Sunday, February 19, 2012

Sow directly to the garden or start indoors: that's today's question

In the last post I considered when you may prefer to obtain started plants for your garden and when you may prefer to start your plants from seeds. Let’s suppose you’ve decided to start some plants from seeds this year. The next question is whether to start your seeds in the garden spot where they are to live versus starting them in flats or pots in a more controlled environment for their first few weeks of life. In this post I’ll help you decide which of these work best for the plants you want to grow and the particulars of your situation.

One of the difficulties in deciding whether or not you want to start seeds early in a controlled environment is that garden publications offer such a wide range of advice on the matter. I discussed Steve Solomon’s approach to vegetable gardening in my January 26, 2012 post. Solomon thinks you should start almost every vegetable seed where it is to grow, except for tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and possibly melons and squash. His reasoning is that by starting almost every seed in the garden, you can either eliminate the costs and work of raising seedlings in a special environment by buying these few as plants, or at least you can reduce the space, work, and cost involved to a minimum by only starting these few in a warm place since the seeds need a lot of warmth to get started and the plants need a long, warm season in which to grow and fruit. On the other hand, John Jeavons (January 19, 2012 post) thinks you should start almost every vegetable seed in a controlled environment, with the only exception being radishes. His argument is that you can use the bed space more intensively by growing plants to transplanting size in flats (something else can be growing in the garden bed in the meantime); the plants you put out are pretty certain to be healthy and to grow well; you can space plants evenly more easily than you can seeds, and the plants will produce a better growing environment in the bed sooner than tiny seedlings will; transplanting stimulates growth; and seedlings in a flat require much less water per unit area than seedlings in a bed, since seedlings in a flat are growing very close and can produce a good growing environment in the small area of a flat. Both positions seem reasonable; in fact, they describe all the pros and cons of sowing seeds directly versus starting them early better than I could have. How can you, as a beginning gardener, decide between these approaches? What other factors should be considered that neither man addresses?

It’s important to realize that both men are gardening in very different climatic conditions than we are in the St. Louis metro area, and their climates influence their recommendations. Each kind of vegetable (and for that matter, herb, flower, and any other kind of plant) has its own range of climate conditions required for germinating and growing its seeds and for growing the resulting plant. You, as a gardener, need to meet the seeds’ and plants’ requirements as best you can within the climatic conditions under which you live. If you are growing in an environment like Jeavons’ with a lot of rain from late fall through early spring and very little rain the rest of the year, with a mild winter compared to St. Louis (the lows in Willits, CA don’t go under 20F) and with a wide daily temperature range during the dry season, you’ll do better by starting as many seeds as possible indoors or within a cold frame, then transplanting larger plants better able to handle wide temperature swings and dry soil in the garden. In contrast, Solomon used to garden in the Pacific Northwest and now gardens in Tasmania. In both places a cool maritime climate is favorable to sprouting and growing most kinds of seeds sown directly in the garden, and the only reason to start plants indoors is to give heat-loving plants the biggest head start possible so he can get something out of them. Here in St. Louis, where cold frames don’t get warm enough to start anything till March and then only cool-weather crops, where we have a short spring with wide temperature swings from day to day transitioning to a long, hot summer and then to a short fall with wide temperature swings from day to day, the question of what seeds to sow directly in the garden and what seeds to start inside is more complex. In many cases we can do either and be successful; then it comes down to how much space and time we have to devote to starting plants early. I’ll help you think through this question in the rest of this post.

The easiest question to answer is which vegetable seeds really need to be started early in a controlled environment in St. Louis and other areas with similar climates to ours. Peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants are the plants that most benefit from an early start indoors, for the same reasons that Solomon starts them indoors: the seeds need a very warm start and the plants need to grow for many weeks before producing the parts we harvest. It doesn’t get warm enough here to start these seeds in the garden till May (tomatoes) or June (peppers and eggplants); only if we used the shortest-season varieties available would we be likely to get a harvest before our first fall frost kills the plants. If you can’t or don’t want to start these seeds early, in February or March, and you want to grow anything other than the shortest-season varieties, then obtain them as plants.

