This year, I decided to start as many plants from seed (rather than seedlings) as possible. It’s not only less expensive to start this way, it’s also more exciting — and more work if you plan to start your seeds inside. Last year, we did a combination of both and had great successes and utter failures. All helped me learn what I do and don’t enjoy about starting from seed, what’s worth the effort and what’s not, what’s the most likely to succeed, what size containers to use for which plants, and the list goes on and on. It’s worth it in the end to try starting from seed, because you get more plants for less money, and you can grow varieties that you likely won’t find as starts at the nursery.
One major motivation for starting from seed this year was my big win from last year’s front yard garden competition! We won first place, and part of our prize was a boat load of seeds. (Here’s how we did it!) I was so excited to have all these choices that I just couldn’t justify going out and getting seedling starts this year. On top of that, after reading Jo Robinson’s Eating on the Wild Side (affiliate link), I felt compelled to get some unique veggie varieties you can’t find at just any old nursery to pack in the nutrient-density from our garden loot.
I also had leftover seeds from my Petaluma Seed Bank adventure last winter — that score included tiny heirloom currant tomato seeds and another cherry tomato variety (both packed with extra phytonutrients compared to their larger relatives). We ended up with so many of those cherries from just one plant last year that we ended up pickling a bunch of them green. It just kept going and going and going!
This year, I planted three kinds of “green” beans that aren’t green at all — royal purple beans, rattle snake beans, and royal burgundy beans. I started all of these beans inside under grow lights in the garage.
Lesson #1: I can’t handle having my seedlings grow on my kitchen floor. I might not be a neat freak, but last year’s mess was too much for me.
I also planted red and purple carrots instead of orange like last year. All this purple and red gives my food an anthocyanin boost to help protect me from free radicals, inflammation, viruses, and cancer (source).
About those Carrots
I recently learned that carrots can be sown year-round in the SF Bay area. I direct sowed some in late January during a stint of particularly beautiful weather, and I’ve already enjoyed a few of them. Some are a bit slower-growing (most likely because of a shortage of sun exposure where I planted them), but they’re on their way. Because we use carrots so often in soups, stews, and broth (and Dexter just loves ’em!), I am treating them like cilantro this year — just planting new seeds every few weeks so that they’re constantly around. I failed at my cilantro task last year, but I’m determined this year to get it right, and with the added reminder to plant carrot seeds, I’m hoping I’ll get on the ball so I can have carrots and cilantro on-demand all season!
Direct Sow vs. Starting Indoors
Some plants need to be started inside under grow lights before the last frost in order to mature enough during the growing season. This definitely varies based on where you are in the world and how long your growing season is. But even here in “Sunny California,” tomatoes should be started inside. I started a ton of those currant tomatoes I mentioned under grow lights in the garage, and we prepared more planting ground on the side of our house to accommodate them all. We’ll see if they get enough sun over there. They were extras, so it’s an experiment. But last year the little currants did well under the shade of the artichoke plant, so I’m optimistic.
Some seeds are large enough, strong enough, and mature quickly enough, that they are successful as direct sows. Squash seeds (including pumpkin) and sunflower seeds are great examples, although they can be started inside as well.
Lesson #2: Carrots prefer direct sow to being transplanted. Don’t be fooled by the nursery trying to sell you a carrot start.
Too afraid to start from seed last year, I bought carrot starts from my local nursery. Honest and awesome as they are, they did warm me about the potential of this happening, but I tried anyway. Any disruption in the root during a transplant could end up with some funky, weird-looking split carrots like these.
Lesson #3: Don’t rush hardening off
This is my first year growing sunflowers, and I experimented with both direct sow and starting indoors under grow lights. I had 4 plants mature under grow lights and it didn’t seem that any had sprouted outside over the same period of time. Eager to take advantage of a weekend in town, I rushed through the hardening off process of my indoor plants, and they all wilted and died after a few days outside. Only one of my direct sows made it, but it’s going strong, already about 6 inches tall with a much thicker stalk than any of the ones I started inside. I plan to throw a few more seeds out there to see if I can get more flowers going from direct sow.
Lesson #4: Start with the right containers
Last year, I started pumpkins and delicata squash seeds indoors in containers far too tiny for their rapid growth as seedlings. I ended up having to transfer them as delicate little babies into larger containers and continue to grown them inside. As they outgrew those containers and the weather began warming, I thought it was time to start hardening them off. Some died on the first day outside, because they weren’t well-rooted after the initial transplant, and some died in the ground a week later. I did end up with a great pumpkin harvest but not a single delicata made it.
This year, I started all my squash inside in larger containers so that I wouldn’t have to move them until it was time to get them into the ground. I also waited for them to get much bigger than last year before beginning the hardening off process — only possible because of the containers I started them in this time. They’re much happier and healthier than the ones I planted last year, already growing tiny blossoms! In fact we had so many healthy starts we put the extras in containers to see how they’d do. Another experiment I’ll report back on in a few months!
Lesson #5: Be patient
How many of us have to learn this lesson over and over? When it comes to gardening, I have to learn it many times a season. We planted our artichoke last year and got lucky with a big, early yield. That first plant died off and left two babies in its place, both of which kept getting bushier and bushier with no fruit in sight. By this time last year, we’d definitely enjoyed some home-grown chokes, so I was starting to worry — I even considered pulling up one of the plants, thinking they were too crowded to produce. Then all of the sudden we saw one pop up. I left town for a few days last week, and suddenly yesterday there were EIGHT! Yes, eight. Patience is a virtue, and so are plentiful artichokes!
This is my favorite time of year. I get to be outside in the sunlight with my hands in the dirt, learn what it takes to grow my own food, and figure out the tricks of the gardening trade. With every year that passes, I get to know my little postage stamp of property that much better, and I get to share everything I learn right here with you!
This year’s garden harvest is going to bring lots of new goodies into the CWB kitchen, so stay tuned for exciting recipes on the horizon! And if you have any tips to share with me from your gardening successes (or failures), please share below!
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