As a landscape designer, I am always looking for beauty in my surroundings- beautiful fabrics, furnishings, spaces, and colors are really important to me. Extend that to my vegetable garden and I also want beautiful vegetables and fruit decorating my garden bed to eat. Heirlooms deliver on that in spades! Instead of the usual mealy Florida grown tomatoes available in the grocery store, I grow a rainbow array of veggies to decorate my plate.
Yes, it takes a lot of effort and sweaty hard work during some hot summer days. But when I pick those basketfuls of colorful vegetables and bring them in the kitchen, it is worth it. Heirlooms have been saved for decades and sometimes centuries because they are the best performers in home gardens. They haven’t been grown so that they ship more efficiently and last longer on the grocery shelf, but because they look good and taste good.
Shopping for vegetable seeds nowadays means either picking from modern hybrids created by crossing two selected varieties, or heirloom veggies which are open pollinated, saved and handed down through family generations. Usually costing less than hybrids, heirlooms have been shown through recent research to be more nutritious if not as prolific as hybrids. I will take the downside of less prolific with my heirloom varieties if they are tastier.
Selecting and saving seeds from the most successful heirlooms in your garden over the years, the more the seeds will adapt to your local conditions. Plus you save money. Many hybrid seed packets range in price from $4 to $10 and sometimes you get very few seeds, with packets containing just 10 seeds in some cases. Connecting with history is another great reason to grow heirlooms.
Many heirlooms go back for hundreds of years and can be traced back to original growers. For example, the Boston Marrow winter squash has quite a history attached to it. Foodtank a food think tank publication says this about Boston Marrow: “Precisely when and how the Boston Marrow became domesticated in America is unclear. However, Fearing Burr, the author of Field & Garden Vegetables of America, was the first person to document the Boston Marrow squash in 1831. In his book, Burr mentions that Mr. J.M Ives of North Salem, Massachusetts, received the seeds of the Boston Marrow from a friend who lived in Northampton, Massachusetts. As the story goes, Mr. Ives then distributed the seeds to members of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society who, he claims, had never seen the specimen previously. Mr. Ives also mentions that his friend whom he received the seeds from, had in fact, been given the seeds from Buffalo gardeners who got them from a tribe of Native Americans that visited the area; and this is apparently how it all begun.”
I haven’t grown Boston Marrow yet as I only have room for several vining varieties of squash but it is on my list. For now I buy it at Farmer’s Markets.
Talking to growers at farmers markets is a great way to discover heirlooms and listen to their stories about their beautiful produce.
Growers that I have talked to are only too eager to share information about the heirlooms that they grow and you can pick up some vegetables and save the seeds after consuming it! I did that with a Marina Di Chiogga winter squash that I admired at a farmers market and saved the seed to plant in the spring. Now I am overrun with this delicious winter squash!
An advantage of heirlooms is that you can save the seed from year to year instead of shelling out money each spring for new seeds. For a great book on saving seeds as well as starting, check out Julie Thompson-Adolph’s excellent book Starting & Saving Seeds
Saving seeds can be as easy as removing pumpkin seeds from the flesh, washing and drying them, to fermenting tomato seeds in water for several days to remove the gelatinous gel coating the seeds. Julie will walk you through the process of saving all kinds of seed from your garden and even how to hand pollinate corn for the best seed set. Flowers and herbs are also covered and I was interested to see she had a tutorial on making seed tape from toilet paper!
Another great source of heirlooms are local seed exchanges. Everyone brings their cleaned seeds and lays them out for people to pick from and hopefully you will get some varieties that you want and things that you have never seen before.
In the early spring, seed exchanges pop up and I found this one at my local library and came home with lots of good stuff.
Vegetables aren’t the only heirlooms that I grow. Heirloom annuals are also high on my list to plant in the spring. Go to my post on Heirloom Annuals.
The grass is starting to green up and bulbs are peeking through the soil and spring is around the corner. Gardening chores come fast and furious once warm weather hits and sometimes you don’t have time to fit all the tasks in. To jump-start your gardening year, you can hit the ground running early to get a head start. Late winter is my favorite time to get many of the spring jobs done or at least started, to lessen the springtime stress of overload.