At the other end of the scale, everyone starts radishes directly in the garden because they are taprooted and thus difficult to transplant, and because they grow to harvest size very quickly, within a month or two. Almost everyone except for Jeavons direct-sows seeds of turnips, carrots, peas, beans, and corn where they are to grow because these plants grow well from direct-seeding but aren’t well suited to life in a flat, either because they are difficult to transplant due to taproots or because they can only remain in a flat for a few days before they become too large to transplant successfully. Following Jeavons’ advice, I have sown carrots, turnips, and corn in flats and transplanted them to the garden. It worked, but it took more time than sowing directly to the garden, and in the case of the carrots, I broke the taproot during planting and got poorly-shaped roots as a result. I’ve also had some difficulty germinating carrots in a flat, perhaps because the soil dried out during the time the seeds were germinating. I now sow all of these seeds directly to the garden and suggest you do the same unless you really enjoy starting seeds in flats and have room enough to try these.

Our springs tend to be short, with wide temperature swings from day to day as cold and warm fronts battle it out for dominance. Our soil is often frozen into early and sometimes mid-March; yet by June 1 our average high is 81F, our average low is 62F, and the lowest temperatures ever recorded in June are in the mid to upper 40s, with record lows above 50F by the last week or two. By the end of June the average high is 89F and the average low is 70F, not conditions under which crops that like cool weather thrive, or even survive. (All climate info is from the St. Louis National Weather Service office.) Vegetables that like cool growing conditions and need more than two months to grow to harvest size are good candidates to start early in a controlled environment in our area, if you can make a space suitable to their needs and are willing to tend them. Missouri Extension publication G6570, Starting Plants Indoors From Seeds, has a good list of vegetables to start indoors. They include broccoli, cabbage, kale, collards, and head lettuce. If you search seed catalogs for short-season varieties of these and you sow them by the end of March (all but lettuce; sow lettuce seeds in early to mid April), you could sow seeds directly in the garden with good success; I recommend this if you don’t think you have the space to start seedlings inside or you can’t meet their needs. I start all of these, including all lettuces and also bok choy, inside in early February to early March and transplant several-week old plants to the garden. Weather conditions can turn cold in spring, delaying germination and perhaps rotting direct-sown seeds before they germinate. Seedlings grow slowly in cold soil. Lows in the teens in late March or low twenties in early April can kill seedlings. I find it preferable to transplant strong, healthy plants into the garden around mid April, once it seems likely that temperatures won’t go much below freezing and the soil begins to get warm enough to hasten growth. Strong plants dig in and grow better and are more likely to survive the occasional hot spell to produce a good harvest from late May through June and into early July, before the weather gets too hot.

For plants like beets and kohlrabi, which mature within about two months or so from direct-sowing to the garden but can be grown in a flat and transplanted, you have the most options. Garden centers offer seedlings for sale, if you prefer to start with plants someone else grew. You can also sow these directly into the garden in April or start them in flats indoors in March and transplant them into the garden around mid April.

You also have options with melons, squashes, zucchini, cucumbers, and okra. Their seeds need a warm start and the plants need warm weather to grow, but they germinate and grow fast enough that they can be sown directly to the garden in May or June. You’ll find seedlings of melons, squashes (and pumpkins, another name for some kinds of squash), zucchini, and cucumbers readily available for purchase, but these are so easy to direct-sow in the garden or to start indoors in small pots and transplant that they make good seeds to start with when you are first learning to grow plants from seeds. I’m not a big fan of okra so I haven’t noticed if you can buy okra plants at garden centers, but I did grow it from seed one year, planting the seeds directly in the garden in early June, and they produced a high yield. Missouri Extension says you can start okra seeds early in small pots in late April, transplanting about a month later, or direct-seed into the garden in May.

For other plants, you use a similar process of evaluating the conditions the seeds need to germinate and grow and the growing conditions and time needed to grow plants to harvest or flowering stages. Most gardening books, including the books I’ve discussed in earlier posts, include this information for commonly grown vegetables, herbs, and flowers. You should be able to find it on the Web as well. Compare these requirements to the climate in your location to decide whether to sow seeds directly to the garden or whether to start them early inside, if you can meet their needs and have enough space. Spring herbs like dill and parsley grow quickly and can be either direct-sown or started inside in the St. Louis area. I generally start them inside, because I have plenty of space and enjoy caring for seedlings; if you don’t, direct-sowing at the proper time works fine. Basil, on the other hand, can’t tolerate frost and needs warm conditions to germinate seeds and a long time to grow to harvest size, so I and most other people who start it from seeds start it early indoors. If you don’t want to start it from seeds, obtain started plants, which should be easy to find.

