Space Saving Sprouting March 05 2010

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The sun shines on more of a consistent basis, the air is warming up, rain falls so that plants can grow - it's Spring! Time to grow plants. School and Community Gardens are all the rage, but what if, like me, you have a "black" thumb instead of a "green" one? Or what if you don’t have the space or resources to plant a large garden?

Here are a few ideas, sorted from the most to least labor-intensive. All, however, would be fun!

Mounted Gutters

If you don't have a lot of ground space, go to a hardware store and buy some gutters. Have them cut to a length that works for you, then mount them upside down on the side of a building. Drill small holes along what is now the bottom so that water can drain.

The schools in my area are either cement or brick, so there’s no siding on which to hang gutters. But what about plywood? Take a couple of 4"x 8" sheets and create a simple pyramid for stability, primer and paint for a more attractive look, then attach the gutters and display them outside of the school.

This set up would be good for lettuce or spinach - they're easy to grow and tough to kill (trust me), they don't need a lot of sunlight, and you can eat them right out of the garden.

Potted Plants

The thing about growing potted plants successfully is that the pot has to be pretty big. I'm too cheap to buy large, fancy pots for my classroom, but I've found that 5-gallon buckets are pretty cheap and easy to get. Small drainage holes drilled into the bottom is probably also a good idea, along with layering potting soil with fertilizer.

I like to grow tomatoes or beans in my five gallon buckets. The beans are pretty hard to kill, but the tomatoes take more work (not much). When you plant the seeds or seedlings in the bucket, make sure you have a couple of pencils or stakes and string for the plants as they grow taller for added support. Then line them up along a walkway and make sure they get enough sun - everyone passing by will enjoy them! If space is limited, see my instructions below for growing tomatoes upside down.

Send Seedlings Home

This is a fun project with kids, done in two stages. The first stage involves bean seeds, paper towels and clear plastic cups. Each student gets a cup, with wet, wadded up paper towels and a seed. The seed goes in the middle of the wet paper towel, and students can watch as their seeds grow into little bean plants.

The second stage is to replace the paper towels with potting soil, carefully placing the seedling in the dirt during planting. If this doesn't work out too well, students can plant new seeds in the soil since they've already seen the seeds develop previously. Once the seedlings are strongly established, send the plastic cups with the seedlings home for them to plant in their own gardens!

Sprout and Grow Window

The Sprout and Grow Window

What if these ideas are too much for you, but you still want to bring gardening into your classroom? Teaching Resource Center has the Sprout and Grow Window, which provides an underground look at plant growth without a lot of mess. The seeds and soil come with the transparent window, which stands upright on a tabletop. Use the materials provided to help each student keep a science journal, charting the growth of the plant from seed to seedling.

Upside-Down Tomatoes

Growing tomatoes upside down is a great space saver and a fun project for kids: all you need is  a five gallon bucket with a hole in the bottom and some cord to hang it.

After hanging for 75 days, your hanging tomato plant should be full and flowering and soon be ready to produce delicious, fresh tomato fruit.

Instructions for Hanging Upside Down Tomato Plants:

  1. Purchase an empty five gallon bucket at any home and garden center. A green bucket will be less ugly than the orange or white ones and students can paint the bucket whatever color they like. Be sure the inside of the bucket is clean, using warm water and mild dishwashing soap and then rinsing it well.
  2. Next, cut a hole about two to three inches in diameter in the center of the bottom with a utility knife.
  3. Lay several layers of newspaper in the bottom of the bucket and cut a small slit in the newspaper through the hole in the bucket; this will help hold the seedling in place when you initially hang the bucket.
  4. Drill four small holes evenly around the top edge of the bucket to attach your cord. Measure the distance from the hook or other point you will hang the bucket from. Cut four lengths of cord and tie one end of each piece to each of the four holes.
  5. Turn the bucket on its side and carefully remove your tomato seedling from the container it came in and thread it through the slit in the newspaper so that the stem protrudes through the hole in the bucket and the roots are inside the bucket.
  6. Fill the bucket with the potting soil. Be sure it contains the right vitamin additives suggested for tomatoes. Be gentle to your seedling and try to allow it to protrude about three inches out of the hole in the bottom of your bucket.
  7. Cut several holes in the lid and place the lid on the bucket, taking care you do not harm your seedling in the process!
  8. Now you are ready to hang your bucket in a sunny place with plenty of room below for your tomato plant to grow down. Tomatoes need a lot of sun so do not hang it in a predominately shady spot; it should get direct sunlight at least fifty percent of the day.
  9. Keep your upside down tomato plant well watered and in about 50 to 75 days you should begin to see flowers and not long after you will have tomatoes. Let your tomatoes ripen on the vine and pick them as they become red and firm and ready to eat!

Hanging Tomato Plant Tips:

  • Plant tomatoes such as cherry or Roma varieties that have smaller fruit, which do best with the upside down hanging tomato growing method.
  • Be sure to pick a solid place and use a good strong hook or other means from which to hang your tomato plants; each planter will weigh between 35 and 40 pounds.
  • Plant your hanging tomato plants in spring (between late April and early June depending on how far north you are located) so that you can enjoy fresh tomatoes all through the growing season.