Home Living Farm and Garden HANDS-ON GARDENER: Time to Start the Seedlings…

HANDS-ON GARDENER: Time to Start the Seedlings…


by Miriam Hansen

Celery, parsley, lettuce and spinach seedlings.  Photo courtesy of Miriam Hansen.
Celery, parsley, lettuce and spinach seedlings.
Photo courtesy of Miriam Hansen.

After a month in the Southwest, it has only taken a day or so for us to get mighty tired of the cold weather!

We planted onions, parsley, celery and some of the slower germinating annual and perennials before we left in early March. My daughter also started tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, lettuce, spinach and arugula mid-March for planting out in the greenhouse. But I’m only starting the bulk of my seedlings now. The longer I’ve been gardening, the later I start my plants. I’ve been hearing that from experienced gardeners for many years and there’s a lot to be said for it. Even tomatoes, peppers and eggplant only need to be started six to eight weeks before you set them out in the garden. And let’s face it, in spite of the recent turn in the weather, we’re probably not going to be planting warm weather crops much before the end of May.

Early-to mid-April really is the time to start most seedlings. Everything from the heat lovers like tomatoes to cool season crops like broccoli and cauliflower should be started now. I do wait until early May to start the cucumbers, melons and squash. They germinate so quickly and grow so rapidly, if you give them more than four weeks from seeding to transplanting outside, they become leggy and root bound.

The onions I started in February came up handily but while we were gone, about half of them died. Very peculiar. My best guess is that they dried out and then got too wet. Luckily I’m getting onion seedlings from Dixondale through Dave Grundy’s onion co-op. The seedlings are due to arrive and be planted out in early May.

My vow to start less celery has come to naught. It’s hard to throw a seed away. But we’ve eaten most of what I froze last year, so I’m glad to have the plants. I have discovered that while you can freeze celery without blanching, it holds much better and has a much better flavor if you do blanch it for a couple of minutes before freezing.

Out of the fussy dust-like Lisianthus seed I planted, 10 plants have survived. I’m really looking forward to the blooms though they will have to be quite spectacular to convince me to go through this laborious process again. Perennial Astra double blue balloon flowers on the other hand, were easy to germinate and are that knock-your-socks-off blue that gardeners find hard to resist. The snapdragons — peach and bronze Twinny (dwarf varieties) and Orange Chantilly — are up and ready to transplant.

Flowers, like vegetables, are addictive. Having vowed to cut back on vegetable varieties, I find myself with five kinds of zinnias including “Cut and Come Again,” “Profusion” and “Zahara” series. It’s like that game where you cover one hole and three things pop out of holes that were hitherto invisible. Regardless, I’m ready to start the zinnias, cosmos, gazanias and marigolds. It is interesting to note, that different seed companies recommend starting zinnias at different times. Parks says to start two to three weeks before the last frost date. Johnny’s recommends four weeks and Pinetree six to eight weeks. What to do? I started them all six to eight weeks before the last frost and will transplant them into larger pots when they outgrow the little recycled mushroom containers I seeded them into. If you grow only one annual you could do far worse than zinnias! They are colorful, floriferous, compact and pretty foolproof.

I will wait to plant morning glories, sweet peas and nasturtiums. They germinate really quickly and grow twice as fast. I have started many different kinds of poppies indoors but admit that they can be tricky. Poppies have taproots that don’t like to be disturbed.  If you want to start your own perennial poppies, do them in individual little plastic pots so that when you transplant them into the garden, there is minimal disturbance to the roots.

This is also the time to start basil and cilantro. Remember, if you’re a cilantro lover, start it every two to three weeks the way you would lettuce. I generally pop my first crop into the cold frame right about now, along with lettuce, spinach and arugula that we started mid-March. Radishes are another quick crop that can be started really early and sown every three weeks or so for a continual supply. I’ve had tremendous luck growing radishes the last couple of years and can only say this. Radishes, like pretty much all the plants you will grow, will respond to high organic matter and good nutrition.

While it may be true that beets like slightly sweeter soil (higher pH), peppers set fruit better with less nitrogen, and radishes are not as fussy as some vegetables, what I have learned over the years, is that regardless of what individual plants prefer, the better the condition of the soil, the better your crop. And that means applications of compost or composted manure and/or rotation with manure producers like chickens or pigs or rotation with green manures.

We still have a freezer full of chickens, so this year instead of raising and rotating crops with chickens, we’re going to put a third of the garden into a green manure mix of field peas, oats and hairy vetch. Unlike buckwheat, which contributes to soil tilth and weed suppression, this green manure adds nitrogen to the soil. We will need that nitrogen next year when we have no chicken manure to till in.

One form of manure we are seeing a lot of this spring has been left by the deer. Let’s talk about deer next month. Meanwhile, happy gardening and happy spring!