If you are in the U.S., you can find climate information for your location, including average and record highs and lows, from the nearest office of the National Weather Service. Your state Extension service should have general information on how to grow vegetables and other commonly grown plants in your state, including publications for downloading and printing. If you live in a mountainous area, your climate is altitude-specific; you may need get information from local resources for gardeners in order to know what works best for you. Folks in other parts of the world should consult with the appropriate organizations in their area. The best source of information may be a knowledgeable gardening neighbor!

In the next post, which I intend to get up by March 1, I’ll offer some guidance on how to start and where to grow the seeds you need or want to start in a controlled area, whether in the house, on a porch, or in a cold frame. There’s still time to start these seeds in the St. Louis area, so get the seeds you want to start while I’m writing the next post!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Seeds or Started Plants, That is the Garden Question

This is the time of the year when we receive garden seed catalogs and see seed packages and seed-starting equipment for sale in garden stores. If you haven’t tried starting plants from seed before, you may be wondering if it’s a worthwhile thing to do, and if so, how to do it in a sensible way. In this post I’ll offer my thoughts on when it makes sense to start plants from seeds, and when you may prefer to obtain plants started by someone else for your garden. 

Started plants are easy to care for and to distinguish from unwanted plants. If you’ve never started seeds before, you may not be confident of your ability to meet their requirements. Even if the seeds germinate and the desired plant appears, you may not be able to distinguish it from surrounding unwanted plants (“weeds”). Even if you do figure out which is the plant you want and keep weeds from swamping it out, tiny seedlings can be delicate, possibly succumbing to over-watering, excessive dryness, lack of nutrition, disease, or predation by any number of critters. Caring for seedlings is generally more time-consuming than caring for larger plants nurtured through the seedling stage by someone else. For all of these reasons, beginners may well find it easier to start with a good-sized plant whose identity is known. Such plants are generally stronger and better able to withstand a bit of neglect than a tiny seedling. The first year I grew any vegetables, I bought a few tomato plants and planted them in large pots. I didn’t know at that point that I wanted to have a vegetable garden; starting with a few plants as an experiment made more sense than buying seeds.

Some plants are more difficult to start from seed, enough so that even experienced gardeners prefer to or must obtain them as started plants. If you live in an area with short summers and don’t have a warm place to start pepper or eggplant seeds, you will do better to use started plants in your vegetable garden. Most other vegetables and annual herbs and flowers are reasonably easy to start from seeds. Some perennial herbs and flowers are easy to start from seeds, but others take a long time (several months to multiple years, with conditions varying during that time). If you don’t enjoy the challenge of starting them from seed, you need them now and not several years from now, or you don’t have the right conditions to germinate the seeds or time to take care of slow-growing seedlings, you’ll need to obtain them as plants. Some shrubs and trees can be started from seeds, but they will establish and produce years sooner if you obtain them as plants. Even after close to 20 years of gardening and a good track record of starting seeds that many people consider difficult, I still buy or obtain from other gardeners some plants for my various gardens.

Some plants aren’t available as seeds. French tarragon, for instance, doesn’t flower and thus must be obtained as a plant. Some named plants cannot be grown from seed because the seeds are not released to the general public, although nurseries can purchase seeds and raise the plants for sale. Hybrid plants like apples and most culinary mints don’t come true from seed (seeds are produced only through cross-pollination and thus are genetically different from the parent plant); if you want a particular variety, you’ll have to obtain it as a plant. In other cases it may be so difficult to start the plant from seed, or the seeds have such a short lifetime, that it isn’t profitable to produce and sell the seeds, but reproducing from an already-started plant is rather easy. Some of our native plants fall into this category.

In many cases, however, it’s either preferable or necessary to start your plants from seeds, for the following reasons.

A packet of seeds is nearly always cheaper to purchase than a started plant, especially since most seed packets contain enough seeds for anywhere from tens to many thousands of plants and most seeds remain viable (capable of germination and growth) for at least a few years when stored properly. While a person tending a very small garden (say 50 square feet or less) may not find the cost of seeds enough cheaper than buying started plants to justify the extra equipment and time required to start seeds, if you have a garden much larger than this you’ll generally find it less costly to start plants from seeds yourself, even accounting for any cost incurred in whatever seed-starting equipment you choose. In a later post I’ll discuss Living Low methods of raising lots of seeds cheaply and using no or very little fossil-fuel energy.