Weeding-My top priority in late winter/early spring is keeping weeds under control. Cold weather weeds such as chickweed and mustard are much easier to hand weed when small. Plus, the weeds haven’t gone to seed yet to spread around. Adopt a policy of a little weeding often to reduce your weeding burden.
Soil Test-Everything starts with good soil. Many nurseries or extension offices offer soil testing services. Take advantage of these by finding out what nutrients your soil needs by submitting a soil sample.
Fertilize-Fertilize trees and ornamentals with a balanced granular fertilizer when the soil is dry. I use an old coffee can with a plastic lid with perforated holes to sprinkle the recommended amount around the plant and water in. If you are an organic gardener, apply a layer of compost around the plant.
Rake-Rake out loose leaves and debris from your gardening beds so that mulch can be applied evenly. Be sure to remove pockets of old leaves that get caught up in twiggy shrubs.
Mulch-Apply an organic mulch about 2 inches thick avoiding the base of trees and shrubs. This will help retain moisture during dry spells, reduce weeds, and improve soil structure. Don’t create mulch volcanoes around your trees as this can invite insect damage and disease.
Lawn-Rake out old thatch and remove weedy patches, seeding bare areas. Scratch the grass seed into the top layer so that seed has good contact with the soil. Spread a pre-emergent to stop weeds from germinating and a “Weed and Feed” to promote strong roots.
Prune-With leaves absent, you can easily see damaged and broken limbs that need to be removed. Renewal pruning to renovate older overgrown shrubs should be done now before they put on new growth. Cut back to the ground shrubs such as butterfly bush, spirea, hypericum, and hardy hibiscus. Knock Out Roses should be cut to about 10 inches high to keep these manageable.
Container Refresh-Remove the top 3-4 inches of old potting medium from your containers and replace with fresh compost and potting soil. Make sure the drainage holes aren’t clogged with old roots. I use a metal rod to punch through the fibrous roots.
Seed Starting-Start seeds of tomatoes/peppers/eggplants indoors for transplanting in the spring. Outdoors plant seeds of cold tolerant annuals such as snapdragons, larkspur, poppies, and nigella. See my post on Seed Starting for pointers.
Perennial Dividing-Now is the perfect time to split up and divide overgrown perennials such as iris and hosta and move them around. Waiting later in the season to divide a fully-grown plant can be cumbersome and hard work. Plus, the perennials have a longer time to root in to produce more prolific flowers. I like to divide when the first stems with leaves are emerging.
Tools-Clean rust and mud off your tools and oil and sharpen them. Organize your potting or tool shed so that you can find things in a hurry.
Compost-I always clean out my compost pile by spreading the rich loamy material around my ornamentals and in my vegetable garden. If you don’t have a compost pile, now is the time to start one. Using a length of snow fencing attached to metal stakes is the easiest way to start either a large or small one. A gate can even be created with a hinged portion of the snow fence.
Seed starting in spring is a rite of passage for me. Fingering all the seed packets, shaking them, and admiring the beautiful covers is all part of the process. If I don’t have at least a hundred seed packets stacked up, I get restless and start browsing more seed catalogs.
It is a lot of work to start them, and it requires some equipment to do it right, but when late winter/early spring rolls around, it is kind of like Christmas with the new shoots poking though. My slow period for my landscape business is the winter, so I have the time to devote to seed starting. Here are the reasons you should be seed starting:
1. More Choices-At a nursery they might sell 20-25 varieties of tomatoes. From seed you can grow at least a thousand more. The varieties that you can grow are mind boggling, and only a fraction of these are grown and sold at a local nursery. Some flower varieties like Nigella, Love-in-a-mist, or annual Poppies must be started from seed outside to be successful. See my post on Cool Flowers-Early Spring Bloomers.
2. Save Money
A packet of Zinnias will set you back by $2.50. If you bought all those packs of annuals at the nursery that one packet can start, you pay that many times over. Plus, if you grow heirlooms, you can save the seeds and regrow every year.
