In a time when most of us are indoors, it can be comforting to think of the future, when our gardens will be blooming. If you have a small yard or patio, now is the time to plant seed!
My parents taught me that a garden completes us. I remember, as a young girl, my family spent summers at a small cottage on Lake Michigan. The shady backyard rock garden brought my parents together. My dad worked long days at his commercial art business and would come home from work exhausted. After dinner, he and my Mom would work on their rock garden, moving plants around and making plans for new ones. “It’s the only time I can get him to relax,” my mom once confided in me.
Now is the perfect time of year to start seeds for your garden, one that will certainly give you solace and joy in the coming months.
TO SEED OR NOT TO SEED
When walking through a garden center, with all those lovely vegetables and annuals beaming up at you, the answer to your question “to seed or not to seed,” is in the price tag. Presently, a small 4-inch tomato seedling sells for over $4 in most garden centers with the large “Patio Tomato” priced at as much as $10! On the other hand, you could buy an entire packet of 20 seeds for $2.99! But the devil is in the details, and whether or not you can own up to the task!
WHICH SEEDS TO CHOOSE
I have been growing vegetables from seed for over 10 years. What I have learned is that I only grow what my family likes to eat, and only crops that will flourish in my small yard and the San Diego climate. I start six seasonal crops (see below) in March and April, and harden them off until cool season planting in late April. An excellent resource for timing your planting of cool and warm season crops can be found at www.mastergardenerssd, “Vegetable Planting Guide.”
The rule of thumb is the smaller the seed, the harder it is to grow, and the larger the seed, the faster it is to germinate. I suggest for new gardeners that they start with any of annuals with large seed such as peas, beans, tomatoes, peppers, squash, pumpkins and melons. When you are starting out, avoid annuals with tiny seed such as petunias, lettuce, carrots and basil.
YOUR SEED STRATEGY
Read the seed packet! Although this step may seem obvious to many gardeners, it is important. The packet will give you the basic information such as climate zone (we are Zone 7), when to plant indoors, germination and time to maturity.
There are a multitude of containers available at garden centers, my favorite being the pellets (Jiffy Pellets) made from peat moss that can be placed directly into the garden (see photo). Many gardeners use egg cartons or yogurt containers, but I enjoy the pellets or peat pots that will be filled with seed starting mix. Do not use soil from your garden! Purchase either seed starting mix or a very lightweight potting mix. If you really want to make your life easier, purchase the entire Jiffy Mini-Greenhouse, which includes tray, soil pellets and plastic dome cover.
SOWING THE SEEDS
Be certain to moisten the soil or pellets before planting. Next, check the seed packet for instructions. Plant larger seeds twice their actual size, and tiny seeds should be placed just beneath the surface of the soil. Cover all seeds with seed starting soil and place in trays. If using the greenhouse kit, cover the entire tray with the plastic dome. When using individual pots or six packs, cover the entire tray with plastic. The first few days of this process are the most crucial, since you will be opening the plastic once a day to check for sprouting.
Place the covered containers in a warm place indoors, either on a table or bookshelf. At this point, seeds do not need light only bottom heat. Providing bottom heat, such as a heating mat, helps to hasten germination. Check seeds daily to be certain they have enough water, but be careful not to overwater, which leads to damping off.
THE FINAL PHASE
As soon as the first seedlings germinate, remove the cover. You can move them to a partially sunny location, either indoors or outside if the daytime temperature stays above 50 degrees. An alternative to placing them outdoors, is to use a 40-watt fluorescent light placed 3-4 inches away from plants and left on 10 hours a day.
Once sprouts appear (usually less than one week) you can take the trays outside to harden them off in a partially sunny area for a few hours each day, but they must be brought in at night. This timing is crucial, and the plants must be watched carefully! The final step is transplanting, and a complete guide to transplanting information can be found at gardening.cals.cornell.edu under “Indoor Seed Starting.”