It’s slightly more complicated than your fourth grade biology project, but a whole lot more rewarding: starting your own garden plants from seed indoors.
“It’s a lot of fun,” says veteran gardener Tina Beneman. “There’s nothing more exciting than seeing the seeds sprout, especially when everything outside is dormant and gray.”
For years Beneman has been starting seeds for everything from vegetables to annuals and perennials. One reason is cost. “I love abundance but the cost a packet of seeds versus what you’d pay to buy the plants is incredible.”
Starting your own offers a much broader choice of varieties too. Though garden centers are rapidly expanding their plant and seed varieties, few will offer things like fluted Costoluto Genovese Tomato, Bolivian Rainbow Pepper, or Ragged Robin ‘Jenny’ (Lychniss flos-cuculi), a retrieved Elizabethan favorite whose blossoms are a scrim of tattered pink pompoms.
“When you get the seed and start plants yourself, you can get exactly the varieties that you want,” says Mark Willis, vegetable seed production manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, NY.
Catalogues, whose jewel-like photos beckon with promises of gorgeous summer gardens and marvelous meals, offer a fantastic range of choices. In addition, many also offer recipes, generations-old garden wisdom, and mini-portraits of vegies, flowers, and herbs, including plant history, seed provenance, taste and hints on cultivation. Yet the wealth of choices can be overwhelming. To winnow, consider what you really want in your garden and on your table.
“We can get a lot more variety through local farmers’ markets now,” notes Ellen Ogden, former owner of The Cook’s Garden in Warminster, PA. “So I chose what to plant [at home] based on what I like to cook and can’t get at the local farmer’s market [or supermarket].”
In addition to salad greens and annual herbs for daily harvest, Ogden always plants Sungold Tomatoes, which can be hard to find in garden centers, and Bright Lights Swiss Chard, which is beautiful, delicious, and produces for months.
“You can also choose what to plant based on your garden size, location, and soil type,” says Erica Renaud, home gardener and research farmer at Seeds of Change. A north-facing garden will do better with spinach and salad greens than with sun-worshipers like eggplant, basil, tomatoes and squash. Soil type matters too. “Carrots grown in the clay soil I had when I lived in Ohio just didn’t taste good,” says Renaud.
“It’s a good idea to check with your extension service to find out what varieties do best here and what ones not to plant,” suggests Cindy King, horticulturist at Kingstown Farm Home and Garden Center in Chestertown, MD.
“We’re so lucky in Maryland. All the tomatoes grow well,” says Jon Traunfeld of the MD Cooperative Extension Service. Even so, Traunfeld has some favorites: Amish Paste and San Remo paste for sauce. Celebrity, a good all-round tomato whose plants grow a manageable 4-5 feet tall, Rutgers, Jetstar and Big Beef are good slicers. In heirlooms, he recommends the early-fruiting Russians — Black Krim and Black Tula.
“Prudence Purple is like Brandywine but seems to produce better than Brandywine,” he says. “And we’ve had really good luck with Golden Queen, a yellow tomato from Landis Valley Farm Museum in Lancaster Co. It’s smooth, doesn’t crack and has really good flavor.”
Traunfeld says all eggplant varieties do equally well here in Maryland, but recommends the Italian frying peppers over the bells, which take longer to ripen and don’t produce as prolifically as the Italians. The Italian frying peppers are also beautiful.
“They come in different colors when ripe,” he says. “And they have very
thin skin not like the thicker skin of the bells.” Marconi and Corno di toro (bull‘s horn) peppers are trusted favorites.
In choosing what to try starting from seed, consider production factors, too. If you have limited indoor growing space as well as limited garden space, you may want to forego the Brassicas [broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts], which take lots of room and produce lots less food per plant than tomatoes and peppers, which keep coming and coming. And remember: something old; something new works for the garden too.
“I always try a little something new to keep experimenting both in the garden and in the kitchen,” says Renaud.
Start peppers, which are slow to germinate and grow indoors, 10-12 weeks from when you plan to set them out about mid-May.
“Start eggplant maybe 10 weeks before you put them out,” advises Traunfeld. “And tomatoes only need about 6 weeks.”
“I’ve learned a lot about plants just by starting seed indoors and watching them grow,” says Beneman. “You get an intuitive understanding about what they need. And you don’t have to contend with rabbits and deer and other attackers – at least until you put them in the ground!”
Catalogue Sources for Seeds
(Some also have seed starting supplies).
Seed Savers Exchange, 3094 North Winn Rd., Decorah, IA 52101, 563-382-5990
Harris Seeds, 355 Paul Rd., P.O. Box 24966, Rochester, NY 14624-0966, 800-544-7938
Seeds of Change, P.O. Box 4908, Rancho Dominguez, CA 90220, 888-762-7333
Select Seeds, 180 Stickney Hill Rd., Union CT 06076-4617, 800-684-0395
Burpee, Warminster, PA 18974, 800-888-1447
The best way to grow the exact varieties you want is to start your own transplants from seed indoors. Equipment can range from the simple (small tabletop germination station at $20) to a major investment. Regardless of scale, there are four keys to success.
“Start with a good quality seed starting mix,” says Mark Willis, vegetable seed production manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, NY. Some mixes are sterile to prevent inadvertent disease and bacteria infestations. Others include micro-nutrients provided by worm castings and mealworm guano. Also make sure containers are sterile.
To germinate well, seeds need bottom heat, which can be supplied by the top of the frig or a heat mat. Once seedlings have popped through, unplug the mat.<
Light is critical for sturdy transplants.
“You want at least 10-12 hours of direct natural light,” says Willis, “or supplement with full spectrum florescent lights.” Artificial light should stay within two inches of plant tops. If light is weak, or too far away, seedlings will ‘stretch’ (grow tall and weak-stemmed).
Seedlings need to be kept just-moist, never sodden. Too much moisture will cause tender plants to rot and die off.
Finally, plant early but not too early. “You have to calculate backwards from the outdoor planting date so you’re not trying to hold transplants in the house too long,” says Thierer. “We have handouts to tell when to plant which seeds, when to start hardening them off and when to plant out.”
5100 Schenley Place, Lawrenceburg, IN 47025, 513-354-1482
This place has the best seed starting mix I’ve ever tried.
Maryland Local Garden Centers
seeds and seed starting supplies:
Behnke Nurseries, 11300 Baltimore Ave., Beltsville, MD 20705, 301-937-1100
They also have a month-by-month to-do list for gardeners
Valley View Farms, 11035 York Rd., Cockeysville, MD, 410-527-0700
Kingsdene Nurseries and Garden Center, 16435 York Rd., Monkton, MD 21111, 410-343-1150
Homestead Gardens, 743 W. Central Ave., Davidsonville, MD, 410-798-5000
Kingstown Farm, Home, and Garden Center, 7121 Church Hill Rd., Chestertown, MD 21620,
410-778-1551, kingstown farm home and garden
- This article first appeared in The Baltimore Sun