The First Time Gardener: How I Decide When to Start Seeds
Figuring out the right time to start your seeds isn’t really that difficult. In fact, some people just start them at the same time every year and consider it done. That is certainly one option. I tend to go about it the long way around, even if it does usually end up the same. Here’s the process I use:
Step 1: Make a list of everything you are planning to grow.
This might seem very basic, but not everyone makes a list before planting! There are people that just go buy plants and seeds and stick them in without even considering anything else. If you were ordering seeds from a catalog, you probably already have a fairly comprehensive list. Here’s what my list currently looks like.
Step 2: Figure out what you need to start from seed indoors.
This step isn’t always as straightforward as you might think. A number of things can go either way. For example, lettuce. Are you going to direct seed it into the garden or are you going to transplant it? Are you harvesting it for baby salad leaves or as a whole head? Sprouting Broccoli? I don’t know…I’ve never grown it before! In the picture above, you can see I have a column marked DS/TP. That is my code for Direct Seed/Transplant. I’m going to go through the entire list and fill in one or the other. This way I can sort my list by that characteristic later if I need to. It also gives me a quick reference for when I’m filling in the other columns so I don’t have to think.
If you aren’t sure what gets planted from seed outside vs. inside, here is the ever-handy Vegetable Garden Planting Guide. (You want to check page 2, column 2, where it says “Type of Planting.” Things you start indoors are labeled as “transplant.”)
Step 3: Decide how many of each thing I’m going to plant.
Again, this is a little trickier than you might imagine. If I were starting seeds for myself, I might just plant one extra of each thing. (I’ve told our Master Gardeners in the past that I always expect everything to grow, so I don’t like planting multiple seeds in each pot! Same goes here.) Because we are demonstrating a wide variety of different things, sometimes we are only planting one of each variety. Not much room for error! Because of that I typically will plant 3 when I only need one. That allows for germination problems and transplant problems. In my spreadsheet, I will just note the row length for direct seeded (DS) plants. (In the Veg. Garden Planting Guide, page 2, the columns labeled Avg. Spacing will help you figure this out if you aren’t sure how many plants fit in your space.)
Step 4: Determine when you are going to be transplanting all of these different vegetables.
Trust me. You have to decide when they are going out in the garden before you can determine when to start them. This year is a little trickier than normal, because we have a lot of things that are going to be transplanted in the latter half of the summer. If it is horribly hot, I would probably prefer to wait until August to plant. If it is an average summer, we could plant just before Tomato Day, which would be nice. Refer to page 3 of the Vegetable Garden Planting Guide to see approximate “plant outside” dates.
Obviously the things that will be direct seeded I mark with “NA.”
(Also note that I pick a specific day because we always have Demo Garden work days on Tuesdays. Occasionally the weather will outsmart us, but it usually works out.)
Step 5: Decide how many weeks you need to grow something and count back on the calendar from the projected transplant date to the projected seed planting date.
I typically allow 4 weeks to start tomatoes, because they are usually plenty big in that time. I would rather have them slightly small than slightly big. Basil is a quick grower, so that gets 4 weeks as well. Peppers and eggplant can be a little slower to germinate, so I will allow 6 weeks for them. In the fall, most of the brassicas only need 4 weeks to be large enough to transplant.
Here you can see the completely filled in spreadsheet. This is the base plan, divided by garden. From here I will manipulate it so that everything is in chronological order. That way we don’t forget to plant something!
If you are interested in seeing the complete spreadsheet, here it is: Seed Starting Plan
Step 6: Start Planting!
If you are looking for some more in-depth information on seed starting, here’s another article: Seed Starting.