How to Start Vegetable Seed From Scratch

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PHOTO: FOTOLIA/R_R
Beans are planted outdoors when all danger of frost is past, about six inches apart for most varieties.

Learn how to start vegetable seed and grow your own vegetables while saving money on seeds and plants. The following specific seeds are a good starting point when growing your own vegetable garden.

Start Vegetable Seed From Scratch

Monocots

LILY FAMILY — ALLIUMS:
Alliums include onions, leeks, chives, and garlic. Onions germinate in
14 to 21 days and can be grown indoors from seed, directly sown, or
grown into sets that can be used the following year. Cool temperatures
(55 degrees to 65 degrees Fahrenheit) and firm, light-textured soil are
ideal for good germination. Do not “help” the emerging seedling by
straightening it or removing the seed coat from the first stalk, and
keep housebound starts trimmed back to about three inches high. For
direct sowing in spring, tilth up the bed, then firm it down a bit and
plant in shallow furrows. The seedlings will be thinned later.

The
little onion sets that you purchase at the feed and seed or the nursery
can also be produced successfully at home. To experiment, prepare a
small section of bed, say three- to four-feet long, and broadcast seed
in early spring. Chop it in with a leaf rake, tamp the soil to firm it,
sprinkle on straw or some other light mulch, and just weed and wait.
Don’t be concerned about thinning because, come late July, you’ll
harvest these baby bulbs. Dry them outdoors for a week or two, trim the
tops off, and store them, as you would mature onions, in a cool dry
place till next spring. Then simply set them out about six inches apart
for an early-season jump.

Leeks, which
germinate in 14 to 21 days, are similar to onions but should be planted
in trenches that you slowly fill in, in order to blanch the stems.

Though
many folks plant garlic cloves in spring, I’ve gotten the best results
from bedding them down in the lull of fall. Planted about one inch under
the surface, pointed end facing upward, they get a bit of growth on
them before winter, then really take off come spring. If you place them
in a diamond pattern and mulch with leaves under a layer of straw,
you’ll keep weeds at bay and you’ll know where to feel for bulbs when the tops have died back. Mulch heavily in areas with severe winter temperatures.

Dicots

PEA OR PULSE FAMILY:
These dicots are directly sown and include all of the peas and beans
(broad beans, lima beans, bush and snap beans, soybeans, etc.). An
initial soaking in warm water for an hour or two can be used to start
things happening, but don’t soak the seeds longer or you’ll risk their
splitting open. Once soaked, they can be put into the “mummy wrap,”
described in the accompanying article, and kept at a temperature above
65 degrees Fahrenheit (preferably 80 to 90 degrees). Rhizobium
bacteria, usually found in powdered form at garden supply stores, can be
dusted on damp seeds before sowing to increase yields as well as soil
nitrogen. I usually sprinkle water from my fingertips onto the seeds,
stir them around gently, and then shake them in a paper bag containing
this nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Beans are planted outdoors when all
danger of frost is past, about six inches apart for most varieties. My
particular favorite is the Royalty purple-podded bean. I like the ease
with which it can be seen at harvest and the fact that it can be planted
a few weeks earlier than most other types.

Peas,
of course, like it cool, so they’re grown in spring and fall in most
climates or over the winter in such very southern locales as parts of
Florida, Texas, and California. Typically planted around St. Patrick’s
Day in the North, or as soon as the ground can be worked in central
states, peas are often the first seeds to be sown and are an important
part of the ritual of spring. They can be planted fairly close together,
leaving only two to three inches required between seeds.

PARSLEY FAMILY: This group includes carrots, parsnips, parsley, and celery.

Direct-sown
and slow to germinate (requiring up to 30 days), the seeds of parsley
and carrots can be hurried along a bit by soaking them overnight in warm
water and then “towel drying” them for easier sowing. A friend of mine
swears by mixing fine carrot seed with his dried, already used coffee
grounds, claiming this provides better distribution of seeds as well as a
nutritional boost for the young plants. Some gardeners suggest that
using fresh grounds will help prevent visits from the carrot fly by
confusing that pest’s ability to home in on the carrot scent. You may
also want to try a technique that’s good for most root crops:
Incorporate some of your accumulation of winter’s wood ashes into the
soil or use them as a side-dressing. The ash will add potassium, sweeten
acidic earth, and deter wireworms.

Parsnips
are a good choice for gardeners young in age or in experience, because
they’re difficult to oversow. It’s not that they love overcrowding, but
that the germination rate is usually low enough to allow everything to
come out just right. (For this reason, careful planters should be
sure to use only the freshest of seed.) In clay soils, radishes can be
interplanted with parsnips to break up the surface and thus ease the
slower seedlings’ passage. Since parsnip germination takes three to four
weeks and the vegetable requires a long growing season, get those seeds
in as soon as the ground can be worked in spring!

Another
lover of cool temperatures, celery may not even sprout if its
environment is too warm. To encourage germination, you can try exposing
the seeds to light for a day before planting. Celery can take up to
three weeks to sprout, so you may try speeding things up with, again,
the old warm water bath. The key to growing celery is in knowing that it
has a very shallow root system, and for this reason, requires its food
and water to be served up within easy reach.

MUSTARD FAMILY:
These dicots make up a large family that includes kale, cabbage,
brussels sprouts, cauliflower, broccoli, mustards, kohlrabi, rutabagas,
turnips, and some of the Chinese greens.

