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It is fun and interesting to watch plants develop. We can
watch the roots develop by sprouting, called "germinating"
(pronounced "germ-in-ate-ing") seeds in a garden without
soil. For this experiment, we will need some white cloth
(like the cloth used for sheets), and some seeds. Alfalfa
seeds are good for this. They can be purchased at farm
supply stores. When we buy alfalfa seeds, it is VERY
IMPORTANT that the seeds have NOT been treated with any
chemicals to kill bugs. Ask an adult to read on the package,
or ask the clerk in the store if the seeds have been treated,
and tell the clerk that you want seeds that have NOT been

We'll cut the cloth into rectangles 8 inches long and 6
inches wide. Each person will need two pieces of cloth this
size. We'll get the cloth wet, but not dripping, and then
put the seeds down onto one piece. Alfalfa seeds are tiny,
and they can be put close together, about 1/4 inch apart.
Put the other piece of cloth on top, and roll up the cloth,
then fasten it into a roll with rubber bands. Put the cloth
rolls into a shallow dish of water. We can wait a few days
before unrolling them to see how they look.

After 8 or 10 days, you should be able to see the sprout,
which is a thin, pale green stem, the root, which looks like
a little thread, and two or three tiny green leaves.
Sometimes it takes a little longer, depending on how warm it
is. If the seeds haven't sprouted, roll them up again and
leave them for a few more days.

When the stem is about 1 inch long, it's time for a surprise.
Since you were careful to buy seeds that were not treated
with chemicals, you can eat the sprouts! It is really grand
to grow something that you can eat!

There are other ways to germinate seeds without soil.

1. You can put a paper towel down into a tray, put UNTREATED
alfalfa seeds onto the paper towel, put on another paper
towel, and flick water onto the towel until it is good and
wet. Don't put so much water that you can see water; just
have the towel wet. Put it in a shady place, and flick a
little water on it every time it is dry. Probably every day
in summertime. You can lift the top towel to look at the
seeds and see how they are doing. When they have sprouted,
you can eat them.

2. You can sprout bean seeds by soaking them overnight and
putting them onto cloth just like we did with the alfalfa
seeds. There are many different kinds of seeds that you can
sprout in the same way. Big seeds need to be soaked, but the
little ones usually do not. These other seeds that we will
be sprouting are not going to be for eating. (The bean
sprouts that we have in Chinese food are made from a special
kind of bean called "mung beans." Getting them to sprout is a
little more difficult than the others.)

When you look at your seed gardens, after they have sprouted,
look carefully at their roots. Sometimes the seed will grow
more than one root; they may be all the same size, or
different sizes. Some seeds will grow one large root and
several tiny ones that look like threads. Sometimes the
large root will have very tiny roots growing off of the large
root (they look like hair). This large root is called a
"primary root," and the thread-like roots are called
"branching roots." The primary root is usually almost white,
and will look waxy, or shiny. Remember, not all seeds grow
primary roots.

While the roots are developing, watch what happens to the
seed. When the embryo grows out of the seed, the seed coat
will tear. The seed has a small food supply for the embryo,
and when the food supply is gone, what do you think the seed
will do? Watch, and you'll find out!

When we germinate (or sprout) seeds without soil, they will
not grow into plants. Plants need food, called "nutrients"
(pronounced "noo-tree-ents"), that soil has and water does
not have. They also need the support of soil so they can
stand up. Plants also need light for proper growth. If you
grew a plant in the closet, you will remember that it did not
do well in the dark.

We can look at the roots of a plant we grew in soil, to see
how well they do when they get the right nutrients. A small
plant in a pot with moist potting soil can be taken carefully
out of the pot. Gently shake the soil off, and look at the
roots. They get pretty long, and all tangled up. You can
see them better if you put the roots into a bowl or jar of
water so that all the soil comes off.

If you leave a plant in a small pot for a long time, the
roots will grow in a circle around the bottom of the pot, and
sometimes will grow right out through the hole in the bottom.
That is how a plant tells you that it needs a bigger pot. If
the pot is too big, the plant will grow lots and lots of
roots but will not grow much of the stems and leaves that you
see when the plant is in the pot. It is important to know
what plants need so you can help them grow well.

3. Another way to look at roots is to plant some seeds in a
glass jar of potting soil. Put the seeds right up next to
the sides of the jar. Wet the soil, and wrap the jar in
black paper or cloth so that it is dark in there.
After a week or so, take off the paper or cloth, and look at
the roots. You can put them back in the dark again, and look
at them every week to see how they grow. The plants won't
grow very much this way, and the roots will get too crowded
by being next to the glass. In order to make nice plants,
they should be transplanted into regular pots.

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