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- General Fast Plants Questions
- Growing & Tending Fast Plants Questions
- Pollination Questions
- Planting & Logistics Questions
- Teaching Questions
General Fast Plants Questions
Fast Plants are a model organism that was developed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison through artificial selection (not genetically engineered). Fast Plants were bred to have a uniform, short flowering time (14 days), grow well in a small indoor space, require only a small substrate volume, and thrive under continuous (24 hours per day) exposure to light from a cool white fluorescent or full spectrum LED source. Fast Plants are a rapid-cycling Brassica most closely related to turnips, Chinese cabbage, broccoli, canola, and other economically important Brassica relative crops. Learn more here.
Fast Plants were originally developed in the 1980s through traditional plant breeding techniques by Professor Paul Williams at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Originally, Fast Plants were developed as a model organism (a research tool) for improving disease resistance in vegetables from the same family as Fast Plants, including cabbage, mustard, radish, broccoli, and more. Later, Fast Plants were introduced as a model organism for use in education, too. Fast Plants are continuously refined and improved through selective breeding, leading to new and improved Fast Plants varieties. Learn more here.
The entire life cycle for Fast Plants is extremely short! Under ideal growing conditions of continuous (24 hours per day) intense lighting, water, nutrition, and temperatures ~70ºF, plants will produce harvestable seeds approximately 40 days after planting. Watch a timelapse video of the Fast Plants life cycle here.
In addition to Standard Fast Plants seed, there are a number of specialized Fast Plants varieties with distinct and easy-to-observe traits. These other varieties were bred for investigating genetics, physiology, and selection (non-GMO). View the primary Fast Plants varieties here.
Fast Plants are an effective model organism for teachers and learners in classrooms from kindergarten through college and beyond. Learners of all ages can explore a variety of questions with Fast Plants, which can be used to generate firsthand evidence for understanding questions about:
- growth and development in plants
- life cycle and reproduction in flowering plants
- plant physiology
- variation, heredity, and evolution
- energy and nutrient cycling
- ecology, environment, and interactions between abiotic and biotic factors
Learn more about Fast Plants Lessons here.
Fast Plants are a model organism that was bred to thrive in indoor growing conditions for research purposes, and are poorly able to survive outdoors; so, they are extremely low risk for becoming invasive. While a few seeds left in the potting mix may germinate if composted outdoors, they won’t survive well. Further, because the dormancy is bred out of Fast Plants (to make their life cycle faster) all seeds produced will imbibe water at the first chance and try to germinate, then die if they don’t have consistent moisture. Essentially, Fast Plants are “lab rats” that don’t thrive outside of lab conditions.
Growing & Tending Fast Plants Questions
Fast Plants are fun and easy to grow indoors! Growing healthy Fast Plants simply requires a good light source (24 hours of light per day), temperatures that stay in a typical indoor temperature range, and a soil-free planting mix. We explain in detail in the "Grow" section of our website how to set up the right type of lighting, choose a growing system, and even provide a shopping list for buying the recommended potting mix and fertilizer. Also, be sure to follow our recommendations for tending and pollinating your Fast Plants as they grow and develop.
Seeds are alive and must be treated with care. In general, we recommend planting seeds the same year you receive them, as germination rates can decrease over time. However, seeds that are stored cold (in a refrigerator or freezer) and completely dry (e.g. ziplock bag with desiccant gel) can remain viable and vigorous for 10+ years.
I've been using Fast Plants for years with great success, but this year we are having very poor germination rates. Did we get a bad batch of seeds?
It is unlikely that you received a "bad batch" of seeds; typically, poor germination results from either environmental conditions during seed storage or conditions shortly after planting. During storage, if temperatures are consistently above 80ºF and/or ever become moist, Fast Plants seeds can lose viability (die). Alternatively, Fast Plants seeds that receive water during planting, and then dry out before germination is complete typically die. It is also possible for seeds that are planted too close to fertilizer pellets to be burned when young roots come in direct contact with the fertilizer. For further discussion about seed quality, please contact the supplier from whom the seeds were purchased (e.g. Carolina Biological Supply, 800.334.5551).
