You hear it everywhere. You've even heard it from me. If you really want different and perhaps better varieties of vegetables for your garden, order seeds and start them indoors.
Here in northeast Ohio, we need to start seeds of tomatoes and peppers if we want ripe fruit before the end of the season. These plants are extremely easy to grow, but need more time than we can give them. So we either buy plants from our local garden centers or we try to crowd our south-facing windows with flats of our own self-started seeds. Other plants, such as cucumber, squash, melons and eggplant, are heat-lovers as well, but they also are fast growers. We can get away with waiting for the ground to warm up at the end of May or early June and go ahead and plant our seeds outside.
Sure, we can buy those plants too, along with the tomatoes and peppers. After all, it never hurts to get a jump on the season and get those vegetables to our plates sooner.
But here's the problem with starting seeds. By mid-March, we are sick of winter and are chomping so hard at the bit for spring that we can't put it off any longer. We fish last year's seed trays out of the shed or basement, give them a quick wash with the hose on a fairly warm day and unfold our TV trays in front of those windows to make room for all the seeds we want to start.
We dig out all those seed packets we ordered in January. You know the ones. They came in the mail two weeks later and have been sitting, still in the big padded delivery envelope, on our desk, waiting for spring.
Hold on a minute! It's too soon!
The advice so diligently printed on the backs of those seed packets tells us to start our seeds six to eight weeks prior to our last expected frost date. That's about May 20 for us, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, depending on what Mother Nature has in store.
Depending on the plant, I think even eight weeks is pushing it. Counting backwards, the earliest we should be introducing seed to soil is April 1, and here's why. Even though you have plenty of room in front of that bright window, the sun still isn't high enough in the sky to make enough light for adequate growth. You have a greenhouse or an indoor grow-light set up that puts out great light for starting seeds, you say? Even worse.
Starting seeds too soon only makes more work for you and doesn't necessarily promise an earlier harvest. If your plants get too big for the seed flats, you have to transplant them into larger containers. Buying more containers is an unnecessary expense. Also, if the plants are forced to grow too quickly without adequate light, their stems grow thin and spindly. In other words, the plants get tall, but not very wide. Their growth is so fast that their leaves are stretched far apart on the stems, weakening the plant to the point where it can barely hold itself upright.
It might recover when you do set it out in the garden, but it will likely go into transplant shock for a while and take a bit of time to get good growth started. You can encourage strong stems on those tomatoes by planting them deep in the soil right up to the top two leaves. Tomatoes have the ability to form roots along their stems and the more roots underground, the stronger the plant is above. But that does take time. Once the plant goes in the ground, it takes a week or two to get adjusted to its new home. It also takes time for those extra roots to grow and take hold and in the meantime, the plant sits quietly waiting for top growth to take off.
My favorite way to plant tomatoes is to dig a small trench about four inches deep, plucking off the plant's leaves along the stem and then laying the plant in the trench with just the top leaves sticking out. Cover, water and wait. The more roots that form underneath, the stronger your plant will be.
But it doesn't matter if your plant is two feet tall or six inches tall when you put it in the ground. In my experience, the smaller plants will likely catch up quickly once the weather and soil conditions are right for good growth.
Some plants, particularly herbs, need a bit longer to germinate. Go ahead and start those seeds eight to 12 weeks ahead of putting them outside. Parsley, in particular, can take up to 28 days to germinate and even then, it is often inconsistently hit and miss. Parsley seeds need light to germinate and are very small. Sprinkle them over the soil and don't cover as you would with other seeds.
Chives also germinate slowly, taking as much as two to three weeks. Basil doesn't take quite as long, but prefers warm soil and lots of light. Marjoram, sage and oregano also take about two weeks before you begin to see emergence from the soil.
Spring will get here, eventually, and although it tries our patience sometimes, we can be assured that once it hits, it will hit with a vengeance. When you are hustling to get everything in the ground before it's too late, you will look back fondly on those weeks you were able to take it slowly.
Evanoff is a Master Gardener with The Ohio State University Extension of Trumbull County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.