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.

I’m lucky; we have a small greenhouse. But finding room in it for the tomatoes, peppers, basil and other necessities that will be soon be needing light is going to be hard enough without asking the cauliflower to move over

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.

the lemon verbena, pausing briefly between in ground in garden and in pot in basement

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.

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  • Julia Said,

    I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m just not one of those super planners and instead rely on my more organic approach to the garden. And that is to enjoy the dreamy part of it that requires no brain or leg work. Granted, my harvest is not quite as large but I get much less frustrated! And for me that accounts for something.

  • Rochelle Said,

    I experimented last year with tomatoes…started some for myself, planted some from seed straight into the ground, and bought some starts from a local nursery. I was compelled to do this on the advice of a local farmer at the farmers market who point blank told me that from a farmer point of view, starting tomatoes simply wouldn’t be happening on her scale…seeds go into the ground and that is it.
    My results — by late june all the plants were nearly the same size…and by late july most of my plants (except for a couple varieties that I planted from seed) had been plagued with blight. so it goes, but needless to say, I proved it to myself, I am not bothering with starting indoors – straight into the ground those tomatoes go…

  • Lorna Sass Said,

    Oh, it all sounds so exciting and that verbena plant is truly amazing. Hope to see you (and maybe your garden) before you take off for Maine. And where are the cats? Wasn’t it sunny enough for them in the greenhouse when you took the photo or is there really no longer any room for them in there? Happy seedlings!

  • Holy cow, I can’t believe that’s lemon verbena! I had no idea it grew into a small tree. In what gardening zone is the Hudson Valley? If you only spend winters there, I don’t understand how you end up w/ such a fab garden (there). Assuming that’s where the greenhouse is, I wonder if it’s heated or just absorbs sunlight and the bricks give it back at night…. It’s really lovely.

    • Leslie Said,

      Truth to tell, Melinda, lemon verbena is a shrub, though it can (supposedly) hit 10 feet in warm climates where it’s happy. The plant in the picture has been being pruned into submission for – I dunno, maybe a dozen years. It spends summers in Maine, in the ground, then gets cut back hard ( the plant in the picture was already pruned once) and hauled back to NY for its winter slumbers. Our part of the Hudson Valley teeters between zones 5 and 6, but then so do our gardens; the big vegetable vegetable patch is below the house, in zone 5, the protected front yard above is more like 6. The greenhouse isn’t formally heated but we do put a space heater in when outdoor temps go below 18 or so, just so the plants don’t freeze. I’ll pass your compliment on it along to Bill, who built it. How we have both gardens is a long story, some of it already on the blog – just keep browsing! – and more to come.

  • Bill Bakaitis Said,

    Hi Melinda,

    Well your comment about the greenhouse has inspired me to do a post about it. Give me a few rainy days indoors and it should show up.


  • Roger Willson Said,

    I too would like to purchase some healthy tomatoes, peppers, etc. from a reliable grower but I don’t want to drive all the way to Warren Maine. Do you know of a good source in the lower Hudson valley? Something between Home Depot and White Flower Farm.

  • Leslie Said,

    Hi Roger – Good question. Not ignoring you; was just planning to do a post in answer… Short version is farmers’ markets – and some local nurseries. Vegetable seedlings have always been a sideline for these growers, and as interest in vegetable gardening has picked up, so has the range and quantity offered for sale.

    You won’t be able to dictate varieties, but you will know who grew the seedlings and can ask about growing methods etc. Small-scale folks start a lot (maybe most) of the plants from seed, but some buy small starts from large suppliers, so it doesn’t hurt to ask whether starts were involved.

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