In many parts of the country, seeds have been flying off the shelves. And why not? Even if you've never relished the idea of growing your own vegetables, you might be swayed by the economics of it. Consider this: A $3 packet of seeds can yield 5 pounds of lettuce, 8 pounds of green beans, 20 pounds of carrots or 120 summer squash.
Depending on the variety and the care it receives, one tomato plant can yield more than 10 pounds of fruit, and in a packet of seeds, there are some 30 potential little tomato plants — plenty enough to swap with other gardeners. Or, the 24 or so little transplants you can't use could be sold at spring plant sales given by garden clubs. Either way, the math looks good.
Starting your garden from seed beats paying $2 or more per transplant at the garden center. Plus, you can get much more variety (transplants are usually limited to a few varieties of a very few vegetables).
Growing from seed was a principle my mother clung to. For decades, she managed a half-acre garden plot that was replete with the usual corn, beans, peas, greens and tomatoes, but also Brussels sprouts, rhubarb, cranberry beans and a full range of other veggies. She was thrilled when she found she could grow celeriac, an oddball-looking but delicious root crop and, at 112-days-and-counting from seed, a pretty long-season veggie. She rarely bought a transplant.
What you can do now
These are some of the first things you can start or, if it's too early in your area, think about preparing the bed and purchasing the seed to be ready to plant. Check your local extension office for the recommended varieties for your area and the best planting dates.
- Peas: Easy to grow and one of the first vegetables you can plant. Plant peas when the soil has warmed to 45 degrees or more. (Raised beds or hilled soil warm faster than level-grade garden beds.) Provide a low support for them to climb. Ready for harvest in as few as 52 days, depending on the variety. Snap peas can be picked just seven days after flowering.
- Carrots: Easy to grow. Plant the seeds in deep, loose soil when the soil has warmed to at least 55 degrees, keep the seed bed moist and thin seedlings to one to 2 inches apart. The idea is to get carrots into the ground and grown before the weather turns hot. The shorter varieties, such as the 6-inch 'Red-Cored Chantenany', are good for heavy clay soils.
- Radishes: Easy to grow and fast to maturity. 'Cherry Belle' matures in 22 days; 'Cherry Queen Hybrid', 24 days.
- Greens: Lettuce, spinach, arugula and other such greens are very shallow-rooted plants. In fact, they grow well in containers in as little as 3 inches of soil. All are very easy to grow and the leaf types are fast to harvest. Arugula is ready in 40 days, but you can pick and eat the baby leaves before that. You can easily start these seeds in flats indoors, and then carry the flat outside when temperatures stay above freezing. If the flat offers enough soil depth, you won't even need to transplant.
- Potatoes: Potatoes are easy, too. Instead of seeds, you simply place a cut potato with a couple of eyes into well-worked soil. When foliage appears, periodically hoe soil toward the plant, so that you're covering up the growing tubers and forming a hill. If potato beetles come to call and your planting area isn't huge, just picking them off usually works. One of the season's earliest crops to plant, potatoes go into the ground in early spring. Depending on the variety, they're ready for harvest in 80 to 115 days.
What about warm-weather crops? If you're anxious to grow peppers and tomatoes, which aren't frost hardy, and your climate isn't cooperating, you can start them indoors two to three weeks before your last frost-free date. Your local extension service can provide that date.
Tips for success
- Full sun – at least six hours per day — is necessary for the best tomatoes, peppers and corn, but it's not a requirement for all veggies. You can grow a very good crop of lettuce, spinach or other greens in light shade with only a couple hours of sun.
- Good soil is the key to success. First, don't work it when it's wet; don't even walk around on it when it's wet. When it's dry enough that it doesn't clump into a hard ball when you squeeze it together, it's ready to work. If you're planting in a bed you've already prepared, so much the better; you would already have been adding liberal amounts of organic matter to the soil. If you're scratching the soil for the first time, remove the sod and weeds, dig or till the area until it's reasonably fluffy. You may need to buy a few bags of compost or dried manure to improve the soil. After you've planted, cover the walkways with any kind of organic mulch that you can scrounge or buy — leftover leaves from fall, fresh grass clippings, unfinished compost, bagged mulch. The mulch will eventually break down and enrich the soil.
- You don't have to plant in rows. Planting in rows devotes more real estate to the aisles between the plants than the plants themselves.
- When you can, consider high-density planting. Not every plant can handle high-production growing, but beans and peas can. Rather than planting a single row of beans, plant a grid of seeds, each 1 to 2 inches distant from its neighbors in all directions.
- If you don't have a garden space, or your soil is very poor, you can still grow your veggies. Almost every vegetable can be grown in pots. A 5-gallon utility bucket with drainage holes punched in the bottom, can hold a tomato plant that, well cared for, can produce enough tomatoes for two people. Chances are, a few successes in the beginning will encourage you to keep going. If you get into the swing of growing your veggies, you can plant second and third crops, and in late summer, plant a garden for fall.
Aside from the many gifts veggie gardeners receive — like fresh, wholesome bounty picked at the peak of ripeness and the welcome exercise — there are often other rewards. Every year, because I compost next to the garden, I get a few tomato plant volunteers that wind up being very productive. And last year, I was rewarded with three volunteer butternut squash plants that appeared in my compost pile. I let them keep growing, and at the end of the season, I harvested about 18 large squashes. They required zero effort on my part, except for the job of lugging them to the house. How can you argue with free food?