When short, cold winter days find gardeners’ mailboxes bursting with seed catalogs packed cover-to-cover with glossy pictures and high expectations, it’s time to plan next spring’s vegetable garden. If you have not yet joined the millions of American families who have turned to growing their own food, you should seriously consider getting in on the trend. It is an excellent way to save money in the post-Great Recession economy, and it will bring fresh, nutritious food to the family table. Best of all, you can get the kids involved: They are brimming with positive energy and now is the time to teach them important values about food, how it grows, and why homegrown is so much better for us. But where to start? Or more to the point, how to start?
If you are a beginner, then the flood of gardening information coming your way may seem overwhelming. My job, then, is to help you get down to basics and make it all work in an enjoyable and practical way. Growing your own food from seed is not something just for grizzly old-time pioneers or folks preparing for the end of the world. It’s not difficult, but of course, like everything else in life, the fine details can be daunting without a bit of education.
Starting Seeds: How to Select Seeds
Seeds fall into several categories. First, let’s talk about the types I don’t recommend. Genetically modified seeds produce special hybrids and are patented by the agribusinesses that created them; hybrid seeds are first-generation crosses developed under controlled conditions, such as a seedless cucumber, or a cantaloupe with resistance to wilt.
While these manipulated plants sound good—and some may actually deliver on their promises—the seeds have several drawbacks. They are expensive, you can’t save seeds from them, and often the plants don’t hold up against the very thing they were developed to resist.
As a point of argument, I recently gave a nearby farm heirloom watermelon seeds to grow side-by-side with a hybrid cantaloupe. Insects devoured the cantaloupe, while the old-fashioned heirloom, with its sturdy vines and tough stems, passed through the bug holocaust unscathed. This makes the heirloom plant excellent for anyone who wants to grow food organically; no need for sprays.
These learning experiences bring us to the seeds I do recommend: heirloom seeds and open-pollinated seeds. Heirlooms are varieties handed down from generation to generation because they have qualities gardeners (and eaters) like, such as excellent flavor or hardiness. Open-pollinated means the seeds are produced by the normal techniques used by Mother Nature: wind, butterflies, bees, dew, rain or all sorts of specialized insects who know their job assignments. The best gardens, indeed the healthiest gardens, are the ones that use Mother Nature’s little helpers to do the work. Because open-pollinated plants reproduce the same plant in the next generation, you can save seeds from these plants for next season.
So now we are down to planting our seeds. Each plant has its own special growing preference. This means that starting them from seed does not take an intimate knowledge of science as much as a nurturing state of mind and a willingness to observe how seeds react in your garden soil. Remember this: Soil is a living organism; in terms of plant health it determines everything, so starting with good soil and healthy compost is a given in this discussion. (Got soil problems? Should we address this subject in an article down the line? Give us some feedback: Mother Earth Living is here to help! Turn to page 3 to contact our editorial staff.)
Starting seeds can be accomplished in two basic ways: germinating the seeds indoors early to get a head start on the season, or planting by seed broadcast (scattering them on the ground) at a specific time most advantageous to their germination outdoors. As a general rule, the seeds we start indoors (in a greenhouse, on a windowsill or under lights) are the seeds of plants that are shallow-rooted and require a longer growing season than what Mother Nature has given us wherever we live. For more on starting seeds, read The Nuts and Bolts of Starting Seeds Indoors.
Thus we start subtropical tomatoes or peppers indoors (I start my tomato seed on Valentine’s Day) so that we have large, healthy plants to set out after the last frost. (Find frost information in The Old Farmer’s Almanac’s Frost Chart for the United States.) The intention is that they will then grow quickly and produce fruit in July or August and throughout the rest of the season if they are indeterminate (meaning they bloom and produce fruit until frost). Peppers are perennial in the tropics so you can take first-year plants, dig them up, keep them frost-free over the winter, and then plant out the next season to have peppers from June onward. However, this requires overwintering the plants in a cool greenhouse or garage, and as a result most of us treat peppers as annuals.
