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Zoomazium to You: Growing Green

Posted by Janel Kempf, Early Childhood

When the month of May rolls around in the Pacific Northwest, the earth feels completely alive. Flowers are in full bloom, Douglas-fir trees are decked out in new light green branch tips, and some of those invasive weeds like Himalayan blackberry are growing like... well, weeds. As they do.

We work hard on our gardens to get just what we want growing there, but there are lots of plants that grow just fine without our help. That doesn’t mean they don’t need any help from anyone, though. Plants all around the world rely on animals to help them thrive, whether by creating fertile soil, pollinating flowers, or even planting seeds.

Planting seeds? Absolutely!

Herbivores (plant-eaters) and omnivores (everything-eaters) eat a dizzying array of plants and plant parts. And some of those plant parts are there specifically to be eaten! Just as flowers are a plant’s way of attracting pollinators, fruits are a plant’s way of attracting seed dispersers—animals who eat the fruit, seeds and all, then later deposit those seeds somewhere else, conveniently wrapped in fertilizer.

Ring-tailed lemurs at Woodland Park Zoo get their fruit on!
Nearly every animal who eats plants can be a seed disperser, from grizzly bears to ring-tailed lemurs to gray-headed fruit bats. Some of the most visible seed dispersers around the world are birds, and you’ve probably noticed plenty of them at the zoo. Inside the zoo’s Tropical Rain Forest dome, crested oropendolas and silver-beaked tanagers get their energy from oranges and other delicious fruits their keepers distribute for them. Our free-roaming peacocks are fed a nutritious diet that mimics the nutrition content of their natural diet, which might include a wide range of fallen fruit and seed pods, as well as small animals like insects and even small snakes. And of course, you can hardly go anywhere in the Seattle area without noticing crows—mind-bogglingly smart birds who will eat almost anything, and are responsible for an enormous amount of seed distribution in our local biome. 

In the spirit of seed dispersers everywhere, Zoomazium’s Karen Ofsthus suggests young learners and their special grownups try sprouting some fruit plants and veggies right from the plants themselves!

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

What you need: Fruit or vegetable scraps as suggested below, plus reused containers (yogurt tubs, glass food jars, etc.), and sometimes small kitchen tools or supplies (toothpicks, vegetable knife) depending on fruit or veggie choices
Time: Around 10 minutes
Age Range: Ages 18 months to 8 years
School Connections: Following directions (school readiness); science skills such as observation and measurement

We usually think of plants as growing from seeds. But in some cases, you don’t need seeds to grow plants—you can grow them right from the plants themselves! Some fun options:

Lettuce: When you buy lettuce, choose a whole head rather than bagged or boxed leaves. Any variety can work, but loose-leaf varieties like romaine usually work best. Cut off all the leaves, leaving about two inches at the base. Have your early learner choose a jar or bowl and place the lettuce in, stem end down. Then, help them fill the container with enough water to come halfway up the lettuce end. Place it in a sunny window, and change the water every other day. It won’t take long—you'll start seeing tiny sprouts within a day or two! In 10 to 12 days, you’ll have small lettuce leaves to eat.

Potato vines:
Any potato will work—even sweet potatoes! You can use a fresh potato, but if you have one that’s gotten a little old and started to sprout on its own, that’s even better, especially for very young children. You’ll know ahead of time it will actually sprout, and your child won’t have to wait for something to start happening. (Some potatoes have sprout retardant chemicals sprayed on them for storage. If you want to start with a fresh, unsprouted potato, choose an organic one to avoid disappointment.) Have your child choose a jar, glass, or other clear container large enough to fit the potato easily into the opening. Let your older child (or help your younger child) push four toothpicks partway into the sides of the potato to hold it up high in the container. Place the potato in, resting the toothpicks on the rim of the container. Add enough water to cover a few of the “eyes” on the bottom of the potato (or the sprouts, if you’re using a pre-sprouted potato). Then, place the glass in a window, keep the water level up, and watch your potato vines take off!

Lots of the plant foods we eat do contain seeds—and a lot of those seeds will sprout easily! Others are harder to germinate and require special handling (like being outside in freezing temperatures all winter). Some of the easier ones to try:

Kiwi: Each kiwi contains hundreds of tiny black seeds. In a bowl of clean water, let your early learner squish up a kiwi to separate the seeds from the fruit. Scoop out some of the sort-of-clean seeds from the water, and spread them out on damp paper towels. Then, create a tiny greenhouse by either placing the seeded towels in a zip-top bag, or by turning a clear container upside down over them. Place the mini greenhouse on a warm windowsill. The seeds should start to sprout in about a week! If you want to, transplant a few into small pots (egg cartons work great at first!) or reused containers filled with soil. (If you let them continue to grow, the vines are lovely, though it will require many plants for pollination and several years to produce fruit.)

For this one, you’ll need a container and soil from the beginning. Help your youngster fill a pot with soil, not quite up to the top. Then cut a tomato into slices about a quarter inch thick (sharp knives should be handled by grownups, of course). Heirloom varieties usually sprout more easily, but you can give any tomato variety a try! Let your child place a tomato slice (or more, if it’s a large container) onto the soil, and cover with a little more soil. Water regularly to keep the soil damp, and in 7 to 14 days, you’ll have a lot of tiny tomato sprouts. If you want, transplant a few of the strongest ones into their own pots and keep them growing!

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash
  Extension for older children: Turn plant growing into a science experiment by trying different conditions and making observations! Maybe place one potato jar each in a north-, south-, east-, and west-facing window, and see which one does best. Or try a few varieties of lettuce—do some sprout and others don’t? Early learners can make drawings of their plants’ progress, or take measurements and keep track of them in a notebook. Real scientists might do all those things!

Extension for early literacy:
Read the book The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle with your child. If you don’t have a copy at home, search for an online video you can watch together. You can pause the video at the end of each page to talk more about what your child is noticing in each picture.

For the previous week's Zoomazium To You activities as well as animal-inspired activity kits and coloring pages, visit to invite the zoo to your home.