Little Sprouts

Winter growing, reading, and making with kids

by cathym on November 1, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

It’s a chilly early winter day, there’s frost in the garden, the furnace humming expensively, and your little ones are waiting with anticipation for the next holiday, or snow day, or weekend. You may not be able to convince your kids to venture outside, but don’t worry, there’s still green-thumb fun to be had!

One of the bigger trends right now has the rather gross name of “Kitchen Scrap Gardening,” which just might sound icky enough to be interesting. You can also call it “Plant Rescue” for the kinder of heart, or “Garbage Gardening,” “Bio-active Recycling,” or something similar. Whatever you call it, it’s a quick process with satisfying results.

Tops and bottoms: Save your celery or onion bottoms, or your carrot or beet tops, and stick them in either a little container of water or some moist potting soil. Give them a few days and, like the Thanksgiving turkey leftovers creatively hidden in every dish, they’re backkk! You can make this a quick experiment and toss them, or plant them in pots and keep them in a sunny window. Feeling especially green? Try doing this with lettuce roots or turnip tops. Once we kept “perpetual lettuce” growing for an entire winter. It didn’t make enough for a salad, but it was fun to pick fresh leaves to stick in a sandwich.

Tubers: Sweet potatoes make lovely vines, as you probably have discovered in your plant-buying travels. Simply wait for a sweet potato to sprout from an eye and stick it halfway in water. It’ll put out roots and leaves shortly. They like sunshine and will climb upward to frame a window.

Growing an avocado tree from a seed
Photo courtesy Flicker: Maria Keay.

Avocado Tree: Want lots of leaves? Enjoy your avocado, then scrub the seed clean. Stab it with four toothpicks and suspend at the top of a jar with the wide part of the seed touching the water. Change out the water every two days until the jar fills with roots. Plant it in a big pot and put it somewhere sunny, then stand back. These are abundant and fast-growing plants! The Internet is full of different advice about growing these, so you can assign your science-minded kid a project to determine the truth.

With the holidays approaching, I’ve compiled some new projects that will get your kids busy, and still inspire them to love their “planty” pals.

Photo courtesy Flicker: Marco Verch

Cranberries: They are not only delicious, and grow in intriguingly different methods than most plants, they are also quite cheerfully beautiful and their large size makes them easy for kids (and grownups!) to handle. Kids will enjoy making cranberry ornaments, garlands, and even easy candle displays, and the fresh cranberries remain bright red even when dried. For an easy ornament, simply string cranberries and beads (silver or gold look lovely) on floral wire and twist into a circle. Tie a ribbon on top and you have a pretty, lightly scented ornament for your room, or as a nice gift for grandma! Check out Ocean Spray’s website for more great cranberry crafts.

“The Secret Garden” courtesy Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Reading: Oh yes, books are a gardener’s friend! Try The Secret Garden, Seed People, or, for the little ones, Peter Rabbit, for cozy reading when the snow’s flying.

Flowerpot People: All you need is a clay flowerpot to make a cute, funny pal. Have your child paint a face on the pot with acrylic paint, then fill with potting soil and sprinkle some chia or grass seeds on top. You can use wheat grass seeds to make this a cat treat, too. Water and keep somewhere sunny, then enjoy trimming the pot pal’s “hair” when it begins to grow long!

That’s all for this year! Happy holidays, from my garden to yours!

Valerie Shaw is a YMCA coach, PTO mom, and aspiring novelist with too many distracting goats. She lives on a patch of plant paradise in West Monroe, NY, with her wonderful husband and two energetic tweens.


Fun Spring Things

by cathym on May 17, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

It’s spring! For moms everywhere, this is a triumphant announcement for many reasons—no more itchy, smothered kids complaining about winter coats, the games of tag and pinch your brother can move outside, and the gardening season is in full swing! But how do you convince your tween to switch from building square Minecraft gardens on the Wii U to going outside into the great—and sometimes uncomfortable—outdoors? The answer is, make gardening fun! Here are a slew of ideas to help your kiddos open their minds and hearts to your green space. 

• Get them involved. Like cooking, grocery shopping, and even learning to drive, learning alongside Mom or Dad and taking over smaller chores will lead to mastery over big ones later. Have your little ones count and set seeds, select plants, and water. Simply being asked, “What do you think?” is a big thing. 

Garden gnome. Photo courtesy Flickr: Ann Oro

• Garden decor. Kids love, adore, and cherish garden statues. Right now, all of mine are hiding in two stick tepees, as the kids were protecting them from yard trolls. They move around the yard, sometimes in the spots I put them, sometimes wherever the kids’ imaginations transport them. And yes, garden gnomes are a huge hit. I found a slew of them at the dollar store one year and those little dudes travel all over our yard all summer. Other terrific decor items can include solar lights (they are coming out with cooler ones every year, including solar fairy light chains!), decorative rocks, and whimsical planters. Just remember that children are hard on things. Resin and stone hold up, while glass and thin ceramic do not and are not good for younger children’s spaces. 

• Water features. I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating. Kids are attracted to water like ducks to a pond. Even if it’s just a bird bath or butterfly drinking pool, bring in water and they will want to help you care for it. Our favorite over here is our froggy pond—truly, it’s a giant, perpetual puddle, but I dug it out so that it’s deep enough to weather the sun of July, and we put boards over it for bridges and an old log for frogs and salamanders to hide under. If you don’t already have a wet spot in your yard, you could sink a kiddie pool down to soil level and disguise the edges with rocks or mulch. Another simple option is the storage tote pond. Just remember, with any water feature, mosquitoes are an issue. Remember to change the water often, or you can add goldfish to eat them, or purchase biological preventative pellets to kill the larvae. 