3. It’s Easy
Most vegetables should be started directly into the garden. Planting transplants of cucs, beans, peas, beets, carrots, lettuce……. the list goes on, is expensive and time consuming, and not practical. Starting seed directly into a vegetable garden avoids transplant shock and gives veggies a head start.
4. Save the Bees
Many transplants and soils have been treated with insecticides that negatively impact bee visits. Some nurseries are careful and transparent, but some are not, and many times aren’t labeled with the insecticide treatment. Go to my post on Pesticide Free Nurseries. You are controlling your quality of new transplants by starting them yourself.
5. It’s Fun !
Reconnect with nature during the dark days of winter and watch your seedlings grow! I love watching the snow pile up outside while my healthy seedlings are growing before my eyes inside.
My most important piece of equipment is a PVC light stand for my grow light. Go to PVC Light Stand for easy to follow, inexpensive directions for a light stand. I put this together myself, so anyone can construct one. Yes, you can use your window sills for light, but a light hung a few inches above seedlings is vastly superior and will make your seedlings fat and happy, not thin and spindly. There are too many cloudy winter days for seedlings to get their required allotment of light. I just use a simple LED shop light, available at any hardware store. LED is the key word here, as it gives off a much stronger light than fluorescent.
Most seedling benefit from bottom heat and will shoot up much quicker. You could use a radiator or other warm surface, but I like the heat mat as it fits exactly under a flat and you can control the temperature. Inexpensive also, heat mats are available on Amazon.
Flats are simply low narrow trays that you can fill with soilless medium. Once filled, you nest into another waterproof tray to catch any excess water and you can also use the clear lid to create a moist environment to enhance seed starting. Some trays are divided into cells, so you are growing a seedling in its own contained root run.
How many times have you started seedlings, and found to your horror that they fall over and die? This is the consequence of “damping off”, a far to common occurrence which is a fungal disease that occurs under damp, moist conditions. Right! Your seedlings are damp and moist because you are misting them to encourage them to sprout! So, I use a small fan attached to my light stand to circulate the air to discourage “damping off”. And it works. Simple solution, but effective.
I like to water with a mister, as it disturbs the seedlings the least. But it requires a lot of time to mist all my seedlings by hand, so I have graduated to a large (6 liter) watering can with a fine mesh “rose”. A “rose” just diffuses the water so it falls gently onto the seedlings and is much more efficient than a mister.
Additional Lighting Units
The LED grow lights are wonderful, but sometimes every seedling won’t fit under the grow light. So, I supplement with LED spray lights.
You need a source of sterile soilless medium to start your seeds. I use coconut coir, which is a coconut fiber extracted from the husk of coconut. The beauty of coir, which is sold in a compressed form, is that I am not lugging home heavy bags of potting soil. Instead, I buy small compressed blocks of coir, 3″ x 6″, hydrate it in water, and I end up with 8 quarts of potting medium. Much less expensive and more convenient, you can find this online or at Home Depot, or other hardware stores. There is no nutrition in this soil medium, so as soon as your seedlings are up and running, you need to fertilize.
Seed starting setup
Going through my seed packets
Punch hole for seeds with a pencil
My watering can has a 6 liter capacity with a long watering wand
Creating seed pots with newspaper
Creating seed pots with newspaper
Label all your seeds
My watering can has a 6 liter capacity with a long watering wand
Flat with spray LED lighting
A breath of fresh air on a winter night
Poppies, here it is “Lauren’s Grape”, do best direct seeded in the garden
I love looking through all my seed packets
Compressed coconut coir ready to be hydrated
Spray LED lights are valuable for lighting
I attach a small fan to move air to avoid “damping off”
Every year I ask myself that question. Is it worth tying up valuable real estate on the windowsill or under grow lights? How about the disappointment of seeing a whole tray of healthy looking seedlings succumb to damping off fungus? Or the cost of buying seed starting mixture, fertilizer, and seeds? How about the time involved? But every year like clockwork, I start my own seeds, even increase the amount of seeds that I plant, because no matter what, gardeners are driven to plant seeds. And every spring, I feel hopeful and enjoy seeing those little seedlings emerge.
