Garden Variety: Indoor activities to get kids started on gardening

Kids who are exposed to gardening reap many benefits. While much of gardening takes place outdoors in nice weather, there are plenty of simple activities kids can do inside in the winter to learn about how plants grow and about the environment. Even something as simple as sprouting a seed can seem revolutionary to a child.

• For babies and toddlers, start with something simple such as playing with texture and smell. If you have indoor plants, sacrifice a few leaves for the little ones to feel and smash between their fingers. You could also pick up some fresh herbs at the grocery store and let the little ones feel and smell the different aromas. They can even taste the herbs if they are old enough and have the desire.

• Get a few plant and seed catalogs and explore. Garden catalogs are generally free, and you can subscribe to many of them on company websites. Try Seeds From Italy, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange and Botanical Interests for local, heirloom and unusual options.

With younger children, use the catalogs to learn about different kinds of vegetables. Expand the activity with kids’ ages, allowing them to cut out pictures of vegetables and glue them on construction paper to create a garden, or let them draw up a garden plan for the year with all the unusual things (they think) they want to grow.

• Sprout a sweet potato or an avocado seed. You only need the sweet potato or avocado seed, water, toothpicks and a jar or glass that is larger in diameter at the opening than the sweet potato or avocado seed. The potato or seed will be suspended with the toothpicks at the mouth of the jar and the jar filled with water. The suspension should keep the bottom portion of the potato or seed in the water and the top portion dry.

Keep in mind that, while the potato can be turned any way it fits, the avocado seed has a top and bottom. The bottom side of the avocado seed that goes into the water is broader and rounded. The top narrows and sometimes has a bit of a point.

Place the potato or avocado seed in a sunny window and change the water every few days. Changing the water could be a good task for a capable child.

• Make a do-it-yourself Chia Pet with seeds, old pantyhose and potting soil. Grass seed works well, but onion, radish and anything used for sprouts can also be used. Use the foot end of old pantyhose or tie off a leg piece to have a closed end. Drop some seed in so it falls to the closed end. Add enough potting soil to create a baseball- to softball-sized mass and tie off the open end. Flip it over so the seed is on top — this will become the “hair.” Glue on wiggly eyes and pipe cleaners or other craft items to make faces.

Soak the ball of soil until it’s moist all the way through, then allow to drain thoroughly. Set in or on a saucer and add water when the soil shows signs of drying out. Seeds may begin to sprout in a few days depending on type. Give the grass haircuts, or trim sprouts and add them to a salad for an extra treat.

• Painting and decorating flowerpots doesn’t have that much to do with actual gardening, but kids can paint or decorate pots now and grow plants in them in spring. Or, take a trip to a garden center and let them pick out a tropical plant or succulent to grow indoors in their freshly painted pot.

Terrariums are a little more complicated but a great option for older kids. Many stores have kits available for the holidays, but putting plans together and getting materials can be an added part of the activity.

Worm farms are along the same lines as terrariums. Purchase a kit or have the kids research how to do it themselves.

Building a birdhouse is another activity that is indirectly garden-related, but a good learning activity. Use the project to learn about birds that live in this area and the types of shelters they prefer. Have kids install the birdhouse and birdwatch.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.