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The holidays are a popular time to stop and thank teachers and all of the wonderful staff at school for all they do.
One plant that easily qualifies as kid-friendly is the carrot.
Ownership doesn't get any more tangible to a child than having their plants reside in containers of their own. As long as they are properly watered, carrots are actually easier to grow in containers than they are the ground. And pulling something sweet and crunchy from beneath the dirt after weeks of watching the tops grow leaps and bounds, that's 2-for-1 in the reward department.
When growing carrots in containers, starting with containers filled with new, good-quality potting soil provides several benefits. The soil will be loose allowing the carrots to grow easier. While the soil should be free of weed seeds, if a stray seed happens to ride the wind to the container, the loose soil makes weeding much easier for children. You will be starting with clean soil free of diseases or the larvae of pests. Your soil will be free of rocks and other debris that obstruct the path of a growing carrot causing it to grow crooked.
You can use any large (at least 12 inches deep) container of your choice in which to grow carrots. If it is not a container designed specifically for growing plants, a bucket or a washtub for instance, you will need to drill drainage holes in the bottom.
When we made our carrot planting plans this year, I took my son to purchase a new pot. Again, it reinforces ownership. He chose this bright, fun yellow pot that only cost us around $8.
After filling the pot with soil, before sowing the seeds, give the soil a good watering. Since carrot seeds are very small and light and sown only about 1/4 inch deep, it is very easy to float them away when you water them if they have been sown in dry soil. Assuring the soil is thoroughly wet will also help with germination.
Carrot seeds are so small it can be difficult and frustrating for children to try and sow them the recommended 1 inch apart. You can mix the seeds with sand or sugar and have them sprinkle the mixture over the soil with a spoon. For children who have a need to be very precise, the seeds can be planted individually by wetting the tip of a pencil, collecting a seed on the tip, and placing it in the desired location in the soil.
Have the child complete the planting by sprinkling a thin layer of additional potting soil over the seeds and gently watering them using a watering can with a fine-mist rose such as the Fiskars Easy-Pour Watering Can. Teaching them to get the water spraying through the rose before moving it over the container will help prevent dumping water and displacing the seeds and, later, the small seedlings. While on the topic of watering, throughout the growing cycle of carrots, the soil should be kept evenly moist down to the depth of the tip of the carrots, but not too wet. Too much water will cause the carrots to split. If the containers are filled with good soil, this should not be a problem.
When the carrots reach a height of about 1 inch, they need to be thinned. This is best done by snipping them off with scissors at the soil level leaving the remaining carrots about 1/2 inch apart.
About 10 days after the seedlings emerge, you can lightly fertilize the carrots if desired. Be sure to use a low-nitrogen fertilizer to prevent the carrots from growing excess foliage or "hairy" roots. I like to use Garden Tone organic fertilizer. It is made from ingredients like dehydrated manure, feather meal, and bone meal, so I feel comfortable having my kids handle it. Be sure to water the fertilizer in.
When the carrots tops are about 6 inches tall, the carrots should be thinned again to about 2 inches apart. Kids love to see evidence that something is really going on below the level of the soil. And they can eat the thinnings!
Carrots are typically mature and ready for harvest at around 70 days. Gauge the readiness for harvest by examining the width of the tops of the carrots. If they are not poking through the surface, brush away a little soil until the top is visible. Cut the tops off of harvested carrots as soon as possible to prevent the foliage from continuing to draw moisture from the root.
Helping a child get their carrots going early in the growing season will give them time to continue new plantings until about 3 months prior to the end of the season for your area. That can add up to a lot of reward for their diligence.