March 19th, 2012
11:00 AM ET
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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.

Stay Local

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.

The Infrastructure

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.

Play Favorites

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."

Baby Steps

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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Filed under: Fit Nation • Food Politics • Gardening • Gardening • Local Food • Make • Think • Video

soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Cordie Tabarez

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    March 31, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  3. Sari in Vegas

    I'd really like to see articles for desert and indoor gardening. I miss being able to pick my own food.

    March 20, 2012 at 1:10 pm |
    • Karen L.

      The District Attorney in San Diego is terrorizing the Prop. 215 sanctioned Medical Marijuana Patient community. Just like Adolf Hitler before her, she has decided to enact the "Final Solution" against law abiding cancer patients. Please help us by filing your complaint with the Attorney General in California.. Thank you for your support:

      March 21, 2012 at 3:04 am |
  4. Doodles

    I love nothing more than to be in my garden, i only have 3 10X10 beds and i buy seeds and plants as if i have 3acres.
    unfortunatly i have a huge deer problem and have to surround the garden with deer netting which just about brakes my heart because i like to put flowers around and in with, my vegetables because it looks so nice but they then get tangled up in the netting. i hate the deer. i have blueberry bushes and raspberries, oh my would not believe how good that stuff is ( i put dried pine needles around my blueberry bushes when the needles drop from my pine trees, it results in really good and really big blueberries.)

    March 20, 2012 at 6:08 am |
    • bs1

      Those deer are just as edible and tasty as the vegetables, harvest them as well and enjoy the bounty.

      March 21, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  5. Susan

    Plant Hemp and you will see that the sun will shine upon you and me... HEMP for Victory.

    March 19, 2012 at 11:00 pm |
    • Ruderalis


      Or if you have a valid doctors recommendation, you can grow the smokeable stuff!

      March 20, 2012 at 10:11 am |
  6. Bobby

    I love living in florida just for the early start on my garden. I have been harvesting a variety of veggies for the past month now. Already have a batch of gentlemans corn just about done, with just about every stalk with 3-4 ears on it. if it wasn't for the 10 month garden season and the fishing, I would have left this hideous state years ago!

    March 19, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  7. Laura

    I had to laugh, this article has describe my newest obsession – growing stuff from seeds. We've spent a small fortune on seeds and just when I think I'm done I find more seeds to buy, and not just food but flowers and herbs too. My husband planted the entire beet seeds completely ignoring the spacing requirements and we'll have to thin dramatically. I've since learned that tomatos have about a 100% germination success rate and will no longer put 2-3 seeds per pellet. I've also learned that hardening is important as I think our tomato plants we transferred directly to the ground a few weeks back aren't looking like they're doing much of anything. We have a new batch of about 5 different tomato plant varieties doing well indoors.

    For those experienced gardeners...when do I need to transplant my little plants into bigger Jiffy pots if they aren't ready to be transplanted into the soil yet? Many of my flowers and veggie plants have roots growing outside the peat pellet and wondered if it was necessary to put them in those bigger containers. And if so, how big of a container is necessary for a few more weeks of growing/hardening? I'm in California and I guess it will be a few more weeks before temps at night are higher than 55.

    March 19, 2012 at 5:49 pm |
    • Bobby

      yes, you need to transplant. I prefer to transplant my seedlings into plastic dixie cups (16-18oz). Drill a couple small holes in the bottom for drainage. Depending on plant, the cups should keep the plants healthy without getting rootbound for about 2 weeks.

      March 19, 2012 at 7:48 pm |
    • Bobby

      Also, the nice thing about the dixie cups is you can buy a cheap ($3-4) bulb planter and the hole you punch out with that is a perfect fit for the cup. No digging and filling.

      March 19, 2012 at 8:13 pm |
    • Ruderalis

      Put them into larger containers and leave them be for at least a week inside. Then take the tomatoes (still in large container or Dixie Cup) and put it outside. Let the "harden" to the temperature in the cups for about a week, or until you notice consistent growth. THEN you plant them in the ground.

      I hope this helps!

      March 20, 2012 at 10:16 am |
    • Laura

      Thanks everyone! I've become a seed planting addict and spent several hours researching various chat forms (gardenweb?) for info too. Seems people really dislike the peats pellets. I'm going to do the plastic cup thing tonight and have my husband sauter holes into the bottom/sides. And I'll definitely do the 'hardening' process to rather than just transplant. Do people take the netting off the pellets before transplanting? It seems that many do but some do not.

      March 20, 2012 at 3:46 pm |

    I Love the heirloom tomatoe Hillbilly . Plant marigolds & other flowers in your garden . Some lettuce comes back & self sows .

    March 19, 2012 at 5:01 pm |
    • Tim T.

