Starting Seeds: A Spring Planting Primer

Get ready for the gardening season with our spring planting primer on selecting, starting and planting seeds.

| January/February 2013

  • Seeds can be started in all sorts of repurposed containers, including old newspaper turned into pots.
    Photo By GAP Photos
  • Move seedlings started indoors out to the garden after the last threat of frost has passed.
    Photo By GAP Photos
  • As a general rule, plants with short root systems, such as lettuces and spring onions, transplant well, while root vegetables are best grown from seed.
    Photo By iStockphoto

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.

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