Roots and Shoots: Ready, Set, Germinate

Tips for starting a vegetable garden

By Pamela Doan

If you’re a gardener like me, here’s what’s going to happen in the next few weeks: I’ll get seeds ready and make the planting schedule. Then something happens. The schedule is off and it’s too late to sow indoors. I’ll adjust my plant choices to sow directly in the garden. Then something happens. Finally, the garden can always be saved by a visit to a nursery. If I’m very careful, the transplants will get into the garden before they die on the patio when I forget to water them.

The Hudson Highlands isn’t guaranteed frost-free days until mid-May, but cold hardy vegetables that can withstand freezing temperatures can be sown by early April or sooner, depending on conditions. Once the daily soil temperatures hit 40 degrees, sow cabbage, onions, broccoli, fava beans and leafy green vegetables like lettuce, arugula, kale and spinach right into the garden. By the time heat-loving vegetables like tomatoes can be planted, you could already be enjoying fresh produce from your yard.

I find there are more choices using seeds and I can experiment more with varieties but it’s time-consuming and time-sensitive. Transplants are easier on a busy schedule.

Seeds can be sown directly in the garden or started indoors. One advantage of starting seeds indoors is that there’s still time for plans B and C — directly sowing outside or buying transplants if it doesn’t meet expectations.

‘Tis the season for seed catalogs (Photo by P. Doan)

My house doesn’t have a lot of southern exposure for optimal natural light and I have cats and a young child; all of them like playing in dirt. My seedlings need more protection and grow-lights, so for me that’s another layer of work and attention to details.

Nevertheless, it’s worth it. Discovering a seed has sprouted thrills me, even now, after years of gardening. What seems like a straightforward process — soil, water, sunlight — has a magical feeling when it works. For a seed to germinate, it needs exactly the right conditions. Some seeds are more tolerant and will give you a wider margin for error and others are more particular, like seeds that need stratifying, soaking or chilling before sowing.

Use a sterile growing medium rather than potting soil or garden soil. The seeds won’t have to compete with weeds or any pathogens that may be lingering.

Here’s what to look at in a seed packet besides the art:

Seeds are packaged to spark fantasies of gorgeous, flavorful produce. Before jumping into a relationship at the checkout counter, through, check the back. The fine print includes the growing instructions.

Not all lettuce is the same, for example. While it varies in leaf size, flavor and color, it also varies in days to harvest. This is the total amount of time from seed to salad. Varieties in the Hudson Valley Seed catalog range from 28 to 65 days. Lettuce tends to flower and get ready to seed in hot weather, becoming too bitter to eat. While we can get heat waves before Memorial Day, June and July are riskier. Time lettuce planting to harvest before then and plant something else in its spot.

For best results, use your garden layout to rotate plantings by family. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, just don’t plant something in the same place as last year. The brassica family, for example, is cruciferous vegetables and includes Brussels sprouts, broccoli and cauliflower. Pests and diseases can live in the soil and will happily revive themselves if given the chance.

In commercial farming, plants are rotated for soil health, too. For example, tomatoes, corn and the brassicas all use a lot of nutrients from the soil and leave it more depleted. Beans and peas are soil builders and help replace nitrogen so that’s a good example of a crop rotation. Root crops like carrots, potatoes, garlic and leeks are light feeders and require fewer resources.

A top layer of 2 to 3 inches of compost is sufficient for a new or established garden in terms of nutrients for a growing season. Try to avoid digging more than necessary to get seeds or plants in the ground. Every time the soil is turned over, weed seeds are being brought to the surface and soil microbes are disrupted. The rototiller can be retired, for sure, and the garden has just lowered its carbon footprint in multiple ways while all the CO2 is left in the ground.

Pamela Doan, a garden coach with One Nature, has grown ferns in Seattle, corn on a Brooklyn rooftop and is now trying to cultivate shitake mushrooms on logs. Email her at [email protected].

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