Fast Plants need intense light as soon as they emerge from the soil, and this light must be continuous: 24 hours every day. Growing Fast Plants in a window-sill is insufficient lighting and will result in significanly slowed growth and weak development (e.g. spindly stems, small leaves, little or no flowering).
The light source ought to be prepared before planting, and newly planted systems are best placed under lights right after planting to ensure that emerging seedlings have energy from light available immediately. When Fast Plants seedlings emerge without sufficient light (or worse, in the dark) they develop weak, spindly stems that remain weak throughout the plant's life (even if adequate light is provided later). In contrast, young seedlings develop strong, sturdy stems when they are grown under high quality lights positioned very close to the seedlings' tops during the first two weeks after germination (position lights about 3-10cm (1-3 inches) from seedling tops). Learn more about growing healthy Fast Plants here.
Never allow germinating seeds or growing Fast Plants to dry out. Adequate moisture must be available at all times to ensure proper germination. Seedlings and flowering Fast Plants also require moist (but not overly saturated) growing medium. We recommend using a wicking-type growing system to deliver just the right amount of water, continuously (see recommended options here and choose the right growing system for your investigation). It is important to check growing systems daily and to top off water reservoirs as needed, especially before weekends.
Fertilizer is needed to grow healthy Fast Plants. Adding slow-release fertilizer pellets during planting is the easiest way to manage nutrients for Fast Plants. Be sure the fertilizer pellets are added in the bottom 1/3-1/2 of planting mix, so there is plenty of space between fertilizer pellets and the seeds (young roots can be burned by reaching the fertilizer pellets too soon). Check out our how-to videos to see fertilizer pellets being added to Deli Container Watering Systems and to quads in a Wisconsin Fast Plants Watering System.
Testing the effects of different fertilizers or different fertilizer concentrations on your Fast Plants is a great ecology or independent study experiment!
Fast Plants naturally vary in size and shape, similar to how humans and other populations can vary in size and shape. Variation in heights can be caused by genetics and/or environmental factors. Learn more about how environmental factors can influence Fast Plants growth and development here.
Green coloration on the surface of your Fast Plants' planting mix is probably algae. Algae is present in the air, in most planting mixes, and trace amounts are in water sources. Unfortunately, the moist, well-lit growing conditions that Fast Plants need are also good for algal growth. Illuminated water reservoirs that contain nutrients from the fertilizers given to Fast Plants also provide a good environment for algal growth. Fortunately, algae typically does not affect plant growth or development, and as plants grow larger, they usually shade surface algae sufficiently to limit its growth. However, if surface algae forms a thick carpet, it should be inhibited by breaking up the surface with a toothpick or sharpened pencil. Similarly, disturbing reservoir algae by rinsing out reservoirs and refilling with fresh water will help keep algal growth in check.
Algae growth can be inhibited by adding Copper Sulfate to the water. This can easily be applied with anti-algal squares available from Carolina Biological Supply Company. For users of planting cubes/quads systems, we recommend one anti-algal square per water reservoir. Use caution if you prepare your own Copper Sulfate solution, if applied in excess it could be harmful to plants.
If your classroom temperatures are cooler than the optimal range, your Fast Plants will be fine, though they will grow more slowly. If your classroom temperatures are warmer than optimal, your plants will grow more rapidly and may become weak/spindly. Under extremely hot growing conditions, or when flowers grow into and touch hot light bulbs, Fast Plants can become sterile and may fail to produce seed.
Our classroom had several plants set aside that students did not pollinate, yet they appear to have been fertilized and are developing seeds. Is it possible for Fast Plants to be pollinated by wind or another factor?