• Cool plants. There are so many terrifically interesting plant choices out there—let your kids choose one or two to be their plants. Simply having ownership of their plant will encourage them to get on out and explore. Last year we found purple clover. Chocolate peppermint, lemon grass, bunny tail grass, pineapple strawberries, and lemonade blueberries—these crazy things are all actual plants we have enjoyed in the garden! 

• A welcoming zone. Bugs, sun, and dirt. Nature is sometimes our biggest foe, despite all the fun we can have out there. Making sure you have the basic gear to enjoy the outdoors is key to your kids getting engaged. A good pair of rubber boots will protect little toes and a selection of big floppy hats will keep off the sun and light rain showers. Make a station by your door and have a go-to box filled with hats, trowels, jersey gloves, sunscreen and bug spray. You’ll all use it, and it’ll make life better. 

• Just try. The last thing I’ll leave you with is this—great gardeners don’t have magical green thumbs. They have a willingness to observe, a spirit to learn and try, and the courage to murder plants until they figure them out. So, be brave, and bold, and get out there- with your kiddos! 

Valerie Shaw is a longtime plant murderer, YMCA youth coach, goat-wrangler, and fruit tree crusader. She encourages you to practice radical exuberance in your own backyards this summer, and give those hard-pressed honeybees and butterflies some great pollen. You can email her at


Think Spring!

by cathym on April 1, 2019

by Valerie Shaw

The wind is howling, my daughter is home sick, and the snow can’t seem to decide whether it will melt, harden into ice, or smother us in another five inches. It’s starting to feel like winter will never end! Yet, beneath that icy layer, things are getting ready to change. Believe it or not, it’s time to start thinking Spring! 

Mini Greenhouses
How about some fresh veggies, right now? In our sunny living room, we’re trying something new this year. My son calls it, “Let Us Have Lettuce!” It’s easy, inexpensive, and fun. First, get a clear tote, with a lid, and a bag of potting soil (not starter, that’s different). Place the lid of the tote where you want the greenhouse; it’ll get heavy, so make sure it’s a sturdy table. Lay the bag of soil flat on this, and then cut a wide rectangle in the bag’s top, making a little garden bed. Fluff slightly with a fork or other tool, then generously sprinkle lettuce, kale, spinach, or other salad green seeds. Water gently, pat down the seeds a little. Now take the clear tote, and put it upside down over the lid. Our lettuce sprouted the very next day! If it’s too gloomy, you can use a halogen or other growing light to help your little sprouts. Just the same as any other method, if it gets very sunny and warm, make sure to lift the tote for airflow so you don’t cook your seedlings. You can use this this idea outside once it warms a little, too! This method also has the added perk of protecting your seedlings from too-curious little fingers, or interested family cats. You might also try growing radishes, herbs, or mini carrots this way.

Planning Ahead
One of the biggest pieces of advice I give both kids and parents doesn’t even need a trowel. Read! Read those catalogs, and read those seed packets before you rip ‘em open. Kids get hooked on gardening when they are successful at it, and reading ahead is one of the best ways to make sure that happens. For example, if you’re buying a blueberry bush, make sure it’s intended for your area. There are northern and southern varieties, and choosing the wrong one will waste a summer’s worth of work, and your moola, too. 

Garden Planning
Get out your pencils! Now is a great time to plan ahead and make some garden plans. It’s prime seed catalog time, and soon the nurseries will be filling with green choices. Think about the veggies your family likes to eat, and try a few new varieties. Or take the Veggie Challenge: As a family, pick a vegetable you don’t like, but know you should. Grow a few plants of it, and see how many different ways you can eat it. Maybe one will be a winner! Sometimes, we just have to try something a few times to change our minds. 

If you don’t have one yet, now is a great time to start a garden journal. No fancy book needed, a notebook will do! Colored pencils and stickers can help kids add their own touches to your records. Make sure to write down any funny or interesting memories, too.

Mom‘s Strawberry Jam. Photo courtesy Flickr: Meal Makeover Moms

Berry Good  
I highly recommend strawberry plants for children; they’re just so joyful and easy. Have the child paint a big flowerpot whatever colors they choose, put in some potting soil, and three to five strawberry plants. Or make a little garden bed out in the yard. And here’s a fun painting project that is very useful: painting a handful of strawberry-sized rocks can trick your local birds into leaving your juicy berries alone! Simply paint the rocks a jolly berry red (acrylic paint works great), and place in your strawberry patch a few weeks before your berries come in. The birds will attempt to “eat” them, decide that these are the worst berries ever, and then leave your patch unscathed when the real fruit ripens. Remember, “June bearing” strawberries will make a ton of berries all at once, great for making jam. “Ever-bearing” will keep pumping out berries for a longer season, but less at once.    

Pumpkin Club
This last idea is actually a year-long project, ideal for school, church, or other groups. It would be good fun in a close neighborhood, or group of friends! The group all buys a packet of pumpkin seeds, and plants them at the same time. Once a month, someone hosts a “pumpkin party”, and kids can share their growing tips and show off how their vines are doing. There’s a ton of fascinating methods on the Internet for growing big pumpkins (did you know some people feed them milk?). In October, there’s a final Harvest party, where everyone brings their ‘kins. Prizes can be given out for the biggest, the cutest, the most orange, spookiest, and so on. It’s a great way to bring families together for some gardening fun! 

Valerie Shaw lives in West Monroe, NY, with her lettuce-loving family, some silly goats, and too many wild deer that prematurely prune her fruit trees. She’s a youth coach at the Y, an avid gardener, and a painter that also loves to write long novels. She can be reached at for any kid-related gardening questions!