The huge advantage of starting seeds is you can save a lot of money! And that perk is what gets many gardeners hooked. Spending money on sterile seed starting medium is essential as well as your seeds, unless you are a seed saver. But for everything else, you can come up with alternatives. I use an array of different containers, from milk cartons to egg cartons. The plastic clam shells that contain spinach and greens are perfect as mini greenhouses or planting containers. I bought a bunch of large Tupperware containers at the dollar store for my mini greenhouses.
Also, instead of buying a few transplant varieties of the plants that you want, you can easily grow dozens and hundreds. This can be significant to attract pollinators, as it is essential to plant in drifts and not singly.
The other main reason to start your own seeds, is you can find and plant many unusual unique varieties that you can’t find at any nursery or garden center. There are hundreds of thousands of plant varieties, and there is no way that a nursery can even come close to carrying them all. Nurseries tend to be very conservative in what they carry, and go for the varieties that appeal to the mass market. I am not included in that mass market!! I want different and unusual plants. Go to Plant Geek Alert to see my post on unusual varieties that you can start from seed.
There are hundreds of new varieties that come out every year due to plant hybridization and these are the ones that I like to jump on and try. This year, I am trying a new tomato variety called Indigo Apple from Wild Boar Farms. The tomato has a dark indigo coloration that claims to have high levels of lycopene which has many health benefits. I will be profiling Wild Boar Farms and the exciting new varieties that are in the pipeline in a future post.
And I keep on going back to those plants that you can’t buy at a nursery, which is the biggest draw for me. Asclepias physocarpa, or Family Jewels which is a Butterfly Weed, is one, pictured above. I love using this for my dried arrangements and it is a great attractant for pollinators. Also, I grow it because it is a great conversation starter!
Here is another called ‘Cup and Saucer Vine’, Cobea scandens. I love how the beautiful violet flowers nod against my fence all summer long. This is definitely being planted in my seedling flats soon. And yes, this cannot be found at the local nursery! Browsing your catalogs, you can find so many new and unique seed varieties that don’t land on the nursery benches!
Seed Starting Guidelines
For help in ordering seeds, go to my post Art of the Seed to see what companies I order from.
Seed starting is not rocket science but here are some pointers that will help out a newbie if you decide to take the plunge.
Don’t start your seeds too early, especially tomatoes! Most annual flowers and vegetables should be sown indoors about 6 weeks before the last frost in your area.
You may have to soak, scratch, or chill seeds before planting, as directed on packet. Read the instructions! Some seeds need light to germinate, and you just need to press the seeds into the medium and not cover them.
Think clean!! I sterilize my containers with a dilute solution of bleach and water (10 to 1) to discourage a fungal disease called “damping off”. Most seed catalogs offer seedling flats, peat pots, and other growing containers, but egg cartons and milk cartons make good containers, too. Be sure to poke holes in the bottom of the containers you use for drainage.
Label your containers when you plant. There’s nothing more frustrating than forgetting what you planted.
Fill clean containers with seedling mix. Use a good sterile seed starting mix. Don’t use potting soil as this compacts down and won’t let air flow through.
Pour soilless mix into a large bucket and moisten with warm water. Fill your containers to just below the rim.
Press your seeds in the medium with the eraser end of a pencil
Seed Tip: When planting seeds, plant the largest seeds in the package to get the best germination rate.
Cover containers with plastic wrap or place in Tupperware containers until new seedlings poke through.
Water newly started seedlings carefully!! It is easy to spray water into your newly planted seeds and wash then all away. A mist sprayer is gentle but can take a long time. Try using a meat-basting syringe, which will dispense the water effectively without causing too much soil disruption. Or you can bottom water for least amount of disturbance.
Find a place in the kitchen where there is natural bottom heat—on top of the refrigerator or furnace, or near the oven. I use a simple bottom heating seed mat available from most seed catalog companies.
Seeds sprout best at temperatures of 65 to 75°F (18 to 24°C), which is the temperature of most homes.
When seedlings appear, remove the lids and move containers into bright light.
When the seedlings get their second pair of leaves, prepare each pot filled with a potting mix with plenty of compost. Move the seedlings carefully to the new pots and water well. Keep pots out of direct sun for a few days to acclimate.
