Updated: Feb 11, 2021
When is the best time to start?
It can be a seductive winter ritual, sifting through seed catalogues online and in-hand, planning and ordering spawn for your upcoming season garden. Oftentimes though, the early seed starting opportunity passes by unnoticed or unheeded under the busyness of life, and that first mid-spring visit to the garden centre to purchase starter plants defines its own fertile and hopeful ceremony.
I am starting a large variety of seeds early this year because unlike so many previous years, I now have both the time and the inclination. I will 'early' start seeds both indoors with warmth and under artificial grow lights, and also outdoors under cover and under natural light, and I will 'standard' start seeds by sowing directly in the ground later in the season when outside conditions are optimal.
'Optimal' seed starting information is printed on the back of seed packets, and is different for each variety and for each garden. The standard for calculating indoor or outdoor seed starting dates is based on the 'last frost date' (in your region) - generally, text reads something like sow indoors or under cover xx days or x weeks before the last frost, or, sow outdoors after the last frost. Counting the prescribed number of days or weeks backward, from the last expected frost date, will give you your 'recommended' start date -- ie: a recommendation to sow seeds two weeks before a last frost date of April 21st , indicates a recommended seed sowing date of April 7th. There are exceptions of course, related to soil temperature, cold stratification, etc, but most popular vegetable seeds have simple needs.
After completing my own Garden to Table Menu Plan, and taking into consideration which plants will be needed for my urban permaculture garden and the other gardens (friends, clients, family) I will be supplying plants for, I decided that it makes economic and logistical sense for me to start most or all of my plants myself, from seed. That is the plan anyway, but I doubt I will be able to resist the purchase of a potted seedling or two.
I will save money by buying seeds instead of small established plants, and I will save the time not spent driving around looking for specific plants on my list. Many of the seeds I wish to start are available only from local small-hold seed breeders or market gardeners who also save and sell organic and heritage seeds that are particularly resilient and suited to our local weather. Those seeds are not available through retail outlets. Indeed, starting plants under grow lights indoors requires an initial investment, but over time that investment should reap dividends in good physical and mental health, and also happiness.
Where I live in the Pacific Northwest, in zone 8a (15F - 20F minimum plant safety range) with a 'last frost' date falling somewhere between March 21st and 31st, and a 'first frost' date falling somewhere between November 11th and 20th, the predicted average growing season spans 235 days. Plantmaps.com is a good source of global zone, frost, drought, and other critical growing information.
Keep in mind though that, zones and growing seasons are 'generalized averages', so learning what your particular unique zone and seasons are, is up to you. First frost arrived October 23 last year for us, at 500ft elevation at the foot of the Coast Mountains, but I knew from experience that frost typically arrives a week or so before Halloween, so I was ready with fleece row cover and everything else I needed to protect tender crops from the frost.
Also, while averages might indicate a late March last frost, local garden centres have traditionally recommended waiting until the May long weekend to plant out tender annuals. The truth for me and my somewhat sheltered garden, lies somewhere in the middle, around my mid-April birthday when our native bees break through their cocoons.
When I first started gardening, the lack of accuracy and predictability was confusing and a bit off-putting. I wish someone had just told me to roll with it and not worry. I wish someone told me that gardening chaos, confusion and occasional abject failure (live and learn) were the same for everyone, and that the picture perfect, perky, tidy home gardens packed with blemish-free fruits and vegetables are as much BS as enriches farm compost. I wish.
So I am telling you now, that it isn't that hard, that if you just pay attention to your intuition and to nature and follow her cues (watch the bees), you will be successful. You 'can' grow a beautiful garden, an imperfectly beautiful garden, wherever you live, in whatever space you have, inside or outside. Information and assistance is more available and accessible now than ever before, and honestly, the very best sources of 'specific' information about when and where to sow seeds in your area, are to be found at your local garden centre, gardening clubs, and regional seed sellers.
If you are new to vegetable gardening, you might opt to purchase some established plants (those that require more days to maturity) in relatively inexpensive 4-6 cell modules or individual 4-inch pots when they hit the shelves in the spring, and direct sow seeds (plants that require fewer days to maturity) into beds and pots at around that same time. I did that for years, starting in a very small amount of space, and it worked beautifully. I was able to scale my knowledge and expertise alongside my budget, available time, growing space, and peer group of recreational and professional gardeners.
I found that raising plants and raising a family are very similar in that both prospects seem daunting at first, and each phase brings fresh worries and uncertainties. In raising my family I found that, by considering and measuring inherited wisdom and traditional environmental knowledge (TK or TEK) I could prepare for the unknown.
When I studied the wise counsel and opinions of experienced parents and grandparents within my community, it was inevitable that, by the time each new challenge or milestone finally arrived, I was prepared 'well enough' for it, and both my children and I (together with my husband) learned something extraordinary in the doing, and made beautiful memories. That's the most I can hope for; in fact all I wish for.
As I prepare for the new garden season, and reflect on last year, I am hopeful for change for the better — for the planet, for our communities, and for our extended human family. I believe that this is the year we can plant the delicious and life-giving seeds of change, and of hope.
Seeds possess the power to help us heal ourselves physically and spiritually, to clean the air and the water, sequester carbon, hydrate food deserts, secure food insecurity, and cultivate respectful global conversation. Planting seeds is the single biggest small thing we can 'all' do, that we should do, that we must do.
This week, I am doing just that — planting tomato, peppers, leeks, strawberries, and creeping thyme seeds, in seed trays, yogurt pots, and recycled plastic take-out food containers, indoors where it is warm. When they germinate I will set them under an LED grow light on a shelf in my disheveled home office where they are within arm's reach and earshot. If I had a spare room or basement even, that would certainly be more convenient, but I don't. Ironically, beautifully, that is how I raised my family while working as a self-employed writer — three tiny children at my feet, within arm's reach and earshot.
Warmth, food, water, shelter, love — all one needs to start a family.
To learn about urban permaculture and permaculture principles, such as those relating to traditional environmental knowledge, and adherence to nature's logic, watch Modern Farmer Magazine's Urban Permaculture video series in which publisher Frank Giustra and I introduce the basics.
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Written week 04 of 2021, for Modern Farmer magazine's Million Gardens Movement newsletter.