Cabbage,
cauliflower, and broccoli thrive during the crisp, cool days of spring.
They’re generally started indoors, about eight to ten weeks before the
last frost date, in order to give the plants time to mature before the
mercury climbs too high. When the midsummer heat is on, you can either
start seed outdoors for a fall crop, or indoors (especially in extreme
southern climates) where the temperatures will (it’s hoped!) be a bit
cooler. There are even midseason cabbage varieties available to fill the
dog-days gap. Brussels sprouts benefit from frost and are usually
started in early summer and grown as very hardy fall and winter
vegetables.

All of the members of this
gang prefer firm soil and good contact around both seeds and seedlings.
When sprouts show their first two true leaves, it’s time to transfer
them to another container. Bury the roots and stem to just below the
bottom leaves whenever you transplant, and your cole crops will always
have a strong and sturdy base from which to head up. Stocky aboveground
stems and leaves are developed by giving seedlings plenty of elbow room
and sunlight, yet keeping the air temperature a bit on the chilly side
(60 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Germination times will run about 7 to 14
days . . . unless mice eat them for a midnight snack!

GOOSEFOOT FAMILY: This group of dicots includes beets, spinach, and Swiss chard.

Beet
seeds germinate in about 10 to 14 days. Each “seed” is actually a fruit
with two to six seeds inside. (You’ll want to keep this in mind when
spacing.) The germination will be quicker, and sometimes more reliable,
when seed is soaked in warm water for 24 hours. To make handling easier,
I “towel dry” them before sowing, but, to be honest, more often than
not these plants are simply direct-sown and covered with a layer of
sifted leaf mold, sand, and soil mixture. Beet seed needs good contact
with the soil, so it’s a good idea to pat the covering earth down with
your hands or the back of a shovel or spade. You may want to check your
pH and adjust accordingly, too; these crimson roots don’t like acid
soil, nor will they tolerate fresh manures (as with most root crops).

Spinach,
which germinates in about eight to ten days, is direct-sown for spring
and fall because hot weather will send it bolting. Even the seeds need
cool weather if they’re to break free from their dormancy. So, if you’re
coaxing Popeye’s favorite food in late summer, you might mummy-wrap the
seeds and put them in the fridge for five to seven days. Spinach is
usually broadcast, but can be hand-placed if the plot is small.

Swiss chard germinates in about one to two weeks, and I don’t know why more
gardeners don’t have a bit of it tucked into a partially shaded spot.
To my taste, it’s like the best of spinach and oriental cabbage in one
plant. And it seems to have nine lives; just when you think it’s frozen
or fried, it’ll come back to surprise you. Swiss chard enjoys the same
planting preparations as its relative, the beet.

NIGHTSHADE FAMILY: This group includes tomatoes, bell peppers, eggplants, and potatoes.

Tomatoes
take up more pages in seed catalogs, and are grown in more American
gardens, than probably any other vegetable. Six to eight weeks before
the last frost date, you’ll want to start your seeds indoors, making
sure they’re in good contact with the soil. Tomatoes germinate best at
around 80 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit, but should be cooled down to around
60 to 65 degrees as seedlings. Keep in mind, too, that tobacco can carry
tobacco mosaic virus to your seedlings; smokers are well advised to
wash their hands thoroughly before working with nightshade family seeds
or plants. And, as another precaution, don’t set your starts near gas
appliances. I once found out the hard way that a gas leak can not only
harm people but can stunt tomato seedlings as well.

You
may notice that your young plants develop a purplish tinge to their
leaves — a sign of phosphorus deficiency. If so, don’t despair; just add
a little bonemeal or rock phosphate to your mix to correct the problem.
And if you’re using a live organic soil mix, don’t use leaf mold from
around walnut trees; tomatoes are affected by a toxin given off by this
tree’s roots.

Nightshades love heat,
and the eggplant is no exception. It germinates in 7 to 14 days at
around 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and more quickly than that if it’s
presprouted between moist paper towels or cloth and placed inside a
plastic bag. Start seeds eight to ten weeks before the last expected
frost date, and don’t set out seedlings till all danger of frost is past and the soil has warmed.

I’ll
wager that quite a few flats or pots of pepper seeds get thrown out
either because the soil was too cold (below 60 degrees Fahrenheit) and
they rotted, or because most of us simply find it hard to believe
something can take as long as peppers do (three to four weeks) to
germinate. The optimum temperature you should shoot for is 85 degrees
Fahrenheit, and presoaking seeds in warm water may help a little.

THE GOURD FAMILY: These plants include winter and summer squashes, pumpkins, watermelons, cantaloupe, and cucumbers.

Most
all of the members of this group can wait until the soil is warmed up
after the last frost before being planted directly; set three or four
seeds to a hill that has a core made up of a few shovelfuls of good
compost or wellaged manure.

Gourds are
prolific crawlers and climbers and don’t enjoy having their roots
jostled, so if you want to get a head start, grow them in flats with
plenty of space between the seeds, or in individual containers. They
germinate best at temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit.

COMPOSITAE FAMILY: Leaf and head lettuce, endive, chicory, and globe and Jerusalem artichokes are among the more popular members of this group.

Next
to tomatoes, lettuce is quite the most popular salad-garden vegetable.
You can raise iceberg lettuce, which is bland in appearance as well as
in nutritional value . . . the easy-to-grow cos or romaine, which is
dark green and upright . . . the butterhead, with its delicate flavor . .
. or any of the many varieties of leaf lettuce, which are probably the
favorites of most home gardeners.

Lettuce
seed germinates best at between 70 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit and
thereafter prefers to be kept at 60 to 65 degrees. This is easy enough
to accomplish in spring, but at the end of July — as you are starting
your fall salad crop — a day in the refrigerator my help to remind the
seed of cool weather to come and cause it to germinate a bit more
reliably. Exposure to light for a day can also help. Shade and
continuous moisture are the two conditions that your growing salad
greens would ask for if only they could.