To start or not to start?

The photo is not meant to alarm!  No, you are not behind; these are last year’s seedlings from late March or early April.

This post is about not starting seedlings.  That’s right.  Like a lot of the rest of you out there, I am having one of those but I WANT to moments that I need to talk myself out of.  I have all my seeds and all my seed-starting mix and containers, and it’s cold and nasty out so I want to think about spring – why can’t I get going?

Well, I probably will, just a little bit.  I’ve put in seeds for artichokes and cardoons, which need a long start on the growing season; I’ve got some seeds in the fridge having a cooling period; and I may start heliotrope and Monarda citriodora this weekend.  But leeks – yes, even leeks I will wait on another week, and the rest even longer.

Starting seeds too early is one of the mistakes I made as a newbie gardener, and continued to make when I knew better, and I know other people do it too.  For some reason (probably imagining those delicious orbs bursting with flavor in your mouth in July) tomatoes are the biggest temptation for premature planting.  We aren’t all as patient as Bob, starting tomatoes indoors in April, but… please don’t put those seeds in now.  Wait until mid-March.  You will thank yourself when you don’t have enormous tomato plants scorching themselves on your light stand with no more room to grow, or leggy seedlings falling off your windowsills, when it’s still 40 degrees outside at night.  Once you plant them outdoors in warm soil, they will catch up fast.

If you are serious about starting your own seeds, especially if you have ambitions to start perennials or other tricky plants, one of the best presents you can give yourself (besides a light stand) is a reference book with information on the requirements of many species.  I use Eileen Powell’s From Seed to Bloom.  Other recommendations:  buy from seed companies that have detailed, non-generic information on seed packets and on their website; search the web for reliable data from experienced growers; ask HGIC!

Most seed packets for plants that need to be started indoors (and of course many of them don’t) will tell you to start the seeds a certain number of weeks before your average last frost.  So, if your last frost is May 1, and the packet says 6-8 weeks, you should start the seeds between March 6 and 20.  You also want to pay attention to soil temperature recommendations; soil too cold means slower germination.

At this time of year I go through all the seeds I want to start indoors and file them by month.  If you are more organized than that, you could do it by the week.  That way you don’t come across that packet of hollyhock seed you really wanted to get in at the same time as the broccoli, three weeks too late to get them started in time to have flowers in summer.  Other tasks to occupy your hands and mind so you can resist the temptation to plant tomatoes in February:  building that light stand, inventing a formula for seed-starting mix and buying the ingredients (or just buying the mix), making sure you have all the trays and pots and whatever you’re going to use; washing last year’s pots with a bleach solution; clearing all the junk off the seed-starting table; mapping the garden.  And counting down the days…

6 Comments on “To start or not to start?

  1. Great post! Just what I needed to stop me from making exactly the same mistake by going to the garden center tomorrow to buy that bag of seed-starter.

  2. Humm, I'm seeing some potential blog post subjects in the final paragraph. Is that something we get to look forward to? Great post, I always get itchy to start my seeds too soon!

  3. I'm going to try to post a lot about aspects of seed-starting. This is my third year mixing my own soilless mixes, so maybe I have something to say there, though I'm not very good about experimental comparisons.

  4. Thanks for this post! Full disclosure: I totally planted some seeds this weekend. I can never tell when exactly I am supposed to be planting and figured better too early than too late. I look forward to reading your posts about seed starting!

  5. Hi Carmen – well, more often the opposite, better late than early, at least with summer veggies. Now if you're trying to get flowers going for early bloom, you might be safe, depending on the flowers. But it is really hard to hold back!

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