Tractor Ted’s Seed Starting for Kids
In this blog post we’ll walk you through the basics of seed starting with kids. Preschoolers love this tactile, educational activity. It’s exciting to choose and plant seeds, watch them grow, learn to tend them – and to eat the harvest at the end!
When the weather is warm enough you can transplant your seedlings into raised beds, containers or a window box. You definitely don’t need a big yard to experiment with growing a few plants from seed.
These kids are big fans of Tractor Ted so we tried to make the project even more fun by letting them use their ride-on excavator toys to load the seed tray with the seed starter mix.
You don’t have to rush out and buy special toys for this activity, it’s still a ton of fun with sandbox tools, spoons, buckets – or just using your hands.
If you haven’t planted seeds before you might want to refer to our planning notes at the bottom of this blog post before you start your project.
This seed starting project could be a fun activity for a group play date or a preschool class. If each child brings a few packs you can share them out and plant a greater variety.
Step One: Buying Seeds & Seed Starting Supplies
There are lots of companies that sell seeds in small quantities. Year-round farm stands often sell seeds and you can also find them at nurseries or garden centers. Another option is to shop online or via mail-order catalog.
If you can get a catalog ahead of time it’s always fun to look through with the kids. On a cold wintry day a seed catalog can provide a lot of entertainment – the children love to identify the vegetables and learn about the more exotic varieties.
We went to a local garden store and picked out the following:
- Sungold tomatoes: a big hit with our Tractor Ted fans – this super-sweet cherry tomato variety never makes it out of the garden. The children eat them all right off the plants!
- Sunflowers: they take up room but they have easy-to-handle seeds; they germinate quickly and easily; and the children enjoy their big, cheery flowers. Read the packaging to make sure you get the height you want. If the seeds are edible you can harvest them and roast them for snacks.
- Shelling peas: we plant these directly outdoors as soon as the ground is workable. Opening the shell and eating them in the garden will make a vegetable-lover out of the most reluctant kid – they have an exceptional sweetness right off the plant.
- Lettuce: the seeds are a little hard-to-handle but it doesn’t matter if they sprinkle in more than one.
- Cress: these seeds grow very fast so you’ll see results quickly. They don’t have to be planted out – you can cut the seedlings and add them to salads and sandwiches.
- Beans: big and easy to handle and observe; we plant one per kid in a glass jar so they can watch the roots grow.
A selection like this allows for a good mix of visual interest, learning opportunities, and a varied harvest without getting too complicated.
Don’t feel you need to copy this exactly. There are hundreds of options to choose from and if you ask your local farm or garden store staff they will have some great suggestions for your local climate. We usually buy some more varieties to plant after the children have had their turn.
Later on we’ll direct sow root vegetables, beans and peas outside. For more suggestions take a look at this excellent post on gardening with children.
You’ll also need:
- Seed “flats” or you could use clean yogurt pots, egg cartons or toilet rolls.
- A tray to hold your seed flats or other soil containers. This will hold the water and prevent it dripping everywhere. (I like to add a second larger tray underneath for insurance against water-staining. We use a boot tray for this purpose.)
- A bag of seed starter mix. You can buy this in small bags. We recommend you use seed starter mix and not regular soil.
- Something to label with – we used wooden labeling sticks
- Watering can – you can use a hose or pitcher instead
- Tractor toys and tools for moving dirt! Or just use your hands!
Step Two: Prepping the seed flats
We set the supplies up outdoors and let the children fill the seed flats with starter mix using ride on excavator toys. This was a big hit.
You can absolutely do this indoors, and you don’t have to have the ride-on toys – spoons and hands work very well – but even still it can be messy.
The children loved loading the trays using the excavator toys and it was easy to sweep up the spills and save the rest of the starter mix for another time.
Once the flats are filled you’ll need to wet the starter mix. The moisture triggers germination so make sure you get the soil good and wet – like a muddy spring day – but don’t want it to be so wet that the water pools. It’s easy to drain off any excess before you bring it inside.
Step Three: Planting the seeds
The children went indoors to warm up and watch Tractor Ted Harvests Vegetables while I cleaned up and brought the seed tray inside.
You’ll want to pick out a sunny spot for your seed tray where the children can see it but can’t easily knock it over.
Be careful with water-staining furniture. As mentioned before, we used a boot-tray underneath our seed flat tray as extra insurance. You can get these at any hardware store.
Remember that the children will want to help water the seeds so keep a towel handy for clean up.
Set out bowls containing the seeds you plan to plant so that small fingers can get to them easily. The packaging usually has illustrations so keep it with the seeds and then you can refer to the pictures and explain what each seed will grow into.
At this point it’s fun to help the children make the connection between the seeds and the end result. You could ask questions like:
- What do tomato seeds look like?
- Where are they on the tomato?
- Do you think our seed will make tomato seeds for us?
It’s an amazing concept for children – that you start with such a tiny thing and it can grow to be bigger than they are – or even bigger than an adult!
Let the children poke shallow holes in each section for their seeds.
They can then drop a seed into each hole. Be careful to assign sections for each variety and have your labels ready to go so you know what you’ve planted where!
