Seed Starting Tips

From the Up Beet Gardener
by Marion Owen) (Sign up for the UpBeet Gardener newsletter @
January 24, 2004

Whether you have a full-sized garden or a window box, you can enjoy the fruits of your labors by growing your own vegetables, herbs and flowers. Why grow your own? + You have access to an endless variety of plants + You decide what you want to grow, and when + You'll save money: A pack of 300 lettuce seeds cost the same as a head of romaine

I will outline the basic steps below, but I highly recommend reading my Seeding is Believing article ( which explains each step, from sowing to transplanting, in an easy to understand, Reader's Digest style.

First, you'll need to know the frost free date, which is the approximate date of your area's last spring frost. This is the date you aim for as the time to transplant your seedlings out in the garden. If you don't know your frost free date, ask local gardeners, your cooperative extension agent, or inquire at a good garden center.

Now count backwards from that date the number of weeks indicated on the timetable below to figure out the starting date for various crops. For example, let's say your frost free date is May 1, and you want to grow broccoli. Looking at the table below, you see that broccoli should be started indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the frost free date. So, counting backwards, you'll need to sow your seeds somewhere around March 1 to March 15.

Here's a list of starting times for popular vegetables, flowers and herbs. An asterisk(*) indicates a cold-hardy plant that can be set out 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost.

VEGETABLES 12 to 14 weeks: onions*, leeks*, chives*, celery, globe artichoke 8 to 12 weeks: green onions*, peppers, eggplant, lettuce* 6 to 8 weeks: Swiss chard, mustard spinach*, Oriental greens*, cucumbers, tomatoes 4 to 6 weeks: cucumbers, cabbage family crops* (cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, kale) 2 to 4 weeks: melon, okra, pumpkins, squash

FLOWERS 16 to 20 weeks: fuchsia 12 to 14 weeks: pansies*, lobelia, coleus, impatiens, poppies 8 to 12 weeks: snapdragons, alyssum, petunia 6 to 8 weeks: calendula*, daisy, nemesia, ageratum and other hardy annuals 4 to 6 weeks: African daisy, marigolds, zinnias, cockscombs, godetia, nasturtium, bachelor button, dahlia, canary bird vine, sweet peas and other tender annuals

HERBS 12 to 14 weeks: chives, oregano, mint, yarrow, parsley 8 to 12 weeks: thyme, chamomile, feverfew, valerian, catnip 6 to 8 weeks: dill, chervil, coriander, lemon balm, sage, arugula, savory, basil

CONTAINERS An ideal container is 2 to 3 inches deep, with small drainage holes at the bottom. Try yogurt cups, cottage cheese tubs, milk carton sections and plastic salad trays from restaurants. In the last issue, I introduced my favorite seed-starting tool: the soil cuber (

SOIL Buy a good quality seed starting mix. Avoid using soil from the garden, which packs down, drains poorly and can introduce "damping-off," a disease that causes seedlings to rot at soil level. To prevent damping off, rinse your containers with a mild bleach-water solution (1 tablespoon bleach per gallon of water).

HOW TO SOW SEEDS Make individual holes or furrows with a pencil, chopstick or plant marker. Drop or sprinkle seeds onto the soil. Check the seed packets for depths, but here are some general guidelines: + Sow large seeds (nasturtiums, sweet peas) at least 1 inch apart. + Plant medium-sized seeds (lettuce, Swiss chard, marigold) 1/2 to1 inch apart. + Plant tiny seeds about 1/4 to 1/2 inch apart.

(Got fumble fingers? Use a pencil, the best seed sowing tool around. Learn how at

Cover the seeds to a depth of about 3 times their thickness by sprinkling them with dry seed starting mix. (Tip: Shake dry soil from a parmesan cheese container). Spritz them with water and press down gently. Label your seeds! Place the containers of planted seeds in a warm place where you can check them daily. You can cover them with plastic, but be sure to keep an eye on them. As soon as they germinate, remove the plastic.

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