Gardenwise: Sow What? Seed, Of Course

By Susan Tito 

If you’re like me and just itching to get out in your yard, the bad news is that you’re going to have to wait at least another two months. But that doesn’t mean you should let your garden daydreams go to seed. 

Truth be told, gardening season starts now, but at this time of year it’s all about planning, not planting.

When planning your garden, consider starting vegetable, herb or annual flower seeds indoors. There are several time-honored, frugal ways to do this. Some people use egg cartons, others employ empty yogurt containers, while a few enterprising gardeners start their seeds in spent coffee pods! 

For me, it’s worth every penny to invest in a good seed-starting kit, which is available at some garden centers, big box stores and through online retailers that sell seeds. There are all kinds of kits for every budget. Some come with lights; others are self-watering. 

Take some time this month to research your kit options and the varieties of seeds you want to grow, but don’t take too long to make your choices — starting seeds is all about timing.

Let’s say that a generous relative already gifted you a kit and some seeds for the holidays. Should you get a jump on your seed-planting endeavor now? Absolutely not! 

There are many varieties of seed kits. Those equipped with grow lights help ensure success when starting seeds. |  courtesy W. Atlee Burpee Company

To understand the reason for waiting, you need to know a little about the origins of the seeds you’re looking to sow. Most plants that you start indoors — for example, vegetables such as tomatoes and peppers — originate in the subtropics and tropics. Starting seeds indoors is all about emulating the conditions the plant is used to in its native land.

But it’s not only temperature that matters; light needs to be right as well. You can grow your seedlings under lights (and it’s recommended that you do), but they eventually will need to go outside. If you grow them too early and light and temperature conditions aren’t ideal outdoors, you will produce subpar plants that can’t survive.

Although helpful, supplemental lights can’t compare with the brightness of natural light at the right time of year, which here in the Northern Hemisphere means springtime. The seed companies know this and that is why they tell you on the packet when you should start your seeds.

“You sow your plants indoors to emulate the tropics until the time when the outdoors is commensurate with that of the tropics,” said George Ball, chief executive officer of W. Atlee Burpee & Company, one of the oldest and best-known seed companies in the United States. 

On Long Island, the last frost date is in mid-April. I prefer to play it safe and use approximately April 30 depending on the weather pattern in a given year. 

So, if you buy a pack of seeds and the instructions are to sow indoors six to eight weeks before the last frost date, you simply count back from April 30 to the appropriate time range.

Although there’s no such thing as a truly idiot-proof seed kit— the exception being perhaps a Chia Pet — here are three tips to help ensure success:

• Follow the instructions on the seed packet. In addition to telling you when to sow seed, the packet will indicate planting depth and how long it takes for seeds to germinate. 

• Don’t overwater. 

• Establish a routine and stick with it. Plants are like babies, and any change in routine can be disruptive. 

“Seeds, seedlings and young plants don’t like change. They’re busy adapting to life and want to be left alone, so establish your routine and stick with it — but make sure your routine is a correct one,” Mr. Ball said.

Still nervous about starting seed? Pick up a primer such as Seed Starter by Maureen Heffernan. 

Certain vegetable and herb crops are perfect for starting indoors, such as basil, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, eggplant, parsley, peppers and tomatoes, to name a few.

Equally important is your seed source. Whether you get your seed at a brick and mortar establishment or online, buy from reputable companies. I prefer to go online because of the unparalleled selection. Among my favorite online retailers are the following:

Annie’s Heirloom Seeds (anniesheirloomseeds.com)

Burpee Seeds (burpee.com)h

Gardener’s Supply Company (gardeners.com)

Johnny’s Selected Seeds (johnnyseeds.com)

Park Seed (parkseed.com)

Select Seeds (selectseeds.com)

Good seed makes a good crop, as the proverb goes, so make sure you get high-quality seed. After that, get ready, set, sow! 

But not just yet.  


Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Writers Association. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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