Seeds or Starts?
By Angie Jabine
Photo by Shawn Linehan
As the days lengthen and the urge to garden becomes almost overwhelming, many novice gardeners face a quandary: Should they buy seeds or nursery transplants? After three decades of gardening in the Willamette Valley, Tim Lanfri has some very definite ideas on the subject.
For spring greens, such as lettuce, spinach and mustard, and spring vegetables, such as broccoli, kohlrabi and beets, Lanfri is a fan of buying seeds and starting them in a sunny, sheltered spot. He doesn’t sow early spring seeds directly into the soil — it is generally too chilly and damp, and the seeds are too tempting to local birds and other pests. Instead, he starts his spring seeds indoors around March 1, using the one-inch nursery six-packs that transplants are commonly sold in, taking care to wet his planting mix thoroughly before planting the seeds. As soon as the seedlings begin to break the surface of the soil, he transfers them to an outdoor cold frame, where they will have access to plenty of sunlight while staying protected from wind, rain and pests.
By around March 20, when the seedlings are sturdy enough to transplant into the ground, he makes a shallow furrow in a waiting bed of soil and sets each seedling into the base of the furrow. That way, he can set a protective fabric row cover directly on top of the bed without disturbing the transplants.
“Floating row covers are the most significant tool I use for protecting plants from pests and extending the growing season,” says Lanfri. The spun-polyester fabric adds warmth, keeps out pests, is water permeable and is light enough that it can be left on top of the growing greens for several weeks without damaging them. He just makes sure he’s inspected the bed and removed any snails or slugs before setting the row covers in place.
When it comes to heat-loving, warm-weather crops, such as peppers, tomatoes, melons and eggplants, Lanfri is firmly in favor of using nursery transplants — and he buys them as early as they become available in local nurseries, even if it’s still March, and keeps them in their original pots until the weather warms. Buying warm-weather starts this early does mean you’ll have to keep an eye on them, making sure they’re watered, fertilized and placed in a protected outdoor location such as a cold frame. You may even find that they outgrow their original pots before the weather is warm enough to plant them, which means you’ll need to transplant them to a larger pot. But Lanfri knows from personal experience that if you wait until May or June to buy your warm-weather transplants, you may be getting plants that have become pot bound, with exposed, dried-out roots. Or they may be leggy and weak stemmed from overcrowding and lack of sunlight. With only one season to grow in, these poor specimens are handicapped from the start.
“The goal with hot-weather plants,” he says, “is to get them large enough by early July that they’ll move from the vegetative stage to the fruiting stage,” so that you can start harvesting them while it’s still summertime. It helps to choose varieties that have been bred to mature quickly in climates with short growing seasons. Good choices for the Pacific Northwest include Glacier and Early Girl tomatoes, Cajun Belle peppers, Early Jalapeños and Millionaire eggplants.
By the time spring is edging into summer, Lanfri is direct-sowing his squash seeds — everything from yellow squash to cucumbers and pumpkins. He mostly grows the varieties he considers “tried and true,” but what’s the point of gardening if you’re not going to experiment? Last summer, he recalls, he was having a hard time finding white beans to plant. Then he came across some large white dried corona beans in the produce section at a New Seasons store. Rather than cooking them, he planted them and grew them as pole beans. The result was such a bounty of beans that he saved a few to plant again this year. Such pleasures definitely outweigh the setbacks when you’re a year-round gardener.
Spring Gardening Tips
Use potting soil
If you’re starting seeds inside, or in a cold frame, don’t use the soil from your garden. Buy potting soil or a planting mix instead. “Garden soil is loaded with organisms that can infect and kill your seedlings,” says Lanfri. Garden soil is also usually heavier than potting soil, which has lots of organic material to make it light and easier for seeds to push up through.
Enrich your water
Water your germinating seedlings at least once a day and don’t let them dry out. Lanfri never waters his seedlings without adding some water-soluble fertilizer, such as fish emulsion. Otherwise, the frequent watering would quickly wash all the soil’s nutrients out of the bottom of the pots. Fish emulsion is a widely available organic fertilizer that is high in soluble nitrogen. Follow the directions and never mind the aroma — that’s the smell of fertility.
Easy does it
One badly aimed splash with a watering can could wash a seedling right out of its little pot. But if you use a spray mister, it can take forever to dampen the soil. For a low-tech, just-right water delivery system, try using a plastic water bottle or milk jug whose cap has been pierced several times with a sewing needle.
Give outdoor soil a warm-up
In spring, the warmer your soil is, the more quickly your direct-sown seeds will sprout, and the more quickly your transplanted seedlings will adjust to their new surroundings. Give your plants a head start by covering their future bed with a sheet of plastic for a few weeks before sowing seeds or moving transplants. (Be sure to remove any slugs you find before putting down the plastic.) The plastic “bedspread” will raise the soil temperature substantially.
Angie Jabine is a Portland writer and gardener. She sometimes talks to her compost.