Thursday, March 17, 2011

Growing Edibles - Seeds vs. Seedlings

So now you have your gorgeous raised beds and they are begging to be filled. You might start ogling seed packet racks at Lowes or drool over a huge seed catalog you got in the mail. I recommend staying far away from both of them if you are a new gardener.


If you are growing in the Pacific Northwest, I want you to go to Territorial Seed Company right now and order a catalog from them. The information that is printed about growing each variety will be super helpful to you, even if you never order seed from them.

Territorial is located in southern Oregon and specializes in seeds for gardeners in our climate. By "our climate" I mean a cool growing season. Yes, we get a couple hot months, and thankfully our evenings stay relatively warm compared to mountain regions, but we just don't get enough sunlight, even in summer, to easily grow many heat loving veggies. So right now, please cross these veggies off your list: Eggplant, most peppers, melons, okra

Someday, you might want to experiment with these and that is fine. But not for your first couple years and not if you are tight on space. In fact, if you have small raised beds, also cross winter squash and pumpkins off your list, they are huge plants that will fill your entire bed with only a few fruits per plant.

Now that your list is shorter, you can peruse the catalog and read whatever you like. But don't order anything yet.


For the new gardener, it is much easier to buy vegetable seedlings if you can find a source for cheap, good quality ones. Bellingham is blessed in this regard. Joe's Gardens has an incredible selection of seedlings. Not only that, they only put out ones that are appropriate for the season and they generally only sell ones that perform well here. The staff is super friendly and knowledgeable and all this is for only $1.39 per pot - which is usually 6 plants or up to 20 for onions & peas.

Joe's starts are also sold at Haggens and the Food Co-op, but if you go directly to Joe's, they are usually a tad cheaper. They are grown without pesticides but Joe's does use a chemical fertilizer on all their plants.

If you live somewhere else, try nurseries, farm supply stores or farmers markets. Remember these guidelines and ask the people working at the store if you are unsure about their plant quality:

1) Plants need to be "hardened off" which means they have been outside, overnight in your locale, not lounging about in a greenhouse. The shock of going from warm greenhouse to cold raised bed will stunt their growth or even kill them.

2) Plants for most things should be young and stocky NOT outgrowing their pots or looking spindly. For spring plants, they should all be tiny. Summer plants like tomatoes & peppers can be larger, but should be in a large pot.

3) Choose a place that cares about your success and does not carry plants that don't grow where you live.

The benefits of seedlings are these:

1) You can plant earlier in spring. Seeds don't germinate well in the cold wet spring, but if you put in seedlings, they will start growing roots and will take off as soon as the weather warms even slightly. Planting & harvesting early is vital to avoiding pests that come out in swarms late spring/early summer.

2) In the summer, you don't have to remember to water your seed bed everyday to keep it moist for germination. (I can't tell you how many times I've screwed this one up)

3) You don't have to over seed and then thin out your plants, you just plant exactly how many you want, spaced out how you want and are done with it.

1) you don't get to pick the exact variety you want - less choice

2) Overall cost is a bit more

Most seedling trays come with more than one plant. Be sure to tease each plant apart and plant them spaced out appropriately. Don't worry if you break a few roots, this should only take a couple minutes. If spacing info is not on the tag, this would be a good time to get out your Territorial catalog and read the correct spacing for whatever you are planting.


You can not buy starts for everything, some things - i.e. root crops - do not like to be transplanted. Also, for things that are small, that you need a lot of - i.e. arugula plants - seeds will be much cheaper.

So for those of you crying about not getting to pick out gorgeous seed packs, there is hope! Even better, for most root crops, you can buy any brand and any variety you want. Go crazy! Rainbow hued carrots? French breakfast radishes? Golden beets? Go for it.

But whatever you do, you must PROMISE me, do NOT start any seeds in those cute magical jiffy pellets indoors. (or in any pot indoors) Someday, yes, you might want to try it. But starting seeds indoors is really hard. You must have a grow light of some sort. Sunny windows will not cut it. Worse, you must gradually introduce them to living outside which means days of moving them in and out, in and out of the house. Seed starting is not for busy moms who are just starting to garden.


If you really truly can not find a reputable and cheap source for seedlings, go ahead and start your spring crops from seeds, sown directly into your garden bed. Some good easy bets for this are lettuces, snap peas, herbs, green beans, kale, zucchini, etc. Plus all the common root vegetables. The only ones to stay away from are the ones I already crossed off your list, plus tomatoes. You must buy tomato plants to have any hope of getting ripe ones in our climate.

Don't worry, I will go through the pros & cons of a bunch of common vegetables in a future post and tell you when to plant them (very important) and what to watch out for when picking the varieties.

Again, I recommend purchasing from Territorial Seed, but there are many good brands at nurseries. You won't be able to start your garden quite as early using seeds, but since you get so many in a packet, it is fine to experiment. Plant a little batch and see if they sprout. After a few years you will get a good sense for how warm it needs to be for them to germinate.

Really, planting seeds is not hard at all, just read the packet and stick them in according to the directions. Pay careful attention to spacing and do not ever plant the whole pack of seeds. Most seed packets are huge and last me at least 3 years. Seeds do go bad and stop sprouting, so don't keep them more than three years.

Seeds need to stay moist to germinate. In the spring, I rely almost exclusively on rain to do this for me unless we get a surprise warm dry spell. In the summer, they need to be sprinkled almost daily, especially if they are planted shallow.


Andi Mae said...

Oh, Kari, I am really really loving these gardening posts! I have seriously been waiting all day to get home to check if you posted another one! :)

Jenny said...

wow, thanks! I'm starting my first veggie garden this year...but I totally already bought the we'll see how that goes!

how much are you charging for these tips? ;)

jessica said...

I love all these gardening tips. SO helpful! I just moved to Seattle and have had so many questions on growing things with the limited sun. Thank you!