If you’re new to gardening, or have always bought your vegetable seeds at local stores, you might not be aware that the January 2nd is opening day of garden planning season – not when the racks appear at your garden center or hardware store in spring. If you wait until it’s almost time to plant outdoors, you’re hopelessly behind schedule, and missing out on the really cool crops too. The time for ordering your seed and propagation planning is now if you’re going to have an exciting garden chock full of incredible good food. Of course, if you’ve ever ordered from seed catalogs, they’ve been arriving since before Christmas, reminding you that seed shopping season follows on the heels of the holidays.
No retail store will gamble on which seed varieties they stock. They just want them to sell, which means you’ll have a limited, perhaps only run-of-the-mill selection growing in your garden. And it’s impossible to bring some of those crops to harvest before cold weather returns if you try starting them from seed after threat of late frost in spring. No matter how small your garden is, if you’re going to start it all from seed, you need to plan what you want to grow, secure the seed, and set up your propagation schedule in the dead of winter. If you procrastinate, don’t be surprised if some things you really wanted to try are sold out. In gardening, the early bird gets the worm – especially when it’s a rare, or new-to-the-market fruit or vegetable.
Indoor Propagation or Soil Sown?
I’ve never understood the reasoning behind offering tomato and pepper seed on local store seed racks, because these crops need to be started long before the displays appear on sales floors. But retail doesn’t worry about propagation planning when you need to, to them it’s time to move snow shovels and clearance the Christmas poinsettia leftovers. They’re missing the whole point of meeting customer needs, especially in a cold climate where you really should be starting peppers 8-12 weeks before the last threat of frost. They are so slow to get started and reach a fruit bearing stage of growth that starting seed indoors is a must for anyone not living in a frost-free place. Buying these in seed form in April is a waste of money unless you’re going to finish them off in the indoor garden, or have a greenhouse to extend the garden season.
The same is true of tomatoes. You need to propagate these at least 6-8 weeks before it’s time to plant them outdoors, and if your season gives only 14-16 weeks between last frost and first frost? A good harvest might mean starting them with your peppers, and transplanting them to larger pots in the germination area to ensure your plants are going to offer a harvest before the early cold snaps wipe out your fruits. It depends on how long the varieties you choose take to mature. You can’t make a sandwich out of quick finishing cherry tomatoes, and the early ripening types are quite small too, with some being more juice than meat. But if you start them early enough indoors and provide ample light for strong growth and a bigger root system than standard seedling cells can produce, harvest ripe big beefsteaks and heirlooms is possible in a short season.
Other fruit or vegetable plants that you might want to propagate indoors for 2-3 months before planting out would be eggplant, tomatillos, long season melons, and artichokes. North of zone 7 it’s impossible to grow artichokes the traditional way with harvest being in the second year, but a 12-week head start can mean the difference of growing them at home and wishing you could, because it delivers a harvest in the first year.
Victory Over Conditions
Some crops though easy to grow just about anywhere can present you with problems, like high winds or heavy spring rains removing seed from the garden before it has a chance to sprout. This would be fine, lightweight seed that is planted really shallow. For me, it’s carrots, which all wind up in the weeds leaving very little in the row. I suppose it would help if the garden were on flat ground, but it’s not, and starting carrot seed indoors 4 weeks before planting time makes the difference between harvesting a handful versus having a full row to harvest.
The local wildlife can present problems too, like squirrels and chipmunks digging up squash, melon, or pumpkin seeds. It’s always the larger seed they go after, though they want nothing to do with the plants. You can stop the frustrating thievery by starting the plants inside 4 weeks before the last frost date.
Some Propagation Tips
Be sure to study each selection before ordering seed. The gorgeous photos can easily trick you into buying things that won’t grow in your climate, leading you down the poor propagation planning path. You can extend the garden season to a certain extent by propagating some plants early indoors, but not all of them.
- Use “seed starting mix”. More successful germination conditions is the only reason it exists.
- Remember to buy enough seed to put 2-3 seeds in each cell, because they won’t all sprout. There’s no such thing as 100% germination, and not all seedlings are equally robust.
- Buy a good HO T5 grow light. Fruits and vegetables are FULL SUN plants, which won’t develop like they should in a windowsill, or under a weak light.
- Cool season crops will probably not do well in the heat under a light.
- Bottom watering is far better than top watering, and a humidity dome is a definite need.
- Use an oscillating fan to give them a breeze for an hour or two every day. It helps indoor plants develop a strong stem and withstand the wind outdoors.
- A germination heat mat is wise, especially with peppers and tomatoes. They’ll take forever to sprout without one.
- Keep notes! Potting date for one, and fertilization as they grow. You’ll be glad you did next year.
Happy Seed Shopping 🙂
Not sure where to get GMO dust free organic seed, exciting rare varieties, or the best heirloom selection? Check these seed houses out: