It’s spring, the very beginning of the gardening year, so why do some folks feel like they are already behind?
This is a crazy time of year for the gardener, I totally understand. Between seed starting, transplanting and soil prep, it’s easy to feel like you just can’t keep up.
Here’s a few tips to keep it a bit simpler this season.
One Seed Per Pot
Square Foot Gardeners will recognize this advice. If you are starting seeds indoors, sow only one seed per pot. Good seed houses (like my sponsor High Mowing Organic Seeds) will typically only sell seeds with an excellent germination rate. 90% or higher germination is not unusual for high quality fresh seed of veg varieties you’d typically start indoors. If you are growing more expensive hybrids see very high germination rates (I expect near 100% germination on expensive hybrid seeds, and typically get it.)
If you sow one seed per pot, there is a possibility that a few of your seeds may not germinate. If your seed is older, has been stored poorly or is from a known low-germination variety like parsnips, this risk goes up (but why are you starting parsnips in pots anyway?!) So sow a few extra pots to make sure you’ll have all the starts you need, but only sow one seed per pot.
One seed per pot eliminates the need to go back and thin or divide when, inevitably, all the seeds in a single pot germinate. And – bonus! – you save seed, which means in the long term you save money.
Use Oversize Containers
Do you have more room under your seed starting lights than you have time? Then proactively eliminate the step of up-potting and sow your seeds in generous plugs, 2” or 4” pots – or even larger – depending on how long you anticipate your starts will be under lights.
You can ignore ridiculous advice like “a seed has to be started in a small pot.” Hogwash. Do seeds that fall onto the ground outside suffer for not being root-bound and hoisted from place to place every week?
There are two tricks to using larger pots. One, make sure not to over water them, which can increase fungal disease. Because larger pots take longer to dry out, over-watering can lead to issues. But really, you shouldn’t overwater little pots, either. Two, make sure that the size pot you use matches the time the seedling will be in it, so that when you do transplant out to the garden the root mass of the seedling has filled the pot just enough to hold the soil ball together.
So, why do you hear that advice to start your seeds in a nursery flat, then prick those germinated seeds out to small pots, then progressively up-pot those seedlings to larger and larger pots as necessary, all the way up to transplant-ready, flowering gallon-size plants? Sounds like an awful lot of work to me, and it is.
This is fine if plant raising is in fact your work – if you are a professional plant-grower who is managing every square inch of their seed-starting and grow out bench with aggressive precision. But let’s be honest: you, my lovely and talented readers, probably don’t have a staff. Your “seed bench” is probably part of a house or apartment that you are paying for anyway. So for you, it probably makes sense to trade a bit of space hyper-maximization for time efficiency. Larger pots can help you do this. Larger pots save up-potting time and mean a greater buffer for watering and feeding, saving you yet further time.
Skip the Seed-Starting Mix
Have you noticed that whenever you look up how to start seeds, you are told to use a seed starting mix that is loose and well drained and has no added fertilizer? And yet, no one explains why your seed starting mix has to be completely devoid of nutrition.
Out in the garden, your soil isn’t devoid of nutrients. You don’t neglect your house plants by not feeding them, right? At least, not if you want them to live very long. So why should seeds be planted in fertility-less soil?
Well, here’s the argument: fertilizer (organic, chemical or otherwise) is unnecessary – seeds come pre-packaged by nature with everything they need to sprout and start to grow…for awhile. Seeds are good to grow a pair of seed leaves and some root hairs without any outside fertility, and, you know, fertilizer is spendy.
So if you are in the financially tough business of selling plant starts, it makes sense to germinate in seed-starting mix. As soon as the germinated seed needs that extra fertility, you transplant into potting mix that does include slow-release fertilizer.
Now – and forgive me if you have heard this before – you, gentle reader, probably aren’t a professional nursery person. As a home gardener, you can skip the seed starting mix completely and sow right into a high-quality potting mix. You still want it to be loose, well drained, and sterile so fungal spores and weeds don’t hurt your seedling. But the no-fertilizer thing just isn’t that critical.
In fact, I would recommend that home gardeners mix slow-release organic fertilizer into any seed-starting mix they purchase. Added background fertility means you can skip a transplant or two, and you have to worry a lot less about keeping your baby seedlings growing with foliar feeds.
Some plants are well suited to direct broadcast sowing outside and you should take advantage of this! Broadcast sowing is basically sprinkling seeds over a patch of soil instead of painstakingly placing each seed exactly where you want a plant to grow. With broadest sowing, you are typically deliberately over-seeding an area, knowing that you’ll be harvesting with the cut-and-cut-again method.
The disadvantages of broadcast sowing is that you “spend” a bit more in seed, but it takes almost no time to sow the crop. Crops particularly well suited to broadcast sowing and cut-and-cut-again harvesting include lettuces, mesclun blends, arugula, baby kales, baby chard, Asian greens, and similar salad or cooking greens.
Forget Succession Sowing
“Succession sowing,” or sowing the same thing in small quantities every few weeks, is awesome, and I totally recommend it. But let’s say you just don’t have time to deal with succession sowing. This gardening stuff is a big part of my life and, honestly, most years, I don’t have time.
So let’s say you want to sow something once and harvest over the longest period of time, kind of the productive equivalent of “set it and forget it.” Well, that’s where seed blends come in, and if they are well designed, they are awesome.
A good seed blend will give you an extended harvest by combining different varieties with staggered maturation rates into one seed packet. By using blends, you can get that long harvest from one sowing or seed-starting session. Look for blends of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, and more.
Oh, Just Grow Up! Set Up Those Trellises Now
Let’s not talk about how I know this. Let’s just accept that I know this. When you plant things that can climb, like peas, beans, cucumbers, melons, squash and the like, set up the trellis for your climbers at the same time you sow or transplant your crop. Any gardener who has struggled to convince an already sprawling cucumber plant to wind its way up a trellis understands what I’m saying.
Go With The High Value Stuff
My recent guest poster Grace of eTilth made the case for not growing the staple crops if you are space-limited, and I’d say her arguments hold if you are time-limited too. If you can’t spend half your summer baby-sitting your garden, focus on those crops that are the most distinct and difficult to find at market.
These crops are not wheat, corn, soy, potatoes, etc. So focus on the stuff that is most important – I’d recommend herbs, salad greens, fruiting crops and legumes, in that order.
You had to know this was coming, right? I’m a huge fan of starting from seed, growing your own starts, supporting organic seed producers, and embracing the tremendous variety available to the seed-growing gardener.
But, let’s face it, buying a well-grown start is just simpler than taking seed-to-transplant responsibility for a plant, and if you only plan to buy one or two of a certain type of plant (eggplant in Seattle, anyone?), it can make financial sense to lean on purchased starts as well. So there is no shame in buying your garden starts.
I live in a spot where multiple options for locally grown, organically raised vegetable starts are available. Try to find the same in your area. And before you load up your cart at your local independent nursery, read my post on How to Avoid A Crappy Seedling. Although I am a huge advocate of growing from seed, I really have no patience for this idea that you can’t be “real” gardener if you use nursery-grown starts. If starts are right for you, use them!
Plan Ahead: Sow Overwintering Veg
Right now in my garden, the only annual vegetables that are really, truly ready to harvest are overwintering cauliflower, kale and sprouting broccoli. And at a time when the new garden is demanding a lot of attention, having the old garden kicking out food is a wonderful thing.
In temperate climates the months between February and April are known the the “Hunger Gap” months. Nothing makes the “Hunger Gap” more obvious than having a garden, but if your winter allows, you can mitigate the effect with overwintering crops. Try sprouting broccoli, overwintering caulis, sprouting kale, winter sown carrots and parsnips.
Plan Ahead: Grow Perennials
For spring harvesting, perennial vegetables really can’t be beat. Annuals have to get up and going in one year, but perennials can draw on the reserve energy of their root mass to make you food. Because of this, perennials are always reliably ready to go while even cool-season annuals are still getting going.
I grow asparagus, lovage, artichoke, chives, strawberries and rhubarb, which are all reliable spring producers, but the list of hardy perennials you can explore is vast. Try adding sorrel, Welsh Onions, tree collards and more to your perennial patch for a diverse selection of edibles you’ll be able to harvest before the annuals start yielding.
How do you simplify Spring planting? I’d love to hear your tips – please share!2
my seedling pots are already covered with mold. Nothing has even started to sprout. Is there anything I can do to stop this?
Is the mold on the surface? Uncover if necessary, let the surface dry out, add a little fan pointed at your seedpots and bottom water from now on.
I am only bottom watering, and the mold is forming on the outside of the coir pots. I opened up the cover to let them get a bit more air. They are also on a heating pad to bring them up to ~70′.
Is it white and dusty looking, or more fuzzy?
I love your first bit of advice! I wish I’d followed it a couple of weeks ago!
Richard Wyman says
I love my soil blocks. They fit into most of the advice you gave here. One seed per block and the nutrients are there. I can get 50 into a 1020 flat so they don’t take up a lot of space but are big enough for most vegies. (You can start small and upsize into bigger blocks but I usually don’t.)
Keep up the great work Erica, I always look forward to your blogs.
Danielle g says
I didn’t add slow release fertilizer from the outset to my seedlings, but I did use organic miracle grow potting soil. When should I fertilize again and what organic feed do you recommend? Also, I loved your asparagus article. I must admit, I’ve neglected to weed and feed my asparagus beds (relying on tge fact that they grow wild do well in highly dusturbed areas, and well, lazy).This will be year three and I’m hoping still for a crop. Can I weed and feed now? Or should I wait til after harvest? I am at 1500 feet near mt hood so we are a good month away from asparagus sprouting.
That potting soil has a 1-.5-.5 NPK breakdown and says it will feed for two months. I don’t think you’ll need to add any additional fertilizer at all. Your plants will most likely be ready to transplant into the garden before the slow release fertilizer runs out.
Danielle g says
Thank you for this! I always get kinda crazy in the head this time of year. 🙂
Me too! 🙂
Sara Cannon says
When I planted my small outdoor garden with carrots, beets and radishes, I made a chart and filled in the dates for succession sowing. This way, I’m not trying to keep track of when I need to sow, I just look at the chart and keep on schedule.
Rachel Hoff says
I’m actually a tray starter rather than one seed per pot. I do this because if one of them doesn’t come up it’s no big deal because there’s another one to take its place. Sometimes it’s too late to start again with some (like habanero peppers which take a really long time to germinate anyways). Also, if one unexpectedly kicks the bucket, is eaten by something, or accidentally gets broken off I still have that tray of seedlings ready to go that I can pick from. But then again, I sell starts so I’m doing hundreds and hundreds of plants at a time.
Helen Langford says
I agree, one seed per pot seems a little wasteful of soil. I make 5 drills in a tray and sow around 20 or more of each seed type, per drill. This saves me space and the seedlings transplant easily with very little fuss 🙂
I use recycle plastic boxes that were 2 inches deep and 4 inches wide and they needed careful attention to prevent drying out on a sunny window sill. This year I rotated it to 4 inches deep and 2 inches with and found that they stay moist a lot longer and therefore less watering time.
Personally I would advocate potatoes even in a small garden because those in the store a sprayed with a chemical to prevent sprouting (unless organic). One well fed potato plant can give you 20 lbs of spuds – and you can make a ‘tower’ to grow upwards. Also if you plant an early variety you can start poking around in the dirt and begin harvest and eating right away.
I am so going to miss my garden this year. Our water table has dropped because of the drought and so our well isn’t producing as it should. So no garden for me this year. Do you mind if I live vicariously through you ??
I *so* should have listened to the first item. I have a few things that keep giving me trouble (spinach! does that stuff ever sprout?) so in a fit I planted mulitple seeds in each cell pack. Result? 3 broccoli, 3 kale, and 3 chard in every pot and STILL only 1/6 spinach sprouted. guess I’ll be eating Kale and brocolli and no spinach this summer.
Tanya Parise says
I’m so glad you wrote this! This is my first time growing from seed indoors and I was really frustrated at how I had to transplant everything to a bigger pot, when I could have just started it there instead of all the time & frustration of getting it out! I thought I was pretty much killing some of the plants getting them from one pot to another. Then having to kill ‘thin out’ the 2nd sprout because they say to plant 2 seeds. I’m following your advice next time.
What are your thoughts on using a ‘self watering’ mat? I bought some and was too afraid to use it, I ended up just putting some water at the bottom instead.
Thanks 🙂 Tanya
The watering mat was a blessing last year… Single mom of four here – all girls – all wanted to help care for the seedlings…the watering mat let us see when someone else had watered them 😉
sarah birchmoon says
Wow! I love your blog; I am so glad I stumbled across it.
I must confess, I am probably one of the “laziest” gardeners ever. I practically, what is the term ?, broadcast (not broadband) sow everything, except tomatoes and potatoes. so, being here in NW Oregon I start my garden very late, in May. But I love your tip of buying mixed seed bags with different mature rates! I never thought of that! with that tip, I now have one less thing to think about- succession planting. Mixed seed bags, here I come! 🙂
hey- have a great day!
B.E. Ward says
Ok, I’m going to plead ignorance..
Explain bottom watering for me (or maybe point me to a previous post about it?). Watering seems to be my big problem so far.. it’s either too much or too little, too often or not often enough. I’ve almost ruined my tomato seedlings twice but have managed to bring them back both times. I’m using a syringe to water gently with about 5 ml per cell per day at this point.
Anyway.. we have two-piece trays. For bottom watering, do you just add water to the exterior tray and it’ll soaked into the interior tray?
Grace | eTilth says
Yes, bottom watering is just that … the outside container holds water, the inside one has holes and can wick up water into the pot. Alternatively, you can construct a nifty watering table, in which wicking material pulls water across the table and into a gutter (you can recycle it) and the porous trays or pots can be set on top. Capillary action moves the water where it needs to go.
Grace | eTilth says
One more thing … I’m reading a book about gardening in Colonial Williamsburg. A succession crop technique described in 1718 to prolong the Fava bean harvest is to densely plant rows (about 1′ apart) at the same time in the fall. Then in the spring as soon as they are about ready to bloosom, they cut every other row very short, to about 3 inches. That sets back the plant enough so that not all beans ripen at the same time.
The Colonial Williamsburg gardeners also have a blog with great info on doing things the “old-fashioned” way. I would never have known I could grow favas here in the south I hadn’t seen their blog post about starting those seeds in November.
Thanks for all the great information! Do you know of a local source for collard tree cuttings? The closest I’ve found is California. ps. I really like your blog and have been recommending it to all my friends.