Sowing Success When You Sow Seeds
Question of the Week © 2023 Mike McGrath
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Q: Hannah, "an anxious plant mom in Absecon, NJ" writes: "I've been listening to you every week since I decided to become a serious veggie gardener last year. Being a first-year gardener, I have many questions--especially since I started putting my first seeds in the ground.
"Question Numero Uno: How does a person successfully "direct seed"?!! I planted carrot, bunching onion and spinach seeds last week in my raised beds in soil that I custom mixed: 40% leaf compost, 20% top soil, 20% bagged organic potting soil and 20% perlite. I've been trying to keep the soil moist so that the seeds can germinate... but so far NOTHING!! Can you please give me a step by step on this--the way you've explained starting seeds indoors? Is my soil too heavy? Could the perlite be getting in the way? Is the soil moist enough? Ahhhggghh!"
A. You got the Freshman heebie-jeebies, Hannah--so the first thing you need to do is chill. This is going to be a learning year for you; and no matter how ham-handed you are, there will be many successes. There will also be epic failures akin to that poor skier who we watched crash on "The Wide World of Sports" for all those decades. You will cry over these failures and then one day you will realize how much you learned from them.
Crops that are typically 'direct seeded'--meaning that you plant the seeds as opposed to started plants--include spinach, carrots, beets, radishes, lettuce, peas, corn and beans. Add zucchini in there as you move further South. Although this seems easier than putting plants from the garden center in the ground, it's actually pretty tricky, as the salad greens, radishes and peas are cool-weather crops that need time to mature before hot weather hits, but they won't sprout if the soil is too cold. That's why some people buy their first run of lettuce as plants and then direct-seed the later runs.
Planting onions from seed your first year shows that you have much courage; kind of like trying to drive a stick shift without ever having been in a car before. The spinach should work out fine; in my experience it just takes a while to germinate. Same with carrots. I was surprised to not see lettuce on your list. Growing lettuce from seed is an easy way for cowards to get a false sense of gardening accomplishment, and I heartily recommend it.
Being a garden coward personally, I have lettuce growing in five different tall containers (because I don't like bending over). I sow the seed thickly--as if I were planting a lawn. When one of my lettuce lawns reaches five to six inches in height, I begin harvesting the leaves with scissors, leaving an inch or two of the plants alive in the ground. That lettuce will regrow for several future cuttings, so I don't have to replant.
Add 'lazy' to 'coward' and you're starting to understand my garden philosophy. (Whereby you are hoping to grow onions from seed your Freshman year; that's 'garden brave'. At least you'll get the tears.)
I strongly suggest growing small cool-weather plants that are harvested early in the season in containers. Fill them with a loose mix of compost, potting soil and perlite about a month before your 'last average frost date', but during a warm stretch. Unless you want to give the seeds swimming lessons, water the 'soil' thoroughly before you plant--ideally with lukewarm water.
Then place the seeds on the surface--either in rows like radishes and carrots or lawn-like for leaf lettuces--and cover them with about a quarter-inch of a light loose bagged potting soil. Then use a mister or smallish garden sprayer to mist the surface--again, ideally with lukewarm water. Your seeds will come up faster and the plants will be of better quality if you cover the whole shebang with professional spun polyester row cover or a sheer curtain in the beginning to retain heat.
Mist often. If the seeds are fresh and the weather is reasonably warm, you should see sprouts in about five days. Cut back to misting once a day and protect very young plantings with something like a beach umbrella if a downpour is predicted. Don't worry about nighttime temps--once they're up, crops like lettuce, spinach, peas and radishes don't mind the cold.
For carrots, ditch the 'top soil' and plant in one-third compost, one-third peat (with a little wood ash to adjust the soil pH) and one-third perlite or sharp sand. The looser the soil mix, the faster the seeds will germinate and the better the carrots will look and taste.
And here's a cool trick that's perfect for beginners: Sow the seed thickly, and when the sprouts are small, gently pull a few every day from the most crowded areas, rinse 'em off and 'eat your thinnings'. Same goes for many other sprouts, especially radishes and kale, because with these crops, "if you can see it, you can eat it". And these young plants (sold commercially [and expensively] as micro-greens) are packed with nutrients. And flavor.
Corn and beans are warm-weather direct-seeded crops. Wait until you can safely plant tomatoes and peppers outdoors to sow their seed--and save the packet. The 'days to maturity' listing will help you decide when it's time to harvest the sweet corn.
Or you could just leave that part to the racoons...