Starting seeds indoors is an excellent way to keep ahead of seasonality. I do this with fava beans, which I germinate in January, prune back when they get leggy, and plant out in March. By early May I have a veritable bush covered with blooms and developing pods. Lettuces are incredibly easy to start early in flats, thin (use thinned plants for salads), then plant out after the last frost in a spacing that allows them to create beautiful heads.
While many plants do well when started indoors and moved outdoors after the last frost, some plant categories do not like being transplanted and therefore shouldn’t be started indoors. The group of plants known as Brassicas can get finicky when it comes to starting seed. Cabbages and kales do not mind. You can treat them like lettuce, starting them early in flats and thinning them out. But turnips, radishes and all members of the mustard group (arugula among them) simply hate being moved.
One reason is that early in their development, their seeds grow long, threadlike tap roots, which transplanting disturbs. When I see flats of arugula for sale at garden centers, I cringe: what a waste of money. You will always get better success by hand-sowing seeds of any variety of arugula, garden cress, radish, turnip or kohlrabi on prepared ground. Furthermore, because you need to thin what comes up in order to develop strong, healthy plants, you can always use the culls in stir-fries, salads or as fillings in sandwiches. It’s a win-win situation.
Another class of seeds that cannot be transplanted successfully is root vegetables. Carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips, salsify, Hamburg parsley—this whole group of seeds cannot be forced in pots and transplanted. Again, this has to do with the fact that upon germination they send down threadlike roots deep into the soil and disturbing this in the early stages of development will likely kill the plant. At best, you may get deformed or oddly shaped roots. Instead, to plant root vegetables, broadcast seed according to packet instructions into prepared garden soil after the last threat of frost.
Regardless of whether you start plants indoors or sow seeds outdoors, growing plants from seed will save you money and help you see every stage of your plants’ growth. Even if you take on just one or two plants, growing some of your own food gives you more control over your personal health and nutrition.
5 Vegetables to Ornament Your Garden
Lark’s Tongue Kale: A wonderfully crinkled winter-hardy kale that is both good to eat and highly ornamental. It grows about 2 feet tall, so plant seedlings started indoors about 3 feet apart. Harvest greens from the bottom: As you pull them off, the plants grow taller. Available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Aunt Ruby’s German Green Tomato: An heirloom variety that is almost fruitlike when ripe. The skin turns yellow-green when the fruit is ready to pick. Start seeds indoors and plant out once night temperatures begin to average in the 60s. Available from Terroir Seeds
Hinona Kabu Turnips: These carrot-shaped turnips with bright purple skin are one of Japan’s most treasured heirloom plants. Plant the seeds in neat rows and thin to space each plant about 2 inches apart. Use the culls in stir-fries. Available from Kitazawa Seed Company
Five-Color Silver Beet Chard: A beautiful, multicolored chard with orange, yellow, pink, red and white stems. Broadcast the seeds on prepared ground and thin out so that the plants are about 6 inches apart. Great for salads or as a cooked vegetable. Available from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Rat-Tailed Radish: This native of India is a radish not grown for its root but rather for its long, tail-like seed pods. They make a delicious addition to salads, and the flowers are also edible. Plant in rows 2 feet apart. The plants will need staking once they begin to bloom. Available from Seed Savers Exchange
Resources for Starting Seeds
Annie’s Heirloom Seeds
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seeds
Kitazawa Seed Company
Seed Savers Exchange
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
When to Plant
For a guide to the ideal time to start vegetable seeds in your area, visit Garden Planting Guide: When to Plant Seeds and Seedlings for Your Region. You can download a PDF that helps you determine the perfect planting date based on your region’s last frost date.
William Woys Weaver is an internationally known food historian and the author of 16 books. He is also the director of the Keystone Center for the Study of Regional Foods and Food Tourism in Pennsylvania. His book, Culinary Ephemera, and his CD-ROM, “Heirloom Vegetable Gardening,” are available at the Mother Earth Living store. His forthcoming book, As American as Shoofly Pie, will be published in March 2013.