Seed Starting – Threat or Menace? (not really)
So, fellow food gardeners, have you started your celeriac yet? Surely the artichokes, leeks and onions are growing strongly by now, and you have the flats all set so as soon as you finish reading this you can rush off to plant the broccoli, kohlrabi and spring cabbage.
Uh huh. Maybe someday, but if you’re anything like me your supply of well-lit warm space won’t support that many plants, even if your supply of ambition is adequate to the task.
And please don’t point out that I could install grow lights in the basement. The only possible basement spot is already full of dormant figs and brugmansias and the giant lemon verbena, to say nothing of over a dozen large garbage bags full of dahlia tubers and canna rhizomes.
I’m mentioning this because there are so many planting timetables floating around out there, telling you exactly when to start seedlings for just about any vegetable you might conceivably want to grow.
Makes sense for the timetables; the more thorough they are the better. What doesn’t make sense is to let them intimidate you. Yet I still find myself faintly cowed.
No amount of knowing that most of this doesn’t apply to us keeps me from having twinges of guilt about how few things I start indoors. Then I get cast down over not having started soon enough. Or too soon. Or…
Here’s what: Unless you’re a market gardener or a survivalist, the only crops you absolutely must start inside from seed are the ones that meet at least two of these criteria:
1. They will not produce unless started from seedlings
2. The seedlings needed cannot be purchased from local nurseries or market gardeners
3. Whatever it is, you plan to eat so much of it that buying it from worthy farmers would cost more than you can afford.
Eliminating everything that doesn’t pass the test makes the must-do list much shorter, but there are still a few items on it, so here’s what else: There’s no rush. Although the timetables always give starting times counting backwards from last predicted frost , frost is only a proxy for the thing that matters most.
What really counts is when you’ll be able to get the plants into the ground. Outdoor plants do not like to be indoors, even when they get everything they need,* and they usually don’t get anywhere near everything. There is often quite a while between last frost and planting out time, so it’s always better to err by starting on the late side.
Waiting is frustrating. The urge to get going is strong and young home-grown seedlings often look small compared to commercial alternatives. But small really is beautiful. Whether they’re tomatoes, peppers or exotic, long-season beans, young plants get settled and start growing more quickly than their older, often weaker kin. Spared the setbacks of transplant stress, they catch up in just a few weeks and often go on to be healthier and bear larger crops.
Full disclosure: I do start quite a few seedlings but most of my tomatoes, peppers, cutting flowers and such are started by the invaluable Jan MacDonald, at Barlejo farm in Warren, Maine. She has been in the vanguard, but there are now more and more greenhouse growers who do custom work, and if you can find one it’s well worth the investment. Choosing exactly the varieties you want, then having them grown by a pro is pretty close to a perfect setup.
A few things I start myself, in that ever-more-crowded greenhouse:
Specialty peppers that take months to germinate
Tomatoes I decided to grow after I sent the seed packets to Jan
Items to plant in the NY garden that are only indoors a short time and make no sense to bring down from Maine – lettuces and other greens for early harvest, basils, lima beans and long beans. Plus flowers (coming up in a post or two).
I never used to start winter squash; you only get 2 or 3 weeks’ head start and the Hudson Valley growing season is usually plenty long enough. But “growing season” is measured frost to frost, and last year was a horrid reminder that frost-free is not the same as good squash growing weather. This year I plan to hedge my bets and I might start a few cucumbers too, just for laughs.
* “everything they need” includes but is not limited to: 12 to 16 hours a day of bright light; warm temperatures during the day, slightly-less-warm temperatures at night; different sets of temperatures for different crops ( peppers want it hotter than broccoli, for instance). Also correct quantities of water and fertilizer, plenty of air circulation… If you didn’t have respect for seeds before, the fact that they’re able to produce useable, often quite nice plants while almost all of these needs go unmet ought to make you sit up and take notice. The people who call them miraculous are not exaggerating.