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My wife is a kindergarten teacher and this year, as an end of year gift for the children, she wanted to give them each a small tomato plant to bring home on the last day of school.

She asked me to grow these as I already grow seedlings for our vegetable garden and annual flowers for our beds.

I haven't discounted the idea but I'm wondering if there might be some better options (my wife is open to this).

My reservations are:

  • We are in zone 4/5 with a last frost date of May 10. I usually plant my tomatoes around this date to maximize the growing season but the last day of school is around the 23rd of June which seems late to plant tomato seedlings in the garden (particularly in Canada with a short growing season).
  • Tomatoes seedlings seem like fragile plants. They will need to take a car ride, spend all day in a classroom and then some of these will be taking a ride on a school bus and may end up with a few bruises along the way.
  • I always plant my tomato seedlings in small pots rather than plugs (because I haven't had success with plugs for tomatoes) and growing 19 tomatoes plus backups in case some die will take a lot of space in my small growing setup.

I want to know if the tomatoes are a good idea and if not I'm looking for suggestions. The plants would need to be tough to survive being badly handled during transport, easy to grow for non-gardeners, easy to start from seeds in plugs and ideally could be grown in a pot and be a fun plant for kids.

We're open to colorful annual flowers or culinary herbs. Two plants that came to mind are Mint and Marigolds (though I have no experience with the latter).

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    You should grow a few at home as well - "The African marigold, for example, releases thiopene—a nematode repellent—making it a good companion for a number of garden crops." asu.edu/fm/documents/arboretum/… (Tomatoes being one crop generally thought to benefit) – Ecnerwal Jan 29 '18 at 2:12
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    How about strawberries? – Graham Chiu Jan 29 '18 at 8:38
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I recall doing something like this each spring (for several years) growing up, and the plant of choice was Marigolds (planted in a paper cup, as far as I recall) which were grown in class and then taken home at the end.

Tough enough, and if grown in the classroom they can also be an educational experience while not taking up any of your growing space at home. They travel and transplant well, or can be a potted plant.

Mint is tough, but it's also essentially a perennial weed if not carefully contained, and the flowers are small and boring for most children.

  • I agree with marigolds and just want to add two quick things. The seeds are a good choice for small hands. They're bigger than some other flower seeds, easy to handle, and easy to find if dropped. Also, they germinate quickly, so the reward comes soon after the work! Under good light and temperature conditions, they'll start to peek out of the soil within a week or two. That makes them a good project for a first-time growers of any age, kids included! – Sue Mar 1 '18 at 22:50
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Carex testacea Orange Sedge

My two suggestions; Scarlet Runner Beans and the second is Carex testacea or Orange Sedge. Easy to grow, very pretty no matter its age, wonderful to tuck into any plant bed or pot, nice just left in the pot and moved around to dress up a corner or a group of pots.

My second suggestion would be Scarlet Runner Beans. Tough, hardy, vigorous, fast...very pretty...this one might survive if planted out of doors right away.

The fun part is this plant makes a safe (edible) pretty TEE PEE for kids. I would make 3 plants per kid. Give parents a head's up to procure at least 3, 6 to 8 foot long branches or 2X2's. Make the structure of a Tee Pee. Bury the ends of the poles in the ground a foot. Tie the tops together. Parents help plant three starts of these scarlet runner beans. Drag kids out every single time it needs to be watered. Lots at first, less as the vines mature. No overwatering. I'd make raised 'boobs' to plant the starts in. Firm the 'boobs' first, then plant one of the starts. A chunk of row cloth to protect from errant frost. One tablespoon of Osmocote 14-14-14 (send kids home with a ziplock with a tablespoon of Osmocote to add when planting)... sprinkled over the soil around the 3 starts would help ensure success.

Same for the grass. A tsp. per 2 to 4 inch potted baby grass when they are ready to go home with student.

Anything started indoors, in a greenhouse, will need acclimation from indoors to be planted out of doors. From a greenhouse to the indoors or the out of doors. No plant can safely go from greenhouse to indoors or from greenhouse to out of doors instantly without major problems.

scarlet bean runner teepee

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    This is very nice and I might do this myself this year, hence +1. But it does require the parents to have a garden with available space. Tomatoes can be grown on a windwsill if not everyone is lucky enough to have a garden in which they can grow what they like. – Chris H Jan 29 '18 at 9:01
  • This could be done on a sunny patio or sunny balcony. 10 gallon pots X3 with potting soil and poles. Parents/kids could get together to actually try to do a community project. Erect a tribe of teepees where kids can play and imagine. Tomatoes might work on a window sill if there were enough daylight hours. During the winter daylight is too short. You'd have to get your tomato starts going beneath artificial lights and then to transfer them to...heck, how about an ornamental grass? Orange sedge, Testacea greengardeningcookingcuring.com/O/Orange-New-Zealand-Sedge.jpg – stormy Jan 29 '18 at 9:45
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    Oh, nice reminder. Not the best solution for the OP, but I can confirm that such a teepee is indeed a fun thing to do and play in. Ours loved the „house“ and I remember one afternoon when at least six kids camped (or rather “crammed”) in a teepee like the one in the picture. – Stephie Jan 29 '18 at 10:59
  • I don't think people know how fast and thick this vine is able to grow within a month or two. My kid and his friends demolished the two teepees I had erected but they still played in them through the fall. Kids usually give those kinds of gifts to mom and dad. Then thrown in the trash. If parents were forewarned about this project with pictures of what could be a healthy, educational entertainment the parents could take the ball and do something cool with this plant thing. Good for both parents and kids and community...? – stormy Feb 2 '18 at 1:45
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Have you considered something as simple as Garden Cress (Lepidium sativum)?

Garden Cress

You can simply hand out a pack of seeds and a piece of cotton wool. The kids can then "plant" it themselves (really just sprinkle the seeds on damp cotton wool) and watch it grow.

Given how fast it grows - couple of inches a week - and that it is edible, its a pretty good learning exercise to see how the plants develop.

Growing cress is quite a common thing in UK schools/nursery. I realise you're US based, but the plant itself is common in the US as well.

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    Mustard seeds can produce the same sort of effect on a wet sponge, and you can buy them in any grocery store. I remember growing at least 3 or 4 sponges worth during grade school. As a bonus, the taste of them is super strong and they even smell up close! – Alex Jan 29 '18 at 14:54
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I agree that the 23rd of June is going to be kind of late for most tomatoes. There are some varieties that might perform better than average when planted later, but I don't recommend planting tomatoes late unless you're experimenting, doing succession planting for a variety that works with, or otherwise know what you're doing. Plants can grow a lot differently when planted later on when it's hotter and drier (if your climate is like mine there). I think I've heard of people having great success doing succession planting with corn, anyhow. I've had a good experience transplanting corn before.

You might try early beans (I prefer pole beans for increased plant size and vigor, but bush beans might work) and at least some kinds of sunflowers. Sunflowers and beans can be fun for children. I know sunflowers are used in classes for children sometimes, as they sprout fast, look cool, and are easy to grow. I had at least one good experience with a sunflower I received from a class as a child. One of my relatives, as a child, recieved a pole bean in a class and had a very good experience with it (in a container).

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Sensitive plants! - Mimosa pudica https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mimosa_pudica Cheap, easy to grow, react when you touch them, pretty fuzzball flowers, will survive in a fairly small pot.

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