Growing Crops From Seed Is the First Step Toward a Sustainable Garden

Spring is just around the corner, which means it’s time to plan what you want to grow.
(Photo: Dougal Waters/Getty Images)
Mar 2, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

Spring is springing on the North Fork of Long Island. Yes, frost still threatens, but the light looks different, the trees look different, the earth smells different, and the sign at my local Agway—“2016 Flower + Vegetable Seeds + Supplies Are In!”—causes people to brake hard, then wheel into the parking lot.

Inside, you’ll find experienced and novice gardeners alike contemplating the racks of seed packets. Even if you are only interested in the makings of a small kitchen garden or a row or two of salad greens, the variety is nothing short of staggering—far greater than the supply of transplants you’ll find later in the season at a nursery, a garden center, the outdoor department of a big-box store, or even a farmers market. That range of choices—especially if you’re interested in growing heirloom vegetables instead of hybrids—is one good reason to start seeds at home, but it’s only the beginning.

You’ll Save Money in the Long Run

To start seeds, you may need to buy grow lights and other supplies, but odds are a whole packet of seeds is less expensive than one single plant purchased later in the season. If you save seeds from open-pollinated varieties, you’ll be sitting pretty when 2017 rolls around.

You’ll Get a Jump-Start on Crops

If you start cool-weather crops such as kale, collards, and lettuces indoors, you can transplant them into the ground as it begins to warm up, then harvest the greens weeks ahead of schedule.

You’ll Promote Biodiversity

Buy high-quality seed from local seed companies or other producers you trust. One worthy source is the historic Roughwood Seed Collection of William Woys Weaver, a renowned food historian, author, and seed saver. Weaver inherited a collection that his grandfather started in 1932, and it now includes about 4,000 varieties of rare, unique, endangered, non-G.M., and delicious food plants, from amaranth to watermelon. Weaver, along with his Roughwood colleague Owen Taylor, has begun selling seeds to sustain his preservation work, which is at a critical juncture. You can help save their vitally important collection by buying seeds through Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co. or the Hudson Valley Seed Library, which is offering, for example, the Roughwood Golden Plum Tomato, a drought-resistant, low-acid sauce tomato that is also excellent for drying. In the same color vein is the sweet, sunny Petit Marseillais Pepper. I was glad to be reminded of these, for I remember Weaver telling me last year that he cooked them almost every day. “Their productivity makes them an all-summer producer, from mid-season until frost,” notes the Hudson Valley site. “Good income for small growers; pickles galore for the home gardener, and ideal for stuffing.” Sold.

RELATED: Prelude to a Garden: The Best Farms to Buy From During Seed-Catalog Season

Your Garden Practices Will Be More Sustainable

Individual containers are best for starting seeds so that when it comes time to transplant them you don’t harm the plants’ root systems. But instead of buying dedicated seed-starting trays, repurpose small containers such as yogurt cartons, egg cartons, or cardboard coffee cups. Punch holes in them for drainage, and put them on a large, rimmed baking sheet to hold water. You can also make seed-starting pots from old newspapers and plant them outside, pot and all. The newspaper will gradually disintegrate, and both black and color inks are worry-free in garden soil. When it comes to seed-starting mixes, avoid those that contain peat, which is being harvested at unsustainable rates. Coir, which is made from coconut husks, is a smarter option and is a component of a good DIY seed-starting mix.

You’ll Be Forced to Make a Plan

The act of starting seeds turns the dream of a garden into reality. Where in the blazes are you going to put all those seedlings you nurtured? Make a list, and sketch a simple garden map. Or fast-track things by turning to an expert like Georgeanne Brennan, whose Potager Seed Set for Spring ($18) and Potager Seed Set With Garden Maps ($38) are available at her online store, La Vie Rustic. Remember: Extra seedlings make gifts that keep giving.

Basic Arithmetic (or a Smartphone App) Will Take You Far

Seed packets for specific varieties will list the recommended times for planting seeds indoors. Start tomato seeds six to eight weeks before your average last frost date (that is, the last day in the spring that you could have a frost), for instance, or chile peppers eight to 10 weeks beforehand. This info is easy to find—check out your local county extension service (i.e., your hard-earned tax dollars at work) or apps from sources such as Mother Earth News and Growing Interactive.

Let There Be Light (and Warmth)

If you aren’t among those who have sunlight streaming through a south-facing window for most of the day, don’t despair. Use fluorescent or grow lights instead, and keep the emerging seedlings about an inch from the lights. There are all sorts of dedicated systems for this, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds is one good source. Or, do as I do and raise up the starts on piles of all those books you keep meaning to read, and lower the piles, book by book, as the seedlings grow. Aim for a consistent temperature in the 70- to 80-degree range.

A Few Planting Tips

Plant two or three seeds in each pot, and thin the less vigorous starts later. When thinning, resist the urge to yank the tiny plants out of the potting mix. Use scissors, and cut them off at soil level so you don’t harm the fragile roots of the remaining start. About a week or so before transplanting your babies, get them used to the rigors of outside life. This process is called hardening off, and it involves setting the seedlings outdoors in a place protected from too much sun, rain, or wind for a few hours, then gradually increasing exposure. They’ll repay you for all your loving care by producing the best food you’ve ever tasted.