So, remember how I said not to order anything yet? Hope you were paying attention, because this time we’re going to talk about an important piece of the gardening puzzle: seeds or sets?
Should you start your plants from seed, or wait until, say, April or May and buy them from your local hardware palace or farmer’s market? Well, having been through this far too many times, let me give you some guidelines.
How available is it?
Planning on growing Early Girl tomatoes? You can buy sturdy little starts almost anywhere. How about Pimentos, as opposed to Red Bell Peppers, or Armenian Lemon Cucumbers, as opposed to Straight Eights? Good luck finding sets, unless you have access to a v trendy farmer’s market. If you have your heart set on some obscure vegetable, you’ll probably want to get the seeds. Otherwise, it’s a whole lot easier to pick up the plant at a garden center.
How much window space do you have?
You’ll need a good south-facing exposure, possibly supplemented with grow lights. Indoor-grown veggie plants tend to turn out rather spindly. (Unless you click the first link at the bottom of the page.)
How much patience do you have?
Starting from seed takes consistency and attention. They need moist soil, but wet soil will grow mold that will kill the baby plant. About a week before you plant them in your garden, they will need to be hardened off: spending time outside during the days, (the first two in the shade) and brought inside each evening, then graduating to nights outside, perhaps under a plastic sheet for the first few nights, with the plastic removed each morning lest you come home after work to wilted plants. They’re babies. You have to baby them.
If you buy sets, they’ve already been hardened off and can go directly into the garden.
Is starting from seed necessary or desirable?
Some plants have a longer growing season than your location may provide. Tomatoes and peppers, for example, are tropical in origin. Direct-seeding them after the soil has warmed to 70 degrees will give you maybe two ripe tomatoes by first frost. Other plants dislike being moved around: root crops, beans, and corn are notorious for this, so direct seed them.
Succession planting means that as one plant is harvested, another goes in its place. So the fence or trellis that held peas in the Spring gets winter squash set in when the peas give up in Summer’s heat. You’ll want to drop nice, sturdy squash sets in, rather than planting squash seeds, in order to get a crop in before frost. Plant broccoli or cabbage, which can take Summer’s heat, in the place of the Spring lettuce and spinach after those cool-weather crops have been harvested. Likewise, plant lettuce, spinach, or peas in the Fall, in spots vacated by the heat-lovers.
Will you succession plant?
This means grow replacing plants as they are harvested. For example, planting winter squash by the trellis that held the Spring peas after said peas have succumbed to Summer’s heat. You can either buy the squash sets or plant seeds 3-4 weeks ahead, growing little plants close together in flats or pots to save space, and then putting them into the larger garden space to mature. You can also start cool weather crops like lettuce and spinach in August in flats in a shaded spot to have them handy to drop in when your cukes and summer squash give up the ghost at Summer’s end.
And a couple of hints:
Seeds don’t care what time of day you plant. Just keep the soil moist. I like to sprinkle a handful of grass clippings over each newly-planted row or bed. Not enough to prevent emergence, just a sunscreen to shade the soil and keep it from drying out.
Sets will go through transplant shock. To minimize that, plant in the evening or on a cloudy day. Fill the planting hole with water, then set in the plant and fill in the hole. Mulch immediately and heavily around the stem, letting the leaves show through to catch the sunlight.