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Selecting & Planting Your Vegetables: The Seedy Part of Gardening

You can grow most any vegetable in most any climate.  However, the time of year you can plant that vegetable and the variety of that vegetable you can get to grow are heavily dependent on the climate you’re growing that vegetable in.  Peas will grow in northern and southern climates.  But, if your garden is in the south, you need to plant heat tolerant pea varieties and plant them in the spring.  Those with short growing seasons need to select early-to-harvest vegetable plants, like Early Xtra Sweet corn, Early Midget watermelons, and Green Comet broccoli.

So, how do you find out what vegetable varieties grow best in your area?  Of course, the internet can be a good resource, but the amount of information spit back from a Google search can be overwhelming.  Local garden resources are often a better bet as they can provide you with information specific to your region.  They know what vegetables grow best.  They’re aware of any plant diseases or garden pests making the local rounds.  They can advise you on common soil issues in your area.  Your best local resources will be:

Local agricultural colleges and universities

Many of these schools maintain webpages with regional gardening help and a list of vegetable plants that work well in your area.  For example, if you live in Texas, Texas A&M’s Aggie Horiculture website has a search tool that lets you find the best kinds of fruits and vegetables to grow in your county.

Local greenhouses and nurseries

Unlike large chain stores, such as Home Depot, local nurseries will carry plants that grow best in your climate.  Nursery plants are also better cared for and much more likely to survive and thrive after transplanting.

City and county agricultural extension offices

These government offices can offer you pamphlets and advice about best planting practices in your area.  They also provide soil tests for a small fee.

Local garden clubs

Seek out garden clubs in your city and attend a few meetings to mingle with experienced gardeners.  Most clubs are very welcoming to newcomers, and some even offer gardening seminars and classes for beginners.

Local farmers markets

If the produce is available at your local farmers market, you can grow it in your garden.  Farmers markets are another great place to meet seasoned gardeners.  These growers will also be up to speed on any seasonal plant and pest problems and can advise you accordingly.

Planting Your Crop

Once you’ve chosen the vegetables you’re going to grow, there are three ways to get your plants in the ground: direct sowing, transplanting, and seed-starting.

Direct sowing is exactly what it sounds like:  putting a seed directly into the ground.  Some plants have to be directly sown.  Corn, for example, doesn’t transplant well.  Generally, large seeds, like beans, peas, cucumbers, and melons can be directly sown.  Root vegetables, like radishes, onions, and carrots, should also be directly sown.

To direct sow your plants:

  1. Create rows or mounds per the seed pack directions.  If the seeds will be sown in a row, make a furrow down the middle of the row to the planting depth recommended by the seed packet.
  2. Sow the seeds according to package instructions.  If the seeds are small, like carrots or onions, you can sprinkle them in your furrow.  Sow large seeds, like corn, legumes, and squash, individually every 1”-3” in a row or 3-6 seeds per mound.
  3. Water seeds consistently while they’re germinating, but don’t overwater.  Soil should be moist but not soaking.  If the soil is too dry, the seeds won’t sprout.  But, if the soil is kept too wet, the seeds will rot in the ground.
  4. If the plants require trellising or supports, like pole beans or peas, put those in place now.  If you wait until the plants are established, you risk damaging the roots when stakes are pushed into the ground.
  5. Thin sprouted seedlings according to package directions.  Thinning just means removing extraneous plants, so that your remaining plants have 6”-12” of space between them.  Don’t be tempted to let all your plants develop; they can’t grow properly in a confined space.  You’ll end up with strangled plants and little produce.

    Plants are normally thinned when they develop secondary (true) leaves, or the plant reaches a certain height.  For large seedlings, like corn or beans, trim the plant off at its stem base rather than pull it.  If the thinned seedlings’ roots have intertwined with the roots of the plant you intend to keep, you risk damaging that plant’s roots if you pull the thinned one.
  6. If you have a long growing season and want to harvest a continuous crop, stagger your seed plantings by two weeks.  For example, sow two mounds of cucumbers now, two mounds of cucumbers two weeks later, and two mounds more two weeks after that.

