Dear Miss Floribunda,
I’ve been looking at the HHS seed sale website published in last month’s column. I’m tempted to try to buy seeds for the first time in my life. I have a garden but usually buy bedding plants and vegetables in six-packs.
I think I could save a lot of money if I bought seeds and started them in six-packs myself. Can you give me some do’s and don’ts? Especially don’ts! You’ve heard the saying “Experience is the name we give to our failures.” Well, let’s just say that I would rather not have to learn from painful experience.
Inexperienced on Ingraham Street
I’m glad that you have looked at the seed sale feature on the Hyattsville Horticultural Society (HHS) website, hyattsvillehorticulture.org/seeds. Not only will it show you what is for sale, what the prices are, and how to order, but it will give you descriptions and pictures of each offering from the Charles C. Hart and Southern Exposure companies, as well.
Furthermore, if you scroll down to the “Seed-starting resources” section, you can see a seed-starting calendar and a PowerPoint presentation and handout showing you how to start seeds, maintain seedlings and harden them off for planting outdoors. I will give you a thumbnail sketch here.
Perhaps the first thing to know is what can be planted directly outside and what has to be planted indoors. Next, timing is important. Most seed packets, including those from HHS providers, will specify the best times to plant. Outdoor planting can start as early as late February in our microclimate.
As always, I consulted Dr. Greenjeans for advice about indoor planting, but I also asked guidance from Giorgic Vegeberghe, who often prefers to sow directly outside, as well.
Seeds for cool-weather plants like peas, including the flowering variety, should be planted as soon as the ground is soft enough to dig if you expect to get crops before hot weather comes. Spinach and lettuce seeds can be sown outdoors as early as late March. Carrots are best sown in mid-April for a July harvest, and then again in mid-August for late-autumn and early-winter harvests. Seeds for beets can be planted four weeks before the last expected frost. Rapini, or broccoli rabe, develops quickly and keeps producing side shoots after the head is harvested. It can be sown directly outdoors two weeks before the last expected frost.
Southern Exposure’s specialty is heat-tolerant vegetables. Its salad bowl loose leaf lettuce is ready in 40 days and stays sweet even after the weather warms up. Both companies carry wonderful varieties of corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, squashes and other vegetables and flowers to plant when the soil warms. However, all of these can be started indoors as well for a head start.
Dr. Greenjeans warns me that a windowsill, even if it faces south, will not provide enough light for early seed starting indoors. If, like most of us, you don’t have a greenhouse, you will need extra light from lamps or grow lights. Grow lights are a bit of an investment, but they will pay for themselves if you are going to start plants indoors on a yearly basis. You might also want to invest in heating pads because many seeds germinate much more slowly when soil temperature is below 70 F.
The seed packets will list how long it takes the seeds to germinate, as well as when seeds can be planted directly outside. Use the latter as your setting-out dates for your seedlings. All seedlings started indoors will need to be hardened off — gradually introduced to full sun, wind and outdoor temperatures. Now, when you set a date for planting seeds, don’t forget to factor in some time between the appearance of the first sprouts and hardening-off before planting. Right now is not too early to start quite a number of vegetables and flowers.
Of course, make sure your soil is sterile. If you have kept and want to use the plastic six-packs from last-year’s plantings, make sure you have washed and disinfected them — first with soapy water to remove all traces of soil, and then with a bleach solution. Or, you can imitate my cousin Parsimony, and use egg crates and even eggshell halves. However, I think a beginner would do well to buy sterile peat pots. They can be popped directly into the ground later without disturbing the root system of the young plants.
Finally, check your pots daily to see that the soil stays uniformly moist — neither dry nor sopping wet. The roots of seedlings don’t penetrate very far, so there is no need for deep watering. It’s better not to use tap water for irrigation, but distilled water, or — better still — rain water you have trapped.
I wish I could invite you to the next meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society, but it hasn’t been determined yet. Please keep checking the website for updates.