Have the children gently cover the seeds with the wet starter mix. Refer to the seed packaging for the best depth to plant at. You don’t want to bury them too deeply – “twice as deep as the diameter of the seed” is a good guide.
To finish up the children planted one bean each in a glass jar, close to the side. This will allow them to see the seed germinate and the roots growing under the soil.
You are done! We like to use a cover on the seed tray but it’s not essential if you don’t have one.
If you have left over supplies you could make up a seed starter kit to give as a gift. Packages of your favorite seed varieties also make a fun party favor!
Keep your seed starter mix moist with a spray of water every day or so. Don’t let it dry out and don’t let it get so too wet (if it is too wet there will be standing water in the tray 30 mins after you watered – because it can’t soak up any more, just pour out the excess).
Keep the seed tray indoors at room-temperature, don’t leave it in a porch or anywhere it gets below the low 60s F.
Keep the seedlings in a sunny spot and turn tray every few days to encourage straight growth.
You should see the green shoots within a week or two.
Refer to a planting out guide for the best time to transplant them to your outdoor space. Children love helping to transplant the seedlings but be careful that they are gentle with the tender plants. If necessary give them the job of digging the holes and patting down the soil and transplant the seedlings yourself.
Have the kids help you to keep them weed-free and watered and you should have a great harvest to enjoy!
Here are some suggestions of what to think about when you are planning this activity. If you have any pro tips to contribute please do comment!
Where will you put your seedlings when they are ready to go outside?
You don’t need a farm or even a big yard to enjoy seed starting with children, all you need is a sunny spot with room for a few pots, a planter or even just a window box. If you can, locate the planting area close to a water source, close to your home and in an area where the children play. If it’s nearby it’ll be easier to tend and easier for the children to interact with. Also, if it’s close to home it’s less likely to be plundered by animals. Woodchucks are a particular nuisance and will eat all your lettuce if they can get to it.
For detailed information on how to build a raised bed take a look at this excellent guide from our friends at The Food Project.
The key points are: don’t make it bigger than you can handle, don’t use wood treated with chemicals (such as creosoted railroad ties) as toxins may leach into the soil, and use high quality soil mixed with compost.
FYI “high quality” compost doesn’t necessarily mean super-expensive. Some communities have composting projects where you can pick up a set amount of compost for free. In other places you’ll find farms, nurseries or garden centers that offer a cheaper rate for do-it-yourself compost bagging (you shovel the amount you want from their pile into bags and pay by the bag). You can also arrange for truck delivery of soil or buy prepacked bags at a garden center.
We recommend you plan your raised bed or container garden space before you buy seeds. The guide linked above includes a handy calculator so you can figure out how much soil/compost your plan will need and then you can work out the cost.
How much should we plant?
Experience leads us to suggest that you divide your seed-starting into two batches: what you want to start with your children (keep it simple) and anything else you want to add later.
One tray of seeds or even just a few yogurt pots or jelly jars is often enough for the kids to really enjoy working on. More than that and it can be frustrating trying to manage everything. Plan according to your child/adult ratio, number of kids and their ages.
For this project we planted one seed tray and one glass jar (so we can observe the root growth of beans). That was more than enough to keep 3 kids happy and involved for a decent amount of time and not too much for one parent or caregiver to manage with a bit of planning.
What should we grow?
Ideally it’s great to have a variety of vegetables, fruits, herbs and flowers in your garden but doing it all can be a lot of work and not everyone has the space and time. Think about what you can get locally, what children love to eat, and the time investment (asparagus takes a few years before you can harvest). If there’s a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) or farm stand near you think about what they produce – if they have lots of greens and limited tomatoes then that might help you decide.
When should we start our seeds?
Timing is very important as you don’t want to end up with straggly seedlings that have been waiting around for good weather, or be too far behind. The Farmer’s Almanac has a helpful seed starting calculator.
How can I make this activity fun and manageable with kids?
We broke the project into three chunks to make it easy to manage with three children and one adult in a cold climate. You should customize your seed-starting project to suit your situation – this is just a suggestion of what worked for us.
1. Visiting a local garden center to pick out seeds and buy supplies. (You can also have a lot of fun shopping at home with your kids out of a catalog or online.)
2. Using ride-on excavator toys to fill the seed trays with starter mix and wetting the mix with watering cans. This was good for some fresh air on a chilly day and for keeping the mess outside. These Tractor Ted fans loved it.You don’t have to have ride-on toys and an outdoor space though, hands and spoons indoors can be just as fun.
3. Planting and labeling the seeds indoors once the excess water had drained out. It’s cold out right now so easier on the children’s fingers to handle the seeds inside the house. In between each step there’s some prep/clean-up work for parents/caregivers. You don’t have to do this, the kids can do everything, and we usually encourage them to, but it when it’s cold and there’s lots of wet dirt involved it does help to be one step ahead. The children were happy to warm up watching Tractor Ted Harvests Vegetables while I swept up the loose starter mix and brought the seed tray indoors.
What if the seeds fail to germinate or I miss the planting out or starting dates?
Don’t worry!! Farm stands and garden centers sell already started seedlings that you can buy later in the season to replace anything that didn’t work or to add something you forgot.