And they’re off! Spring has sprung and it’s time and past time for seedlings to be in their trays. Questions abound…will they sprout? Did I plant them too early? Too late? Are there enough? Too many? When do I water them? When do I transplant them? Where should I source my seeds?
What to plant?
1. Plant what you like to eat!
2. Plant what will grow in your zone and bear fruit in a season. The zone refers to the area you live and how many months of frost-free growing you have in that area. Zone 3, for example, has three months of growing between the last frost of spring and the first of the fall. Zone 10 has ten months of frost-free growing). Latitude, proximity to the coasts, aspect in relation to the sun, and elevation above sea level all affect zones. Microclimates affect the success of plants. These shady, cool spots or warm sheltered places within your yard make a difference.
3. Plant what will work within your limiting factors. Consider the amount of light/shade; water availability; wind exposure; soil composition; your time limits). These factors can make the difference between beautiful tomatoes or wilty plants. It is important to be clear about your time, too. We all have the best of intentions in April—and busy lives in July and August when the weeds are thick and the harvest is coming on.
4. Don’t plant everything you want to grow. If you are only going to plant out a few tomatoes or squash plants; it makes more sense to buy from a nursery or farmers’ market vendor.
Where to source seeds?
Look for more on this topic soon, but suffice it to say for now that we need more seed variety in this country. There are several good seed companies and they all need your support. Look for seed companies local to you. Look for seed companies that produce seed in a zone like yours. Look for open-pollinated and heirloom varieties. Buy organic seed if you can. Borrow from (and replenish) a seed library.
Consider the possibility of starting to save your own seeds to start next year. With a little prior proper planning on your part, you can begin to breed your own varieties suited to your specific area. And you get to name your creation!
When to plant?
This is a combination of factors. Most important is the length of time to fruition and the length of your season. Most seed packets and catalogs list when to plant and the number of days until germination and fruition. Start some plants indoors well before the average last frost. Start hardier plants outdoors (most of these can also start in trays). Note: Trays are more subject to chill temperatures. They need the protection of plastic or a building or a heat mat to produce well. Likewise they need regular watering to maintain soil moisture.
To get continuous production in your garden, you can seed plants every several days within the window for each type of plant. For example, if radishes are your thing and you have a six month growing season, you can plant radishes every week. Radishes take about 30 days to harvest. You would have a regular harvest every week, or until it gets to be too warm or until you tire of radishes.
Caring for Seedlings
We plant out several varieties of greens in trays each spring. We fill other trays with mini-rows of brassicas (cabbage/broccoli family). We even put beets and parsnips in trays. The ends of the mature root crops may not look perfect, but their success from a tray vs. direct seeding in the soil makes it worth it.
The seedlings need light, heat, and closely-regulated moisture. They need a good, nutrient –rich soil for their growth. This soil should be light and fluffy so the roots can spread out and growth healthy plants. A well-grown seedling will have more of its mass in its roots than the stems or leaves. At the same time, the leaves and stem should be strong, a vibrant color and free of blemishes.
Start seedlings close together in rows and transplant them into individual spaces. These can be individual pots or larger spaces in deeper trays. Give them a few days to adjust to the new conditions. Then “harden them off” by leaving the plants outdoors for longer periods of time until they adjust. Now you are ready to transplant them into their garden tower or permanent growing bed.
Now, how to distribute all the extra seedlings grown? And we're off to start the next batches of seedlings!