In my part of the world, right now, there is snow and ice everywhere and frozen soil, but we can dream of a garden. And for those folks who have been doing their homework and have gotten their seeds, it’s time to take out the calendar and start planning for actual planting in the ground, so that you can figure out when you are going to plant your seeds.
In my area, our official last frost is supposed to be toward the end of May, so most people are out putting in their gardens on Memorial Day Weekend. For things like tomato, pepper and eggplant plants, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb. If your soil has warmed up earlier, you can certainly put in things like lettuces, spinach and other greens, anything from the cabbage family(broccoli, cauliflower, kale, Chinese cabbage, etc.), though you might want to provide them with some protection, like using row covering material.
But, let’s get down to where the plant meets the soil, so to speak: how much are you going to put in, anyway? If your ‘family unit’ consists of you and an SO and you are not into freezing or canning, then think in 1’s: One tomato plant, one or two pepper plants, half a dozen broccoli plants, some cut and come again lettuces and some beans(beans and lettuces are short enough that you can put in a few and then a few more a week later and so on until about 60 days before your first killer frost). You can get all of that sort of thing plus a few onions and perhaps a zucchini plant in a bed that is 3’ wide and 6-8’ long. If you want to put the tomato plant and peppers into 5 gal. Buckets, you can get even more into the bed.
But if you want to grow enough to can or freeze or if you have youngsters in the house, you need to think multiples of that: 3-6 tomato plants, a dozen pepper plants, a dozen or more broccoli plants..you get the idea. The only place where this does not follow is zucchini and other forms of summer squashes. One plant. Just one. These plants produce so much stuff that there is no way for you to keep up and once they are larger than 6” long and 2” around, they jump into the “throw a saddle on them” category.
If you are going to start tomatoes, peppers and eggplants, you will want to give them 8 weeks growth before you put them in the ground (and you are going to want to make sure the ground is quite warm when you do put them in). So, look at your calendar and count back 8 weeks; that is your planting date.
So, here is how to get seeds to germinate, put out a root and their first leaves so that you can grow plants:
1) Take your growing mix (you can get it at any home store or garden center – it’s usually called something evocative like “seed starting mix” and will have things like peat and perlite or vermiculite in it—it’s fluffy) and put enough warm water in it to moisten it. Warm…NOT HOT. We’re not trying to cook the seeds. It’s just that the mix usually gets to your house and is cold. Put that in whatever you are using to sow the seeds into. We like cutting plastic milk jugs in half vertically and filling those.
2) Decide right from the get-go how many plants you want. There are certain seeds that come up like fury – tomatoes are one, broccoli is another. Peppers sometimes take a while. And you never know, so however many you want, sow that plus a couple of seeds. Yes, you will probably end up throwing some little plants away, but this will teach you to be ruthless and choose the strongest. Eyeball the pot, box or whatever you are sowing into and visually divide up the space by the number of seeds, make holes about ¼” deep and stick a seed in each hole. Pat down the surface so that there is a little soil on top of each seed.
3) You also want to keep the soil moist around the seeds, so take whatever you are putting the seeds in and seal that up in a plastic bag.
4) Right now, to start with seeds need warmth and moisture. You’ve just taken care of the moisture part, so where should you put it for warmth? If you have a heating mat, that is great; if not a heating pad protected by a plastic bag and a towel will work too. I have also had great luck with putting them on the top of the stove when we had gas because the pilots kept the top warm. Depending on what seeds they are, you should see them start to come up in anywhere from a couple of days to a week.
5) Once they start to come up, they need less warmth, and a lot more light. They still need to be warm however. Most disasters on seed starting come when the seeds first come up, and people put them on the sunniest window sill, only to find them dead the next day. Even with double-glazed windows, sills are very very cold. The seedlings need light, but they also need to be kept warm. So, move them to a table or something close TO the window but not the window itself. And if you have a heating pad, you can either put another layer of something between the seedlings and the mat or raise them up on a rack (an old cookie cooling rack works really well). Still keep them in the plastic bag to maintain moisture. As they grow, you can open it up a little bit for a little white each day, but still you need to keep them moist and covered until they get their second set of leaves to maintain them.
6) Once they have several sets of leaves, you can transplant them into larger, more self-contained things like growing mix in yoghurt containers, or little pots. There are marvelous little peat ‘poker chip’ like things that will make their own pots with soil if you put them in warm water. (kids love those – they are like magic) And again, you need to give them as much sun as you can. Once the weather during the day warms up, you can take them outside for a little air and sun – but you don’t want to do this until the air temps in the afternoon are at least in the 50s. This will ‘harden the plants off’ so that they won’t be shocked with you put them in the ground.
OK…but …what if you don’t actually have seeds yet..or a heating mat or any of that other stuff? Well, there is still plenty of time if you start looking for seeds, etc. on the Internet. There are many many seed and gardening supply houses that have internet presence and in general, you can be assured that the seed that you are buying from them is fresh and for this coming season. Search on any terms that make sense to you. Here are a few that I use:
Seeds for the northeast
Seeds for short season gardens
Seeds for heritage vegetables
Heritage dried bean seeds
Seeds for French vegetables (or Asian, or Italian or Mexican)
Hardy xxxxx seeds
Heirloom xxxxxx seeds.
Seeds in small packets (not everyone wants to put in a whole bed of carrots, for example and there are seed houses that specialize in small ….or large…lots)
Regional seed growers
Seeds for the xxx (name your region: Pacific Northwest, Great Lakes, Gulf Coast, etc.
Supplies for starting seeds
It usually takes 10 days to 2 weeks to receive a seed order, so you have some time, but you still want to get your order in so that it’s done and you don’t have to think about it until the order comes in! This will also give you time to survey hour house or apartment and figure out where you are going to grow your seeds and get set up and get started saving things to use like yoghurt containers and milk jugs and so on.
If you want to see other posts on this same topic, go to Aunt Toby’s blog