Q. I'm really excited about starting my very first vegetable garden! I started some lettuces and planted pepper and tomato seeds in biodegradable pots with organic seed starter. I'm doing a raised bed filled with 50/50 compost and top soil. Are there any particular bugs to look out for in my area? And what would you recommend to combat them? I know I need to put some type of fencing up to keep out deer and rabbits. Any other tips for a first timer would be great.
- ---Roseann in Phoenixville, PA
She replies: "No, they're in our bow window and seem to be doing ok. I'm attaching a picture of some tomatoes I started about two weeks ago. I'll buy new plants if I have to, but there's something exciting about growing your own food organically from seed!"
…which forces me to use the phrase that always got me into trouble back in management training classes: 'yes, but…."
Yes; I really took management training classes back when I was at Rodale. Had to. They didn't help. Got a D. (The class teaching pigs to sing went a lot better.)
Seed starting is not the easiest skill to master, and I feel strongly that first year gardeners should concentrate on the things that will facilitate successful outdoor growing: Like having sturdy cages for the tomatoes and building raised beds that are no wider than four feet—so you never have to step on their loose soil—and that have two foot wide walking lines in between them so that you don't keep falling into their loose soil….
Now let's talk about seasonality; some plants only grow well in cool weather, while other plants require hot weather. Her lettuce is a great cool-weather example—and it's almost always grown directly from seed as opposed to purchased plants. And she's right to start her first runs inside because the springtime soil is often too cold to germinate the seed. (It certainly has been this freaky-deaky year!)
But once those plants have been growing for about a week, they should go into the ground outside. Lettuce loves growing in cool weather and gets bitter in hot weather; so gardeners should concentrate on growing lots of it in the Spring and fall.
And the bulk of her lettuce should be grown DIRECT from seed right out there in that raised bed. Beginning about a month before her last frost date—which is right about now (mid-April for her mid-May 'last average frost')—she can start sowing more lettuce seed directly in the soil outdoors. Same thing when the weather starts cooling down in late August. In fact, late-summer through early fall is the best time for lettuce; the seed sprouts fast in the warm soil and 'late season lettuce' is typically the sweetest and most productive because it matures into the cool conditions it craves.
And there are plenty of other crops she should grow directly from seed as opposed to starting indoors. Spinach and other greens in the spring and fall; and sweet corn, string beans and pole beans as soon as the soil is warm enough in the summer.
The big ones for starting indoors and then moving outside at around six weeks of age are things like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and melons. And they are not easy for—no offense—amateurs to keep healthy those six weeks.
So: How did her 'bay window' plants look in the photo?
Luckily, at this age (about a week after sprouting), all transplants look pretty much the same. And so I was able to tell her that it's still early enough in the game for her to make them garden-viable. But it's not going to happen in a window. Young plants require strong light; either keeping the tops of the plants up close to florescent or LED tubes or raising them in an insulated greenhouse. "Sunny windowsill" is Latin for 'sorry your plants look so awful'.
And that ties in directly with her question about garden pests. The best defense against insect pest attack is to start out with strong, healthy plants. Tall, weak leggy plants that grew up light-deprived in a window are pest magnets. Injurious insects are much less attracted to healthy, stocky plants that had a good early childhood education.
So she does need to be open to the option of buying replacement plants if her starts turn out to be tall and spindly. But it's also good that she's trying her hand at seed starting now, because the only way you learn how to do this well is to make mistakes the first couple of years.
Here's the truest thing I ever wrote and you may quote me: "Seed starting is something you only get good at by being bad at." (And yes, I was awful when I started; and now my starts are better than the ones at local garden centers.)
Now, hopefully her raised bed is the right size (no wider than four feet; see above); and she's using good quality compost and (ahem) 'topsoil' (a term that kind of terrifies me as it doesn't really mean anything specific). At the very least I suggest she mix in a lot of perlite or some of that organic seed starting mix she mentioned to lighten things up.
Now the critters: We have numerous specific articles on deer and rabbit control in our wonderful A to Z archives here at Gardens Alive. But here's the short take:
She can keep rabbits out with a low fence; it only needs to be a foot or so high. Then arch some of that fencing over the lettuce to protect it from the local deer.
Then make and use the tomato cages we describe under the letter T for Tomatoes in the 'A to Z answers' section of our wonderful website; they'll give the plants much-needed support and keep deer away from the fruits.
And like we said at the top: remember to breathe. You're going to make a lot of mistakes your first year. And your second year. And….
But you know what? You'll learn from those mistakes. Then be honest with yourself about what you need to do differently, keep at it, and by Year Five or so, you'll be the best on the block.
Oh—and remember to breathe.