Seed Tip- Don’t start your seeds too early. Read your seed packet and see how many weeks are recommended before setting them outside. The problem with starting them too early inside is that they can get leggy(reaching for light) and you will have to repot the plants into larger and larger containers because they could become root bound.
Making Newspaper Pots
Newspapers clog up my recycling bin and I found that I could use them in making simple seed starting containers. The advantage of starting in newspaper is you can plant the entire compostable newspaper-covered seedling outdoors intact, or pot up the container in a larger planter before setting out.
Newspaper pots for seed starting is the ultimate sustainable way of gardening. Here is the method, starting at the top left corner of the collage:
Lay out a single folded sheet of newspaper.
Fold over one layer and crease.
Use a straight side juice glass to roll up your newspaper tightly.
Fasten with twine and tie tight.
Remove the glass and start tucking up the bottom flaps to form the bottom.
Fill with seed medium and plant.
Place in your mini greenhouse (Tupperware, plastic baggie, saran wrap) until the seeds sprout on top of your heating mat/furnace/refrigerator and then uncover.
Be sure to label everything with names and dates. If something doesn’t sprout right away, some seeds take longer than others. But if a couple of weeks go by, you need to restart them.
Keep your seedlings in the brightest light possible, preferably a west or south-facing window or grow light; turn them so they grow evenly; keep misting them or use the meat baster and don’t let them dry out.
When the seedlings have at least 2 sets of leaves, you can transplant them carefully into each pot.
By keeping records year to year, you won’t make the same mistakes twice. You can note when you started something too early or too late and adjust for next year.
I am very forgetful about what I plant where because I plant different varieties of seed in one flat. When the seedlings send up their small shoots, they all look alike. So, if something doesn’t come up, you will know to try it again. I use old venetian blind pieces cut to the right size and label with a permanent marker like a sharpie, including the date started. Or try using popsicle sticks/coffee stirrers. Remember you will be watering these and any other markers will smear and disappear.
The Exciting Part
Then I check the flats everyday to see what is coming up. I love seeing the newly hatched seedlings pop through with their cotyledons, the scientific word for the first two seedling leaves that come through. These leaves are just the embryonic first seedling leaves that every seed shoots out upon germination. They will disappear in the next couple of weeks after the true leaves start to form.
Seedling with first leaves-Image via Wikipedia
If you own grow lights, you can control the amount of light that your seedlings receive and have healthier, stockier seedlings. After the first seeds germinate, put the flats under grow lights which can be as simple as fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling with chains. The chains are critical because you need to adjust the height of the lights above the seedlings. Place the lights about 3 to 4 inches above the height of the seedlings. At first this seems awfully close, but seedlings are hungry for light, and if they don’t get at least 12 to 14 hours of their allotted light, they will get spindly and unhealthy looking. For a tutorial on making a grow light stand out of PVC, go to Your Own Victory Garden . These are simple to follow instructions to build your own system, stand, and grow light for less than $60. Or go to http://www.finegardening.com/how-to/articles/ten-seed-starting-tips.aspx to see videos on seed starting, and a great three-tiered grow light stand that you can make out of 2 x 2’s.
Since your soilless medium has no nutrients, you need to supplement this lack as soon as the seedlings have their true leaves formed. The original seed will have some stored food for the seedling to draw on but that is soon exhausted. Pick up some miracle grow or something similar to feed your seedlings regularly. Follow directions on your package for feeding seedlings.
Inside or Outside
Some seeds are best planted outside- Larkspur, Nigella, Poppies, Zinnias, Cockscomb, Sunflowers are just a few to come to mind. For veggies, I start all my vining crops, radish, peas, and beans outside. Tomatoes and peppers are better started six to eight weeks before your last frost date.
Plant Poppies outside
Poppy, Larkspur, and Nigella seeds are so tiny and need some chilly weather to germinate so I just scatter these outside in early spring or late winter. Sunflowers and Zinnias readily germinate in the spring outside and grow quickly so it is not worth the space to start them inside. Sunflowers, Cosmos, Zinnias, and other quickly growing annuals should be started when all danger of frost is over in your area.