Entering the Seedy Stretch

by Doug Muller

It's the Ides of March, and with this beautiful sunny weather it's hard to beware much--especially Old Man Winter. We're not home-free yet, though. There are certainly many frosty nights (and probably days) to come before the all-clear whistle blows around Mothers Day. And even then we're not totally safe from frost; last year a late frost hit most of the region about a week before Memorial Day.

Soil blocks awaiting seeds. Soil blocks awaiting seeds.

But Mothers Day is a good target date for planning the garden, and it's now about eight weeks away. This means that seed-starting of many tender vegetables can now begin in earnest, either indoors under lights or outdoors in a cold frame.

So, what's to sow?

  • Brassicas: It's prime time for making early sowings of kale, collards, early cabbages (such as Early Jersey Wakefield), early kohlrabi, and broccoli. These brassicas are all adaptable crops that can be started any time from now until mid-July, providing healthy greens for the table from May until December. Asian greens such as tatsoi can be started now, too, for a short harvest window in June. Due to the bolting tendency of Asian greens such as tatsoi and bok choy and Chinese cabbage (all Brassica rapa), it's best to take a hiatus from sowing from mid-April until early June.
  • Salad Greens: Lettuce, arugula, and many herbs for fresh salads--parsley, cilantro, chervil--can be sown now under protection. (You can even begin to make outdoor sowings of spinach anytime the next week or two; spinach loves the cold.)
  • Alliums: Onions can be started now with decent results, though your bulbs might not be as big as those grown from February-sown seed. It's still a great time to sow seeds of leeks, scallions, chives, and garlic chives.
  • Tomatoes: It's time to start sowing the seeds of love--love apples, that is. Tomatoes can be started anytime from now until late April; the earlier you sow 'em, the earlier you reap your tomato bounty. That said, tomatoes started earlier require more coddling. If you use a cold frame, they must be amply protected from frosty nights (by bringing them inside or covering the cold frame with a blanket when temps dip into the low- to mid-twenties). If you start them inside, you need to be sure they get sufficient light. If you're in no rush for the earliest tomatoes, waiting a few weeks to start seeds (until April 1st or so) allows you to worry a little less about the cold and the dark.
  • Peppers and Eggplants: Both plants can be started from now until mid-April or so, but if you much prefer ripe peppers to green ones, start early--it ensures the largest number of red (or orange or purple) peppers before frost (though the same difficulties apply to early sowings of these plants as to tomatoes). Peppers and eggplants need good heat and plenty of time to germinate. Start them indoors in your warmest spot, and be patient. Put a tray full of sown peppers in a plastic bag to keep the environment moist until germination takes place; once a few seedlings emerge, get them out of the bag quickly to prevent damping off.

I'm missing many of the minor plants, but those are the biggies. In the next few posts I'll discuss the basics of building and managing a cold frame, which to my mind is the simplest and most effective set-up for starting seeds.

In the meantime, stay seedy! --Doug