When I stroll through the aisles of my local garden center in early March, I feel like "The Jerk," Navin R. Johnson.
"The only thing I need is this packet of Big Boy Hybrid tomato seeds. I don't need anything else. Just these Big Boy Hybrid tomato seeds... and those yellow squash seeds. The Big Boy and the yellow squash seeds and that's all I need... and these Royal Burgundy bean seeds. The tomato, squash, and bean seeds and that's all I need...I don't need one other thing, not one... oh, I need these Clemson Spineless okra seeds."
Every year at this time, this home gardener itches to pull the wool mittens off of his green thumbs. The best scratch is a trip down to my local plant palace, Merrifield Garden Center. During spring, I visit Merrifield so often, I might as well endorse my paychecks straight to them – not because it's expensive, but because I always want to grow what they've got. And when it comes to seeds, they've got it all. From aubergines to zucchini and everything in between.
"There’s some old heirloom varieties, some unusual varieties, things that may not be available to you as plants," points out David Yost, a horticulturalist at Merrifield. "I know one thing that has been increasingly popular is people liking to grow old heirloom varieties. These are varieties that may not yield as much, they may not have the disease resistance, but they’ll have wonderful fragrance or wonderfully flavor to endorse them."
It's no secret that home gardening is quickly becoming very popular around the country. Whether they live on the mesas of New Mexico or in the high-rises of Boston, people want to grow their own food for the dinner table.
Growing fruit and vegetable plants from seed has come a long way from the old mail seed catalog days. A couple of clicks of the mouse, and you can have seed varieties from all over the world delivered to your doorstep.
But once you get your packets of future produce, where do you go from there? Yost offers some simple guidelines to maximizing the seeds.
Not everyone can grow everything in every place. As hard as you might try, odds are you won't be able to grow artichokes outside in Wisconsin.
"You're going to be selecting things that grow well in your climate," says Yost. "We're here in the mid-Atlantic region in Virginia and it's really fantastic because we can grow cool season crops...things that love temperatures anywhere from light frost up to 50-60 degrees. Whereas in the summertime, we totally switch over and grow peppers, tomatoes, basil, and things that thrive during the warm weather."
Odds are your local garden center will provide seeds that are suitable for your climate.
In The Zone
Yost's mistake #1: Starting your seeds too early. What's good for California isn't good for Connecticut. Times to start seeding, indoors and out, vary greatly based on your climate zone. If you're not familiar with the zone system, the National Arboretum can help you out. Granted, the map is tricky to understand, and looks like a box of crayons left too long in the sun.
His advice is to find your zone's last on-average frost date, then subtract 6-8 weeks. That's typically when you want to start your summer crop seeds indoors, and plant cool season seeds directly in the outside soil.
Containers, seed starter mix, a water tray, grow light, a spray bottle, and some patience. It may be a bit of an investment the first season you grow from seed. The beauty is that, aside from the starter mix, everything can be used year after year.
Container size is a personal preference. If you have lots of room, you can start seeds in a bigger container. I start mine on the window sill of our bedroom, which doesn't offer much space, so I prefer the small cell-pack containers. But as Yost assures, "There's no right or wrong."
Drop 'em In The Dirt
Seeds shouldn't be planted too deep into the starter mix (or in the dirt, if you're sowing them straight into the ground outside). Most seed packs will tell you how deep to sow the seeds. Typically, it's not very far under the surface - somewhere between 1/8" and 1/4" deep.
Sun and Water Make The Plants Go Wild
"The second biggest problem is not providing sufficient light," explains Yost. "All of these vegetables like full sun." Once your seeds germinate, it is essential to keep giving them water and proper light. Water-wise, you don't need to soak the plants, just keep the soil moist and damp."
"As for light, the seeds need every ray they can get. A south-facing window in your house is a perfect spot this time of year. If you do get cloudy days, or don't have a space in you house with direct sun exposure, you MUST get a grow light and leave it on for 12-16 hours per day. Every garden center offers a variety of lights, including ones with timers, in case you aren't always there to turn the light on and off.
Plants need space to grow. If you plant three or four seeds in a single cell-pack, and all of them germinate, eventually you will have to play favorites and whittle it down to one plant.
"People feel compelled when they buy a package of seed, and there's a hundred seeds in there, to grow every one. What's going to happen is they're going to compete with each other and you end up with one hundred weak plants," says Yost. "Pare it down to what you can provide each plant so it has ideal growing conditions."
Seeds need some time to acclimate to new temperatures. "The third most common mistake is you've got these plants, you've nurtured them, you've cared for them, they're growing, your little seedlings. They need to go through a transition process before they go straight into the garden," explains Yost.
"We talk about hardening them off, acclimating them to the outdoor environment. If you take them from your sheltered indoor environment and pop them straight into the garden, they're not adapted to the heat, the cold, and the wind. You need to make that transition out there."
In my experience, I've had bigger, better, and tastier harvests from plants I've grown from seed - with a few exceptions.
First, I've found that buying herbs as plants, rather than seeds, has proven more bountiful. Rosemary, for example, takes quite a while to germinate and grow into a large-sized plant that I can continuously harvest.
As Yost explains, I may have to chalk this one up to impatience. "This takes an investment in time," says Yost. "People are busy, they may not have the room, they may not have the space. There may be a number of reasons you'd just rather come in and purchase the plants and let our growers do the work for you."
But if you have the time, Yost says, you should start with seeds.
"There's just something unique about taking a seed, planting it, caring for it, nurturing it, watching it germinate, watching it grow, taking it all the way to harvest, putting it on the table...just being part of that entire cycle is fantastic."
This home gardener can't wait to dig in.
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