We’re continuing with Garden Tribe’s 21-day Boot Camp for new edible-gardeners. Today’s topic: When and How to Start.
Some plants like to grow in cooler weather, some in scorching hot weather. Some like to be started indoors under fluorescent lights, some prefer to germinate right where they’re going to grow. It’s good to know which is which. Again, let me refer you to West Coast Seeds’ Planting Charts. I write on my calendar the dates I want to be sowing specific crops, whether direct sowing or indoor starts.
So here’s a quick-‘n-dirty summary of some of the commonest vegetables and their starting preferences:
Carrots: are actually a bit hard to grow, because they’re a bit hard to get started. They need to be sown where they’re going to grow, really dislike being transplanted. But they need to be sown shallowly, and then kept moist until they germinate, which is an inconveniently long 2-3 weeks. And they like to grow in coolish weather, but germinate in warmer soil. I’m trying something new this year, having failed miserably many times before this: I sowed on a bed that’s I’d lightly amended with compost, and that previously had been deeply dug through digging up potatoes that were there last year. Then I’ve covered the damp bed with black plastic to warm it up and prevent evaporation. The seeds don’t need light until they germinate, so I just check every day or so looking for sprouts. Then (assuming I’ll finally be wildly successful) I’ll take off the cover. I’ve heard of covering the seed rows with boards so the soil stays wet, and again, checking every day or so for germination. (Notice the key is keeping the soil wet-ish?)
Lettuce: a cool weather crop, lettuce germinates in warmish soil, but not hot soil. So when the temperature is over 22° C, just wait until it’s cooler to sow another crop. And although you can definitely direct sow lettuce, you may get more predictable harvest if you sow indoors and transplant seedlings. Another thing about lettuce is that it will flower and set seed when the heat of summer comes, at which time the leaves get quite bitter and unpleasant. They do tolerate shade better than almost any other vegetable, so shade-planted lettuce with last longer into the summer than sun-planted lettuce.
Most other leafy greens: Collards, mustard greens, mache (aka corn salad), arugula–they’re all happy to be direct sown while it’s still pretty cool out, as long as your garden bed isn’t actually soggy. And like lettuce, will tolerate half-day shade. Especially second-half-of-the-day shade.
Radish: quick to grow, so start then early in March, then the next week start a few more, and carry on until they “bolt” (flower and set seed). Even then, the seed pods, when they’re small and green, are easily as tasty as the root vegetable. I’ve been known to plant radishes just for the seed pods.
Tomatoes: Everybody’s favourite vegetable to grow ( not going to discuss the fruit/vegetable controversy!). These need to grow in warming soil, and are slow to germinate unless the soil is warm. So start them indoors under bright light, and be slow to get them outdoors, not until the nights are consistently over 10 C. If you use the black plastic (or red plastic, as is often recommended!) to warm the soil, you may be able to get them out as early as end April or beginning of May. I’ve tried the milk jug cloche idea. With limited success, but I’ll try it again this year.
Peas: are great. Can be started in or out, as early as February, as long as the soil isn’t soggy; But if started inside they’ll germinate MUCH faster, and get a head start on producing. Peas are a cool season crop, so they stop producing by early summer, so if you started them early indoors you’ll get a bigger, longer crop. But you can also sow again mid-summer for a fall harvest. Apparently. Haven’t tried that myself–maybe I will this year.
Peas and beans can be treated with an “inoculant”, a rhizobium bacterium that develops a symbiotic relationship with the plant contributing to quite a lot of plant benefits. it’s not necessary, but almost always recommended in literature on pea growing.
Beans: Green beans (as opposed to dry beans) can grow as bushes or vines. Called Bush Beans and Pole Beans. They can also be sown indoors or out, but unlike peas, REALLY want warm soil to germinate or the seed rots; optimal soil temperature is 15 -25 C. Since it takes a long time for our coastal soil to warm up, starting them indoors means you can transplant them out when it warms up. Alternatively, the black-plastic-over-the-soil trick to warm up the soil may give optimal environment. I have a patch that’s covered right now; I’ll let you know how it works…
Broccoli: is one of those vegetables that can tolerate a lot of cold weather, so can be sown in spring for summer harvest, in early summer for fall harvest, and late summer for winter harvest. Read through the seed packets to know how long it takes for your particular variety to mature. There’s one that takes 7 months: you sow in late summer and harvest the following spring! Another takes 10-12 months! In any case start them inside under lights.
With some of those vegetables, ones that don’t take an entire growing season to mature (unlike like tomatoes or squash), reserve part of the designated crop space for successive sowings. Radishes for example, being a quick-growing crop, can be sown ever week or so through the spring/early summer so there’s always radishes ready to harvest. Ditto for many leafy greens, carrots, beets… Some vegetables you can start indoors while your previous crop is maturing, so when you finish harvesting the first round, a second round is ready to transplant out. Just remember to give the planting bed an extra shovel of compost or cup of organic fertilizer.