in my stockpile, they recommend cosmos and marigolds. Notably quick and reliable vegetables include lettuce and radish. Several experienced teachers recommended rye and other grasses, which pop up the quickest at 3-5 days. I remain unconvinced about selecting seeds based on this characteristic of fast germination. For one, even three days is an eternity for my little boy. Secondly, I bristle at the suggestion that kids must always be given the seeds with the most rapid results and high yields: why can't even young children appreciate a longer wait? And the occasional seed failure, while discouraging, is a fact of gardening life. With the fruit of your labors also comes the detritus destined for the compost heap.

Finally I considered the Valentine's theme seeds. Sweet 100 tomatoes have a cute name, and I can also tell the kids how tomato plants were once known as "love apples". Alpine strawberries are red, and sweet as well, although they tax even my patience for germination. I could also be more ironic, aiming to entertain the parents with Valentine's seeds like bachelor buttons or love-lies-bleeding.

In the end, I am going with Scarlet runner. My son loves to sort and count them, and they have a magic Jack-in-the-Beanstalk look about them. They are also no slouches in the speed of germination department. Lastly, the name "scarlet runner" has a certain tang-- perhaps conjuring the image of ill-fated Valentine's hosiery or an adulterous Hawthorne escapee? Alright, that is stretch. Come Saturday, however, chubby hands will be plunging these gorgeous seeds into Valentine's planters. I can rest easy knowing that I have not distributed party favors destined for the landfill, though perhaps they will wind up the compost heap.

1 comment:

  1. That's an awesome idea. Bet the kids loved it. The values you're raising your son with aren't always easy in an over-consuming, throw-away, junk food era, but worth the effort.

    My girls rebelled at times against 'brown' lunches, absence of battery-operated toys and video games (since they were girls at least I didn't have the violent-toy dilemma,) over-consumption, and consumerism. Now as young women they thank us for bucking the 'norm,' raising them with 'green' sensibilities before it was 'cool,' and they affirm the values they were raised with in their philosophies with their own children. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. Creative ideas like this make it more palatable and more fun growing up green!