Develop a Seed Plan for Your Vegetable Garden, Part 2: Defining a Seed-Starting Schedule

Reader Contribution by Sheryl Campbell and The Lazy Farmer
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Transplanted broccoli seedling. Photos by Sheryl Campbell

You developed your seed plan, made or purchased your seed starting supplies, and you are ready to start planting your garden indoors. How do you know which seeds to start…and when? Look back at your garden seeding/transplanting plan. Then look at your seed packets for information. Most seeds take 7-10 days to germinate and 2-4 more weeks to grow out indoors in small pots. This might include the hardening off time or you might need to add another week for that process.

See when you want to transplant the seedling in your garden, then count back the appropriate number of weeks for that type of vegetable to germinate, grow out, and harden off. There isn’t a set rule for all vegetables. I start tomatoes 5 to 6 weeks before planting, but give peppers 8 to 9 weeks. Melons and squash usually only take 4 weeks. Alliums take forever to get large enough that I can keep them weed free without injuring them so I start them 3 months before planting out. That way I can mulch them with fine straw immediately to keep the weeds down.

A huge benefit to starting seeds yourself is the ability to do so in summer when your heat loving crops are taking up garden space. Indoors the broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbages are happily getting going on the light table ready to replace corn and beans as soon as spots open up late summer or early fall.

 

 Cool season seedlings

Indoor Seed-Starting Calendar

So, without further adieu, here’s my inside seeding program for 2021.

Mid-January

  • Shallots, chives, and onions (transplant in early April)

Late February

  • Parsley (transplant in early April)
  • Peppers, hot and sweet (transplant in mid-May)

Early March

  • Tea hibiscus, summer savory, ground cherries, and tomatoes (transplant early May)
  • Broccoli and cauliflower (transplant mid-April)

Mid-April

  • All basils, all melons, and all winter squash (transplant mid-May)

Early May

  • Long season cabbage (transplant in mid-June)

Early June

  • Italian broccoli, winter cabbages (transplant in early August)

Early July

  • Cauliflower and Napa Cabbage (transplant in early August)
  • Single cut broccoli (transplant in mid-August)

Because we raise 75% of all the vegetables we eat — and we eat a lot of them — you can see that my light table is going to stay busy. Some of my decisions about when to start a particular vegetable indoors has to do with that year’s particular garden plan. Some plants have a longer time window than others for when they can go into the ground and still mature in the right weather. This allows me some flexibility based on what I want to grow and when.

Many vegetables such as okra, sunflowers, and corn don’t like to be transplanted so I seed them directly into the garden. Beans, peas, and summer squash come up so readily on their own that I don’t bother starting seedlings inside. Many of my herbs self-sow each year (cilantro, dill, and borage come to mind) so there’s no need to seed them anywhere.

Hardening Off

When I’m within 1-2 weeks of planting out a seedling, I begin to harden it off. This consists of moving it to a protected area outdoors for a couple of hours where it won’t get direct sunlight or wind. Each day I increase the amount of time the plant spends outdoors and the amount of sun it receives.

 

Portable greenhouse

I have two tools to accomplish this. The first stop is a several tiered, portable green house on wheels that I can move around my patio and cover with shade cloth. The plants graduate from there onto my plant wagon which is a large flat piece of wood stepped into a repurposed Radio Flyer wagon that my son gave up years ago. Actually the greenhouse was originally his as well. Seems I’m a bit of a kleptomaniac. I can wheel the wagon into dappled light under the willow tree, under the trampoline when it’s raining, or leave it completely exposed to the sky.

Transplanting Day

With my trowel in hand, a full watering can, and my trays of seedlings, I get down to business in the garden. The peat must be peeled off down to the level of the soil in all the seedling pots. For plants with deep and centralized roots, I simply peel off the bottom of the pot as well and pop the whole thing into the ground. For finer rooted plants or those with more complex rooting systems, I gently peel the entire pot away from the plant, leaving the planting medium intact. Then it goes in the ground. I gently tamp the dirt around the planting hole, and carefully water in each plant.

 

Kale and broccoli seedlings planted out 

The process goes very quickly and is a relaxing way to spend a late afternoon or evening. Try to transplant late in the day when the sun isn’t as strong. Better yet, plant on a cloudy day when gentle rain is expecting later in the day or evening.

Ready, Set, Go!

That’s all there is to it. Go forth and plant! You’ll learn as you go and be able to fine tune things year after year. The most important thing to remember is that no year is the same. Sometimes spring comes late, and sometimes winter comes early. Sometimes it remains too cold outside to harden off your plants when you want to. That’s how I ended up taking the portable greenhouse since it allows me to zip up the plastic cover and provide an additional layer of warmth.

You never know what to expect. One of the first years I started my own seedlings we had an enormous storm which flooded my entire garden where the rising water actually lifted my newly planted seedlings right out of the ground and floated them out of the garden. But it’s all a learning process, and learning is fun. For really critical plants (tomatoes anyone?) I start extra seedlings and hold them back one week to make sure all my transplants take and begin to root into the garden soil. If I don’t need them I give them as gifts to friends who still buy their seedlings from the store.

Approach the whole process with a light heart, a desire to learn, and a good sense of humor. Let me how your indoor gardening goes this year.


Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth Gardener and Grit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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