In the case of vegetables and some herbs and flowers you’ll find a much wider choice of varieties available as seeds than as started plants. The plants commonly available at garden centers are popular varieties that tend to grow acceptably over most of the U.S. (or whatever country you live in). They may not be the best-tasting variety, however, or the variety you remember your parents or grandparents using in certain special foods, or varieties that are especially well suited for your climate or growing conditions. Many different seed companies produce an almost unimaginably large number of varieties of different vegetables. If you want to grow something spectacular-looking or with an unusual or exquisite flavor, an heirloom variety (some popular heirloom varieties like ‘Brandywine’ tomato can be found in garden centers as plants but most are still only available as seeds), a variety especially suited to a particular cuisine, or a variety that does well in your unusual growing conditions, best to look in the offerings of seed catalogs or the seed racks at a good local garden center. If you want to save your own seed to have even more control over your food supply, you’ll of course need to learn to grow the resulting seeds.

Some vegetables are usually or always grown from seed directly sown in the garden, generally because they are taprooted or have delicate roots so they don’t transplant well or at all, or because they can only be transplanted when very young and thus are not suited to mass production, shipment, and holding for sale. Examples are radishes, carrots, turnips, peas, beans, and corn. Some herbs like cilantro also fall into this category. If you want to grow these, you’ll have to buy seeds and learn how to meet their needs.

The last reason to grow plants from seeds is because you want to! Many gardeners enjoy the whole process of growing plants from seeds all the way to the mature plant. Starting seeds and watching the seedlings appear and grow can make the waning days of winter that much more tolerable. Participating in the entire life process of a plant really brings home the beauty and fragility of all life.

To summarize, it makes sense for a gardener to use plants started by someone else under the following conditions:
    you have a small garden so the cost difference between seeds and plants is small;
    you can’t supply the seeds you’d like to grow with the conditions they need;
    you have more money than you have time to start and care for seedlings;
    the varieties you want to grow are only available as started plants.

Starting seeds yourself is especially important for those of you who want to grow a large garden, don’t have much money to spend on your garden so you need to make it go as far as possible, want to grow plants only available as seeds, want to be as self-sufficient as possible in your gardening practice, or enjoy the process of growing plants from seeds.

You can use a combination of plants you grow from seeds and plants you obtain from someone else in your garden. This often makes sense for gardeners who can supply the right conditions for some seeds but not for others. Peppers and eggplants require a lot of heat to germinate their seeds; few of us who are living low have that kind of heat available in February or March unless we have a wood stove or buy and use a heat mat or something else to create a small space that is warm enough. Even if you start the rest of your vegetables from seeds, you may prefer to use plants someone else started for your pepper and eggplant crops.

I’ve been careful to state that you only have to obtain the plants from someone else, not that you need to purchase them from a garden center. The Living Low in the Lou Way includes creativity in finding sources of the things you need or want outside of the monetary economy. If you have a gardener friend who grows plants from seeds, it’s quite likely that he or she will have a few extra seedlings available after planting his/her garden. Most gardeners would rather see those plants go to a friend than get composted. Check with gardener friends at planting time. Perhaps a gardener friend is willing to raise a few extra plants for you, for free or in return for something else; this is the time of year to ask since those of us who raise seeds in the St. Louis area are either starting them now or will be over the next few weeks. Trash-picking or dumpster-diving could be a source of free plants, especially for those of you who live in the city of St. Louis or someplace else where dumpsters are readily accessible. Gardener friends might divide a perennial plant or reproduce it from cuttings or layering if you ask them.

In the next post, I’ll consider when it makes sense to start seeds early inside a controlled environment versus starting them in the spot where they are to grow. I hope I get to that next week since it’s time to start seeds early for those of you in the St. Louis metro area and in other places with similar climates.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Independence Days 2-10-12

We had a lot of rain, a little snow, some cold weather (for this winter) and not much sun this past week. Tomorrow is likely to be the coldest day yet this winter. Unlike last week, I didn't do any yard work. But I got a lot of other needed work done.

Plant something: I planted seeds of cabbage, bok choy, kale, collards, broccoli, mustard greens, calendula, dill, parsley, cutting celery, thyme, and sweet marjoram in a flat and put the flat on the enclosed front porch. Enclosing that porch was an excellent idea. Granted, it hasn't been that cold this winter, but it's been like April (mid-spring here) all winter long on the porch. The rosemary plants and a calendula, grown from a seedling I potted up last fall, are in bloom! See them below.

Harvest something: well, no. Maybe next week I'll harvest the lone kumquat from the plant on the front porch.