      Everyone should grow Cannabis sativa or indica in their gardens and send a big F@@K YOU to the CNN alcoholic news network.

      March 19, 2012 at 5:15 pm |
  9. pat

    The rabbits in my yard think I planted the crops for them to eat and they eat it right in front of me, almost like they're thanking me. I don't have the heart to discourage them so I plant extra and I put some in raised containers and behind fences or other places where they can't get it. Kale makes a nice barrier.

    March 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
  10. Don

    Does anyone know how to grow cilantro so it doesn't turn into a scraggly thing with no leaves? I try trimming it back but it doesn't work.

    March 19, 2012 at 12:41 pm |
    • pat

      Grow a variety that claims to be "slow bolting."

      March 19, 2012 at 12:43 pm |
    • Liz in Seattle

      Where do you live, Don? Cilantro likes hot weather and lots of sun. If you live in a cooler place (like the Pacific Northwest, where I am) it just won't do well no matter what.

      March 19, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
      • la

        Actually, cilantro grows best in the cool of late winter. Warm weather kills it off.

        March 20, 2012 at 1:34 am |
    • Ruderalis

      It's kind of a straggly plant to start with until it's an adult, where it produces more leaf.

      Make sure it's getting enough sunlight as this can lead to straggly plants looking and reaching for the light.

      March 20, 2012 at 10:19 am |
  11. Marsha

    I live in Northern Virginia. I planted sugar snaps about a month ago, but had to replant because I was in the hospital, and couldn't water. The older ones are coming up, though. I also plated English peas last week, but it's still too early for them to be up. I made a cold frame out of 2" think foam sheets, and now my radishes and lettuces are coming up. Because of this year's warm weather, I actually think I'm 4-6 weeks behind on some crops. I know I'm behind on weeding.

    March 19, 2012 at 12:29 pm |
  12. Rabbit

    I love gardening! But I am permanently at war with the rabbits. Does anyone have any suggestions about what might survive them? Any plants that they might not like?

    March 19, 2012 at 12:04 pm |
    • Elmer Fudd


      March 19, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
    • Suggestion

      Rabbit, the only thing I know to do is choose fencing they can't get through (chicken wire?). They're trying to feed themselves and their babies, but it can be frustrating to have them nibbling at your garden, for sure!

      March 19, 2012 at 12:15 pm |
      • Hawk

        I love it when the people in my neighborhood plant vegetable gardens. All the little animals come out to snack. Inviting me over for lunch will help your garden grow.

        March 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm |
        • Shhiver

          cookoo for Coco Puffs

          March 20, 2012 at 12:09 am |
    • the plumber

      Here is a web site with several options for you to try. Good luck.

      March 19, 2012 at 4:26 pm |
    • Doodles

      I surround my lettuce bed with marigolds, i have seen bunnies in the yard, but they (so far) leave my lettuce alone.

      March 20, 2012 at 6:03 am |
    • Ruderalis

      Wait for that rabbit to come in close and shoot it with a shotgun.

      Now you have meat and veggies for dinner!

      March 20, 2012 at 10:21 am |
    • Bryan

      Onions seem to repel rabbits for me. I plant onions strategically around the garden instead of a separate bed – both bulb and scallion-type onions seem to work. Garlic or chives may work as well, but I haven't tried them. I also have a chicken-wire fence around the garden, and two dogs that are constantly running around the yard, both of which work very nicely. Of course, the fence was originally installed to keep the dogs out of the garden...

      March 20, 2012 at 11:58 am |
    • Chris

      Adopt a dog or cat... my kitten thought rabbits were toys and would chase them around the yard, without even trying to seriously catch them (if the rabbit stopped running, the cat would stop too). The rabbits deserted my yard within a few days. My kitten was disapointed but I can now grow beans.
      The rabbits would eat the beans, the flowers of cucumbers, squash, and zuchinni, and the corn and pepper seedlings. They left the tomatoes, eggplants, and grown corn and peppers alone. They also didn't touch the basil or the artichokes.

      March 21, 2012 at 12:06 am |
  13. mrsl

    I love doing a garden, however, my woodchuck loves it also. LOL

    March 19, 2012 at 11:54 am |
  14. Ray

    already have my tomato seeds going, they are about 1 inch tall indoors! Im ready to till up dirt!

    March 19, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  15. Amayda

    I can't wait to get going on my garden. I already have it graphed out and am saving up my newspapers for weed control. Its going to be a good garden year!

    March 19, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  16. Billy

    My first round of lettuce disappeared one night last week. On to round two!

    March 19, 2012 at 10:04 am |
    • Chris

      I couldn't help but laugh.
      I unfortunately know the feeling of looking at dirt where seedlings used to be...

      March 21, 2012 at 12:08 am |
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