Broccoli seedlings emerge within a few days of planting. In fact, the first time I planted broccoli seeds, I was astonished to see sprouts two days later. It’s kind of exciting to have a small garden spot in my house while snow lies on the land outside, but starting seeds indoors isn’t for everybody.
The ground is frozen and there are three inches of snow on my small kitchen garden, but I’ve already started to plant! Yes, I’m starting seeds indoors well ahead of spring. I didn’t used to do this, preferring, instead, to let someone else start seeds so I could buy flats of seedlings when the ground was ready.
Why not just Plant Seeds in the Garden?
No, really: sowing seeds directly in the garden is great gardening strategy. To do this, you need seeds and a little labor… it doesn’t get easier than that. However, if your seeds’ planting instructions proclaim plant after all danger of frost passes and 120 days to maturity, you’ll need four gorgeous months before you harvest your first vegetable. Plants that mature in 120 days usually have a lot more productive days after they mature… if there’s any growing season left.
In zone 5B last year, we had frost in late May. So, the frost-free season was just long enough to go from seeds to maturity. This really isn’t good enough. When you have such a limited season, starting seeds indoors early can significantly increase your yield.
It gets better! When you have a reasonably long growing season, starting seeds early lets you do two or even three plantings. I like to start peas, lettuce, and spinach from seed in the garden as soon as the soil thaws in March and April. These tend to expire in June, so I can plant winter squash in the same space. Were I to start these indoors from seeds, I could start harvesting lettuce and spinach within weeks of transplanting outdoors in March… and I’d probably be harvesting peas three or more weeks earlier than I usually do.
Of course, by finishing spring crops early, I create a longer season for summer crops, and that gives my fall crops a bit more time to grow before a deep freeze shuts down my garden in the fall. By starting seeds in containers, you can increase the variety of vegetables you grow in a particularly small kitchen garden, keeping your planting beds more productive throughout the growing season.
There’s not much growing on my seed starting shelf, but we’re still a few weeks early for most starts. I have four tomato seedlings that I’ve just transplanted from a single starting pellet into individual pots, four broccoli sprouts, and a bunch of planters in which I set seeds minutes before taking this photo. In about three weeks, the shelf will be crowded with tomato and pepper seedlings. Realizing I could manage seed starts on a shelf in my larder solved a lot of problems related to space and tidiness. Still, maintaining all of this will occupy fifteen or more minutes each day until I start transplanting seedlings into my small kitchen garden.
Starting Seeds is a Commitment
Starting seeds indoors can be seductive. It’s quite a rush to see the seedlings push out of the soil and stretch toward the lights. With many flats of seedlings on starting shelves, tables, counters, or windowsills, you create an inviting garden spot at a time when your yard and garden may be barren and uninviting.
But I encourage you not to get carried away. As I suggested earlier: you can buy flats of seedlings and get the same season-extending advantages you get from starting your own seeds. To provide a fair-and-balanced perspective, here are several reasons not to start your own seeds indoors:
1. You simply may not have the space. Last year, we couldn’t play ping-pong from March until May because someone (tee-hee) had taken over the ping-pong table to start seeds. After my mom died, my dad removed the cushions from the window seat in his living room and set up flats there to start seeds; it’s a bit awkward to have that mess in your living room when you’re hosting a formal dinner.
You don’t need a lot of space, but you need to be able to control the climate and lighting, to manage soil and water spills, and to keep your house pets off of your nascent seedlings.
2. Starting seeds is work. You’re not likely to wear yourself out with your seed starts, but you can’t rely on nature for success. Seed starting pots or peat pellets can easily dry out in 24 hours, so you’ll probably need to water once a day. You’ll also need to adjust your lighting as the seedlings grow, and you may end up having to transplant into larger pots if you can’t get your seedlings into the garden as quickly as you expect when you’re starting them.
3. You may have saved lousy seeds. Especially if you harvested seeds from hybrid varieties of produce (Burpee loves to sell hybrids), the plants that emerge from them may develop fruits or vegetables distinctively different from the parent fruits or vegetables. Heirlooms are more likely to breed true, but insects may cross-pollinate your heirlooms with other varieties, and the resulting seeds also can produce unexpected results.
Freshly-transplanted seedlings languish for a week or two before they start growing again. These look a little sad because I transplanted them just a few days ago. I expect they’ll perk up soon, and put out some new leaves. I planted these seeds very early to test the viability of seeds I’d harvested from last year’s tomatoes. I gave away bunches of seeds, and I wanted to be confident they’d sprout for their recipients. Once I start a plant growing, I find it very difficult to let it die… or worse, to kill it
4. You can bury yourself in seedlings. If you have enough room to start dozens of flats, consider the eventual disposition of your young plants: You will some day transplant them into your garden. This could become more work than it’s worth. Sowing seeds directly in your planting beds is far easier than setting seedlings. So, unless you really need the extra growing time, you might be happier simply sowing seeds. If you want some early lettuce and spinach, start a dozen or so seeds indoors, but save the rest to sow outdoors for a slightly later 2nd harvest. I can’t imagine starting the several hundred pea plants I grow each year and transplanting them later.
Which Plants should you Start Indoors?
Don’t let anyone tell you which plants you must start indoors. Just about any vegetable is fair game… though I’d encourage you to start all root crops in your garden; transplanting may damage the roots enough that they might produce no usable food.
I’m too lazy to start fast-growing cool weather crops indoors. These don’t live long anyway, and I can wait the additional two or three weeks before I start harvesting greens. Still, I remember having fresh garden salad at a friend’s house one March about when lettuce seeds were just sprouting in my garden. My friend had planted from store-bought flats the moment she could work the soil. Compelling.
Of the plants I grow routinely, I start tomatoes, peppers, and squash indoors because they need a long growing season. Most of us eat peppers before they ripen, but if you want red peppers, you need to give them 100 or more days to develop (Once you pick a green pepper, it just won’t turn red.)
This year, I’m also starting broccoli and cauliflower indoors. These won’t mind a heavy frost, so I can set seedlings in the garden when I’m planting lettuce and spinach in March or early April. Broccoli especially can produce all season, but I expect I’ll lose interest in the plants in June so I’ll replace them then with bush beans (sown directly in the garden) that mature very quickly.