FGFP – Tips for Success with Vegetable Seeds
Figfip? That would be Food Gardeners’ Fine Points, a new occasional series inspired by my friends Matt and Shannon.
“ We have some very exciting news. After nearly three years on the waiting list, Shannon and I now have a plot in the community garden next to our apartment building!!!…. Naturally, I have mile-long list of vegetables I’d like to grow….”
He meant it; it is a mile long, ending with: “ Are there any realistic choices for two newbies from that list? We’re prepared for failures and setbacks. But we’re also giddy with enthusiasm. ”
Who could resist an appeal like that?
M&S may be newbies but they’re certainly not dummies ( a title from Hell, imho). They already the have usual gardening manuals and an unusually large ability to conduct web searches. They even have a resident sage at the community garden.
But a lot of “how to” leaves out choice tidbits. Some information does get dated. And I don’t always agree with the sage, even though he’s right with them in Washington, DC and I am in New England.
So from now on, when I’m doing something in the garden and it makes me think “I ought to tell Matt and Shannon about this,” I will. And as I have just been planting vegetable seeds, that’s where we’re going to start.
SUCCESS WITH GROWING VEGETABLES FROM SEED ( as opposed to from seedlings or cuttings or roots )
* Read the fine print when choosing seeds from retail racks. Most of those pretty envelopes appear to vary only in decoration and price, but in fact there are big differences in quantity and quality. One way to tell at a glance is to see how much information is offered about
Quantity – Is there a measurement or do you have to feel up the packet?
Viability – Is there a germination percentage , with a testing date? This is more likely with European seeds and those from good mail order sources like Johnny’s, Fedco, and Southern Exposure, but it doesn’t hurt to look. Percentages may be anywhere from 65 to 95 percent, which is obviously relevant, and having a number implies that the retail company tested the seeds before packaging them, always a good sign.
Freshness – There should be a “packed for” year on there. It’s usually just a stamp; and it’s often stamped right where you’re going to tear off the top of the envelope when you try to open the flap and it won’t. If the date is on the flap, write it somewhere else on the packet as soon as you get it home (otherwise, if you’re anything like me, you’ll forget all about it until you’re out there in the garden far from the indelible pen you should be carrying at all times but probably aren’t).
Planting Instructions – The more detailed they are, the greater the likelihood that the company is eager to have you come back.
* Consider rain patterns. It’s ok to plant seeds in dry soil and unwise to “water them in” unless you have easy access to water and time to apply it. The seeds are set up to germinate in moist soil, which tells them it’s been raining fairly regularly and they can put out their first delicate roots and leaves without fear of drought. If you tell them they’re going to get water, you have to follow up.
* Don’t pre-soak peas and beans. This used to be absolutely standard but the modern wisdom is that the cracked seed coat often opens the door to rot, without measurably increasing germination success. Do use legume inoculant.
* Plant sparingly. There’s a natural human tendency to use all of whatever is provided – that’s why dieters are advised to eat from smaller plates – but most packets of smaller seeds,** contain way more than is needed for any one sowing unless you’re growing a large crop for processing or storage.
So. Resist the impulse to plant the whole thing – or even half or a quarter of it. A typical packet of lettuce seed, for instance, even a mingy one, contains at least a hundred potential heads of lettuce. Even if the seed is old and lousy and only half of it sprouts… well, you see what I mean.
* Space widely from the get-go. Typical instructions call for planting at a close spacing and then thinning to the wider one that the growing plant requires. In theory, this ensures you won’t have skips, and will have thinnings to eat. In practice, this ensures you will set back the plants by not thinning them as soon as they have one or two sets of leaves, max. Early freedom from competition makes larger, stronger plants. Also, if you wait to thin until thinnings are big enough to eat, pulling them will damage the roots of the survivors.
You can avoid the setting back by having a life that never interferes with your gardening plans and you can avoid the root disturbance by clipping the thinnings at ground level with a very sharp scissors. But why make more work; there’s enough as it is.
After years of doing it the conventional way, I now space the seeds as far apart as I want the eventual plants. Each spot gets 3 or 4 seeds, close but not on top of each other. Soon after they come up I clip off all but one. Fingernails work as well as scissors if used when the plants are tiny.
* Write the planting date on the id stake ( see above re: indelible pen). It’s also a good idea to write down the source of the seed. Very handy for future reference and if you use decent sized markers – at least the size of wide popsicle sticks – there will be enough room for remarks when you harvest the crop.
** By small seeds I mean lettuce, endive, carrots, basil arugula, beets, chard, broccoli…essentially everything except peas, beans and corn, and flowers like nasturtiums and sunflowers. Even squash, tomatoes and peppers which admittedly do not come in hundreds, do come in ” more than you need.”