Preserve something: I brought the last four winter squashes into the kitchen so we remember to cook and eat them.

Waste not: the usual composting and saving eggshells separately (I may grind them to sprinkle on the garden in place of some of the limestone we'd otherwise purchase). A friend gave us some of the foam wrappers that surround commercial packages of ice cream cones. We're thinking of ways to use them - maybe to stuff into our old, flat pillows to improve them.

Want not: nothing particular this week.

Eat the food: cooked and ate some of the homegrown sugar beets. Included stored winter radishes and sunchokes in the stir-fry. My DH is making black bean soup from our homegrown beans to take to a potluck tomorrow.

Build community food systems: answered a friend's question about when to direct-seed onions into the garden (answer: second half of March, as soon as the soil thaws. That is, if it freezes again. Which it will probably do this weekend. But how long it stays frozen, I don't know.)

Skill up: learned how to make caramel fudge this week due to a friend's request, and it actually turned out well! It's the first time I've made a candylike material from scratch.

I'm planning a post or so on seed-starting next.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Celebrating Independence Days in 2012

Sharon Astyk, one of my favorite writers, has just announced the beginning of her Independence Days challenge for 2012. I’ll be playing along and reporting here. Now I did say that my next post would discuss how I actually garden ... and it will ... but since Independence Days focuses on food, and we like to grow as much of our food at home as we can, it’s closely related to gardening. At least it is to me, and it’s my blog, after all.

What are Independence Days? Astyk borrowed the expression from Carla Emery, author of The Encyclopedia of Country Living. One of Emery’s goals was to feed her family as much as possible from her own labor. To do this, she tried to plant something every day from late winter to mid-summer, so they would have a wide choice of foods to eat over an extended period of time. By mid-summer some of the crops were ready to be harvested and put up, so from then through late fall she tried to do a little of that every day, to ensure her family had some home-grown food in winter and spring. During the winter and for as long into the following spring as possible, she and her family made it their goal to eat some of the stored food each day. For Emery, Independence Days were the days, or perhaps just meals, that she could feed her family from just what they grew. Independence Days represented a struggle, but one that was worthwhile for her and her family. Astyk, in adopting the term for her family and her book Independence Days, reminds us that in the midst of the economic, energetic, and environmental difficulties of our time, one of the best ways we can respond is to make the growing, preserving, storing, cooking, and eating of locally-grown foods a central part of our lives. But she also knows that many of us don’t have the skills we need to preserve, store, and cook unprocessed foods in low-cost, low-energy ways. Hence her book, and it’s a good overview of a big subject, enough to get you started if you haven’t done much or any of these before. Later on I’ll suggest some other books that go more in depth into some of the topics, for those of you who want that info.

Astyk runs the Independence Day challenge not for competitive purposes, but so we can see and note the positive steps we take each day toward our own Independence Days. Perhaps you think you haven’t done enough if you haven’t spent all day digging up your garden or canning quart after quart of produce. It’s not that concentrated efforts like these don’t make a big difference - they do - but doing a little bit every day is easier for most of us and will end up being a big accomplishment when seen over a whole year. Looking back over your week and noting all the little things you did helps to keep you focused and looking forward.

The categories Astyk set up and the reasons for them can be found here (see the Feb. 1, 2012 entry). I may as well get started with what I did this week, since it’s Friday and she suggested reporting on Fridays. For those of you who live in the St. Louis metro area or other areas with similar climates who want to know what gardening activities are good to do at various times, you’ll be especially interested in the first two categories.

Plant something: I started onion and leek plants in flats and put the flats on the glassed-in porch. It’s still too cold to put anything in the cold frame, but the porch is warm enough to start seeds.

Harvest something: nothing this week, since I don’t have any hoop houses or other enclosures over the outdoor garden. It is winter, after all.

Preserve something: nothing this week, see above.

Waste not: I started drying the egg shells rather than just reflexively tossing them into the compost pile (not that composting them is a waste, but I have ideas for other uses for them). I checked the various stored veggies to ensure they are OK when I removed some to eat.

Want not: nothing particular this week.

Eat the food: homegrown butternut squash, storage radishes, beets, turnips, sunchokes, and kimchi; sun-dried locally grown peaches, Mike’s homemade wine from home-grown elderberries.

Build community food systems: this blog post would be it.

Skill up: I’m sowing seeds according to the biodynamic calendar this year for the first time.