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Growing Plants Without Soil

Although the last few winter months hang on, the hours of daylight continue to lengthen and many of us, including the little ones in our lives, are itching to see green. Green grass. Green leaves. Any new green growth. But even with a desire to have living, green plants around us and in our homes, some kids just aren’t excited about gardening. One reason may be that they don’t like the feel of soil or getting dirty. If this sounds like a kiddo in your life, read on to learn how to grow lovely green things while staying warm, and relatively clean, inside.

Kasha Zeman, Dakota County Master Gardener

Growing Plants Without Soil

When it comes to growing plants indoors, there are many options, including soilless methods. These soilless methods are especially good for kids who are interested in plants, and like the idea of gardening, but just don’t like to get their hands dirty. If this sounds like a child you know, some options that may work for them include growing from seed, propagation, or re-growing plants from scraps of vegetables and fruits in your home.  

Starting from Seed

 Starting plants from seed can be done in different ways. It can be done using plastic bags and paper towels, in eggshells with wool cloth, or in used yogurt containers and coffee filters. No matter which option you and your budding gardener(s) choose, know that these plants will eventually need to be transferred into soil in larger containers if you want the magic to continue. 

 An easy seed starting activity, and one with quick germination (sprouting from a seed) and very few materials, is starting seeds or legumes in a plastic bag. All that is required are a plastic resealable bag, a paper towel, a few staples, 3-4 lentils (1-7 days for germination) or lima beans (7-18 days for germination), and some water.  

First, soak the legumes for a few hours until the coating starts to change texture. While they are soaking, fold a paper towel to fit the entire width of the plastic bag. Next, dampen the paper towel, but drain any excess water from the bag as too much water may make the legumes rot. Next, put a few staples through both sides of the bag and the paper towel. These staples will create a nice ledge for the legumes to rest on and give everyone a better view of the roots as they grow. When the soaking is complete, place the legumes inside the bag and on top of the staples. Finally, seal the bag and tape it to a window in a sunny location. If the window is cold, find a warm sunny place to leave the bag. Depending on the type of legume you chose, bean or lentil, you could see growth as early as a day, but more realistically, it could be closer to a week, depending on the growing conditions. 


If, instead of starting from seed, you decide you would like to try propagation, the easiest option for going soilless is using plant cuttings. Plant cuttings can be placed right into water without the need for rooting hormones. Some types of plants that are easily propagated in water are pothos, philodendron, monstera, and jade. If you don’t have any houseplants of your own, try asking a neighbor or a friend. Chances are, someone close to you has a plant they are willing to let you take a cutting from.  

When you take a cutting from a plant, you want to pay special attention to the nodes. These are the parts of a plant that look like a juncture, the spot on a stem off of which a leaf grows. When propagating, it is important to have a couple of nodes and a couple of the topmost leaves. Too many leaves and the nutrients will go toward keeping the leaves healthy instead of growing roots. Too few leaves and there won’t be enough left for photosynthesis to take place.  

 If you are using a cutting from a jade plant, follow the previous instructions. However, leave more of the leaves on the stem - 6-10, depending on the size of the cutting. Also, let the cutting sit out for a few days to let the stem callous. This makes it less likely for any rot to set in. 

When you are done prepping your cutting, find a clear drinking glass or jam jar. Clear glasses and jars allow you to watch your new plant’s roots grow! When you place your plant in water, make sure none of the leaves are touching the water or submerged. This will cause your leaves to rot, thus damaging your plant.  


The last method of soilless gardening discussed in this article is the re-growing of fruits and vegetables from either leftover scraps or produce that may be past their prime. Not all fruits and vegetables can be re-grown, but romaine lettuce, celery, and even avocados are prime examples of produce that have the ability to re-grow. 

If you are re-growing romaine lettuce or celery, simply cut off the stalks 1-2 inches from the base. Put the cut side up in a clear glass or bowl and fill the vessel with water, making sure to keep the base submerged. Change the water out every few days. Please note that browning to the cut side of these plants is normal. In addition, the warmer and sunnier the spot you choose for your plant the better it will do. Within a week, you and your little ones should see new celery and/or lettuce growing from the cut side.   

If re-growing an avocado seed, wash and dry the seed. Place 3-4 toothpicks or wooden skewers into the sides of the seed. Rest the toothpicks on the rim of a jar or clear glass, making sure the pointed part of the seed faces up and the flatter end rests partially in the vessel. Fill the vessel with warm water, making sure water is always touching the bottom of the seed. Change the water every few days. Just like with lettuce and celery, the warmer and sunnier the location, the happier your plant will be.  

Here’s hoping the little ones in your lives enjoy some soilless gardening indoors. Please remember, at some point all of these plants should be transferred to soil. For more information on that, check out the University of Minnesota Extension resources regarding propagation. 



Gardening Lab for Kids by: Renata Fossen Brown 

Get Growing by: Holly Farrell 

Photo Credit: (all creative commons)(1), (2), (3), (4)

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