Transplanting is taking an existing plant out of a container and putting it into the ground.  Some vegetable seeds can’t be sown directly.  Tomatoes, peppers, and most herbs have to be started indoors and transplanted outdoors after they’ve been hardened off.  You can start the seeds indoors yourself (which we’ll discuss in a second), or you can buy the fully-formed plants from your local nursery.

When purchasing vegetable plants, select plants that look healthy.  The plants should have green, perky leaves, not leaves that are brown, dry, or wilted.  Try to pick plants without blooms and never buy a vegetable plant that’s already producing.  If a vegetable plant has already fruited, it’s at the end of its production cycle and should have been transplanted long ago.

To transplant a plant:

  1. Create a row or mound per the plant’s label, and space the plants according the label’s planting instructions, usually 18”-24”.
  2. Dig a hole deep enough in the ground that you will completely bury the plant’s root ball.
  3. Turn the plant upside down, and gently remove it from its container.  Usually, the plant will slide right out.  If not, gently tap the bottom of the container or gently squeeze the container’s sides.  Never yank a plant out by its stem.
  4. Gently loosen the plant’s root ball.  This will encourage the plant’s roots to grow outward which better anchors the plant.  Place the plant in the ground and fill in the area around the plant with soil.  Lightly tamp the soil down.  If the plants have any blooms, gently pinch them off.
  5. If you live in a cool or windy climate, consider putting water walls or wind blocks around your plants for protection during their first few weeks in the ground.  Large coffee cans with the tops and bottoms cut out work well.
  6. Install tomato cages or support systems once water walls or wind blocks are removed.  If you’re not using water walls or wind blocks, install the cages when you transplant the plants.

Seed Starting

If you’d rather grow your tomatoes, peppers, and herbs from seed, start seeds indoors 6-12 weeks ahead of the last frost (the seed packet instructions will let you know exactly when).  To start your seeds indoors, you’ll need potting soil and seed-starting containers.  Seed starting kits can be purchased at most garden supply stores, as can seed pots, peat pots, and black, plastic seed flats.  You can also use small Dixie cups, empty egg cartons, or old ice cube trays with holes drilled for drainage.

To seed start your plants:

  1. Fill seed-starting containers with moistened potting soil to a quarter inch from the top.
  2. Place two to three seeds on top of the soil and cover with a fine layer of soil or peat moss to the planting depth recommended on the seed packet.
  3. Water your new plantings using a spray bottle to keep seeds from washing out.  Watering instructions are the same as for directly sown seeds:  the seeds need to be kept moist but not soaking.
  4. Keep your plants in a warm place.  The tops of appliances work well.  For faster germination, cover your containers with clear, plastic wrap.  Remove the plastic once the first seeds sprout.
  5. Once the plants have sprouted, move them to an area that gets good sunlight, like a south facing window.  If you don’t have a south facing window, you may need to invest in grow lights.  If your new plants are too leggy, grow slowly, or don’t develop true leaves, they’re not getting enough sunlight.
  6. Once the seedlings leaves are touching, it’s time to thin.  If you’re going to pull the extra plants, do so when the soil is at its driest right before you water.  If you’ve waited a little too long to thin because you temporarily succumbed to the temptation of keeping all of your seedlings, you can trim the extra plants off at the base of their stem.
  7. Once outdoor temperatures are consistently warm enough to sustain your plants, you’ll need to harden off your seedlings to get them used to living outdoors.
    Start by leaving the seedlings outside in a sunny (but not scorching), sheltered area for 3-4 hours.  Gradually increase the plants’ outdoor exposure by a few hours each day.  After 7-10 days, you can transplant your new plants.

Extra seeds can be stored for up to a year.  To best preserve seeds, keep them in the refrigerator, sealed in a moisture-proof container with a desiccant.  Seeds won’t germinate as well after storage, so you may find yourself replanting more stalled seeds than you did in the previous season.

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