Fast Plants are typically self-incompatible (i.e. they do not self-pollinate). In addition, Fast Plants pollen is heavy & sticky, so it is not easily carried by wind. However, indoor breezes and movement such as that caused by carrying plants around can cause Fast Plants to bump into each other, and this can sometimes cause some pollination to occur. Some pollination can also occur if flies or gnats (even if only a few) are present in your growing area.
How long are flowers able to be pollinated? Some of my classes are every other day or once a week, and I'm worried about students missing the chance to pollinate their flowers.
Students can participate in pollinating their own plants, even if you only meet weekly. Fast Plants begin flowering in two weeks (in ideal growing conditions) and flowering continues for a week or more after that. In addition, each flower's stigma is receptive to pollen for 2-4 days, depending on the temperature. So, we recommend choosing a planting date that allows enough Fast Plants growth-days for pollination to occur sometime between 15 and 21 days after planting. Even just a single pollination event when a reasonable number of flowers are open can result in good seed production. But remember, Fast Plants grown in cool temperatures or with inadequate energy from light will be much slower to develop flowers than those grown in recommended growing conditions. See the difference in flower development between Fast Plants grown in high and low light conditions in this timelapse video.
Although we recommend pollinating every day or every other day (starting as flowers open over a 3-5 day period right after flowering begins) to maximize seed production, a single pollination event done with care will result in fertilization with easy-to-observe seed pod development and seed production. Learn more about pollination here.
What should I do with the plants that shouldn't be pollinated? What have you done so students can make a comparison of pollinated to non-pollinated plants?
Fast Plants do not self-pollinate, but some pollination can still occur through plant-to-plant contact or via insects present in the growing area. To minimize unwanted pollination, we recommend keeping your growing area insect free and growing plants with enough space between them to avoid plants bumping together (be extra careful while moving/carrying plants). You may also use fly tape or sticky traps for insect control. You can also cover plants with pollination bags (must be a translucent, porous material, i.e. not a plastic bag) to protect against plant-to-plant contact.
Our classroom successfully completed pollination and seed pods are developing. When can we harvest seeds and how long do we need to wait until we can plant the seeds we produced?
Seed pods mature about 20 days after pollination, depending on the temperature during pod development (seed pods develop more slowly in cooler temperatures; temperatures that are too hot (>85F) can also be harmful). We recommend taking plants off of water on the 20th day after your last pollination to help the mother plants and seed pods dry out. During this drying time, the seeds undergo their final maturation.
It is important to wait until plants and pods are fully dry before harvesting seeds, do not attempt to harvest seed from green pods. If you harvest seeds too early (before the plant/pods/seeds have fully dried) the seeds will still be fragile and are likely to be damaged and not germinate. To verify plants/pods/seeds are sufficiently dry, crack open a single seed pod prior to harvest. The seeds inside the pod should be hard and a shade of yellow/brown. If your seeds are green, STOP, it is too early to harvest. Check out this video for harvesting tips.
Once fully matured seeds have been harvested, they can be replanted immediately, there is no need for additional wait time unless you've produced seeds from Rosette-Dwarf Fast Plants. Rosette-Dwarf plants have a deficiency in a group of plant hormones, gibberellins. Gibberellins play an essential role in breaking seed dormancy and promoting germination; thus the gibberellin deficient Rosette-Dwarf plants require an additional several days maturation period before re-planting.
Flowers and bees are interdependent and their structures and functions are the result of coevolution. Bees have plumose (branching) hairs all over their bodies that very effectively capture pollen from flowers (which bees use as a protein source). These hairs are also highly effective at transferring pollen between flowers, leading to successful pollination.
Bee sticks can be made easily by students, (see video instructions here) using toothpicks and dead bees (obtained from a beekeeper or purchased here.
Pollination wands, pipe cleaners, Q-tips, etc., can also be used as a pollinator in place of bee sticks or as part of an engineering challenge associated with pollination (see Bee-ing an Engineer Activity here). However, for maximum seed production and opportunities to introduce learners to ecological relationships between plants and pollinators, we recommend using bee sticks.
The following is a resonse written by an award-winning entomologist to a teacher's question about the possibility of receiving a sting from a dead bee:
"I get this question once in a while, and the answer is clearly, NO. Dead bees cannot sting. IF the stinger from a dead bee IS extruded (sometimes yes - sometimes no), it is as passive as a bristle. "Stinging" involves a multitude of biotically coordinated reflexes and behavior. Remember, the stinger is just the needle of the "syringe" - it requires a hydrated gland of living tissue filled with venom, and a "plunger" (living muscular tissue surrounding the venom sac).
Being "stung" by a dead bee is generally a sign of entomophobia - and that is pretty common to at least a slight extent! A child screaming about something probably DID experience SOMETHING...but not a sting. [Perhaps the child felt a small poke from a dried bee's leg, and then] that sort of thing plays on one's phobia."
Planting & Logistics Questions
Choose a lighting system that fits your classroom needs and budget. For a budget-friendly, adjustable, build-it-yourself option, check out our blog featuring a shopping list and instructions for a DIY LED Grow Light. If you prefer a pre-built option, click here to go to the Preparations page and scroll to the lighting section (#4) for links to lights we recommend.
Select a growing system for your Fast Plants that works best for the number and age of your students. Take into consideration how many growing systems you'll be able to fit under your light(s), how many students will be sharing a growing system, and how students will be able to know which plant is "their" plant (important for taking ownership for plant care and making comparative observations as plants grow).
For additional help with selecting a growing system, we have videos that showcase three recommended systems and show how to plant in them on our YouTube channel.
I want to ensure good transfer of water from my reservoir to my planting media. What should I use for wicking material?
Fast Plants can be grown successfully using a variety of wicking materials. In general, any absorbent material of reasonable thickness can serve as a wicking material (e.g. macrame cord, strands from a replacement rag mop head, shoe strings). We generally recommend using a wick with a diameter that is at least as wide as a shoe string, though successful growing systems have been constructed with wicks made from mason twine.
If you are using the Wisconsin Fast Plants Watering System, your kit came with a large water mat that is designed to transfer water from the reservoir to the soil in the quads through triangular quad wicks that sit on the mat. If you are using the Deli-Container Growing Systems, you may be using strips of wicking material or round cotton wicks. Whatever your wicking material, all work best if kept relatively free from algal growth.
For classroom discussion or experimental design, consider questions about differences between using synthetic materials (e.g. nylon) versus natural fabrics (e.g. cotton), small versus larger wick diameters, or short versus long wicks.
Fast Plants seeds, growing kits, and related materials are distributed via Carolina Biological Supply Company. You can order materials online here, or by calling Carolina Biological at 1-800-334-5551.
In addition, after purchasing some seed, it is then possible to produce your own Standard Fast Plants seeds for several years by following our instructions for growing and harvesting seed. If you do produce your own seed, we recommend purchasing some new seed every 2-3 years to maintain genetic diversity.
We are the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and we serve as an outreach program that offers free support to educators and researchers using Fast Plants as a model organism for learning and research. We don’t actually sell anything; we develop materials that are made available as Open Resources through our website and provide professional learning opportunities also through our website and through webinars or in-person events.
We are here to help! Please let us know if we can help you locate any particular seeds and/or materials that you're looking for based on your learning objectives by contacting us here.
Most planting containers can be re-used between generations of plants. We recommend washing any planting materials in a mild (10%) bleach solution and rinsing well. The bleach solution will eliminate any trace of algae or unwanted soil pathogens, allowing a clean start for your next generation. We do not recommend re-use of potting mix or planting media because fertilizer and/or soil pathogens can accumulate. We do recommend composting your soil if you are able.
I am preparing to plant in my classroom and trying to plan for students to observe their plants during key life cycle stages. What is the best day to plant Fast Plants?
We suggest planting Fast Plants on a Monday or Friday. Students who plant on a Monday will observe plants beginning to emerge on Wednesday, and by Friday most all seeds will have germinated. Alternatively, planting on a Friday typically results in seedlings beginning to emerge the next Monday. However, be aware that temperature has a big effect on growth and development; so, seeds germinate more slowly and plants grow slower if temperatures are cooler than 60ºF (e.g. if your school keeps temperatures cool at night).
The Fast Plants Grower's calendar available in our Digital Library provides a useful guide for planning lessons in association with important life cycle stages.
Seeds are alive and must be treated with care. In general, we recommend planting Fast Plants seeds the same year you receive them, as germination rates can decrease over time. However, Fast Plants seeds that are stored cold (in a refrigerator or freezer) and dry (in an airtight container) can remain viable and vigorous for 10+ years.
Viable Fast Plants seeds contain a living embryo (the baby plant), and an endosperm (an energy reserve to sustain the embryo made up of oils, starches, and proteins). During the seed stage, the embryo is in a state of dormancy and has a greatly reduced metabolism. Prolonged seed storage requires lengthening this period of dormancy. Dormancy can be extended by storing the seed cold (this further reduces the embryo's metabolism rate) and dry (moisture can trigger premature germination). For long term storage, we recommend storing seeds with desiccant gel, in an airtight container that is kept in the refrigerator or freezer.
Proper seed storage is particularly important in hot, humid climates. For example, seeds stored in a desk drawer through the summer in the South or Midwest can easily become too warm and moist if the classroom climate isn't regulated consistently.
The Wisconsin Fast Plants Program creates lesson plans, experimental protocols, light construction plans, and much more, to support teachers and educators in teaching science with living plants. The resources we create and share on our website are free to use and adapt for noncommercial purposes with attribution to the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program and free availability to others (share and share alike).
Browse or search for resources in the Fast Plants Digital Library here.
Legacy materials for selection experiments relied primarily on counting hairs (trichomes) on a leaf margin, and selecting for hairier or less hairy Fast Plants. This is still a good trait for selection experiments because it does not appear to be influenced by environmental conditions in Fast Plants. Alternatively, one of our more recently developed seed stocks, Polycots, affords new opportunities for teaching selection through experimentation. Polycot Fast Plants are a research stock that was developed to investigate the heritability of an easily observable trait in young seedlings: three or more cotyledons (polycots). Selective breeding for the polycot trait can produce increased polycot frequency in subsequent generations. Polycots are available in both first and second generation stages to expedite selection experimentation.
I am growing Non-Purple Stem and Purple Stem plants now and I want to cross-pollinate these lines and produce an F1. How do I make certain that the seeds I produce resulted from cross-pollination between a Non-Purple Stem parent and a Purple Stem parent?
Producing true F1 seed is more involved than producing the second, F2 generation. We recommend purchasing F1 seed, which you can then easily intermate to produce the F2 generation. This YouTube video explains the inheritance patterns through two offspring generations from a Non-Purple Stem crossed with Purple Stem Fast Plants. If you're still interested in producing your own F1 seed, please contact us directly to discuss methods and logistics.
Our Legacy Fast Plants simulations only work on quite old operating systems. Fortunately, the folks at ExploreLearn were kind enough to collaborate with us and create Gizmo Fast Plant simulations that function very similarly, and they committed to keeping that particular Gizmo in their free offerings. Learn more from our blog post, introducing this Fast Plants genetics Gizmo.
Do I need permission to use and/or modify the resources, lessons, and graphics found on the Fast Plants website?
Everything on the Fast Plants website is considered Open Source resources for teaching with Fast Plants. By Open Source, we mean that all our lesson plans, experimental protocols, light construction plans--resources we create and share on our website--are free to use and adapt for noncommercial purposes with attribution made to the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program and website (www.fastplants.org).
You'll see this Creative Commons License graphic on our materials, meaning, we ask that you attribute the Fast Plants Program as the source and make any materials you build from our's freely available for noncommercial use, too.