Sowing the seeds of self-reliance
by: Aidan Feeney
People garden for many reasons, but one underlying motivation, especially in these coronavirus times, is self-reliance. Taking ownership of something as fundamental as our own nourishment can be a refreshing antidote for what ails us.
Why then, should we settle for planting whatever crops and varieties the local nursery has to offer? To take control of this ourselves, we need to know how to grow plants from seed. Furthermore, if we want a steady supply of crops throughout the season, we need to know how frequently to plant them.
Direct-seeded vs. transplanted crops
The most important distinction to make is between crops that are best started in a tray and those that are best grown by sowing the seeds directly into the garden soil. For the most part, root crops such as carrots, beets, radishes, turnips and parsnips benefit from direct seeding in the garden. Peas and beans also prefer to be sown directly since they have fragile roots that get damaged when transplanting.
Generally speaking, larger crops that are spaced further apart, like broccoli, cucumber, eggplant, pepper, tomato and zucchini, are better off transplanted into the garden. Transplanting allows the crops to get a headstart over the weeds. It also allows you to start warm-season crops such as watermelon, tomato and cucumber indoors before the weather outside would normally permit.
For most crops, however, you have the choice between transplanting or direct seeding them. I generally recommend transplanting crops, as it gives you much more precise spacing between plants, a jump on weeds and pests, and requires less soil preparation. When a planting calls for many small individual plants, however, as is the case with cilantro, baby greens, dill and other bunched/bagged crops, I normally direct-seed them. This is much easier than starting all of them individually and transplanting them by hand at such close quarters.
How to direct-seed crops
Direct seeding is a simpler approach to growing. It does not require any trays, potting mix or nursery space. Rather, the crop spends its entire life cycle in the garden. A nice benefit to this is that you don’t have to worry about transplant shock or the plants becoming rootbound in their container.
You also save money on potting mix and trays.
The key to successful direct seeding is a well-prepared bed and well-marked rows. The beds should be free of any weeds, levelly surfaced and the soil should be loose.
Whether you are seeding by hand or using a mechanical seeder, the rows should be straight and easy to identify.
This will help you differentiate between the weeds and your crops in the future. If you plan on multiple sowings throughout the year, or if you have a bigger garden, I would definitely recommend using a mechanical seeder such as an Earthway.
These seeders will allow you to plant much faster without bending your back and they will plant and bury your seed very precisely. For smaller gardens, planting by hand is fine, just try your best to follow the seed company’s directions for seeds per foot and planting depth. An easy crop to first try direct seeding are radishes. Radish seeds are relatively cheap, they are fast to germinate, and in the event that your garden has some weeds at harvest, it’s easy enough to pluck the radishes out from the weeds.
One common mistake with root crops such as carrots, beets and radishes is sowing the seeds too thickly. If you do this, take the time to thin them out. Otherwise you will get small and misshapen roots.
How to transplant crops
The key to successfully growing vegetablestarts is a suitable propagation area and a quality potting mix. A suitable propagation area needs warm temperature, shelter from the elements and good lighting. This could be a sunny windowsill, a basement with grow lights, a greenhouse or even just a deck or patio during the growing season.
For potting mix, I recommend using an organic, compost-based mix, such as Coast of Maine Stonington Blend, Fafard Organic Potting Mix or Vermont Compost Fort Vee Mix. For each planting, you should fill multi-cell flats with the potting mix and plant one seed in each cell. Follow directions specific to each crop regarding how deep to sow the seeds in the potting mix. Small seeds are typically planted a quarter-inch deep and large seeded crops are typically planted an inch deep.
Once the crop has grown to a point where its roots have started to fill the cell and you can pull the plant and the soil from the cell without the soil crumbling, it is ready to plant outside. You don’t want to plant too late, otherwise the plants’ roots will become overcrowded, which is sometimes called “rootbound.”
If moving the plants from indoors, it is important to “harden them off.” This is a process where over a few days you incrementally increase exposing the plants to outdoor conditions. This is especially important for plants that were started under grow lights.
Similar to direct seeding, it is best to transplant your crops into loose soil with a leveled top. You should plant your crops in straight rows, according to the spacing recommended by the seed companies. This will keep you from overcrowding your plants.
How often to plant
The way to determine how often you need to plant a crop is based on how long a period you are able to harvest it. For example, once a pepper plant sets fruit, it will likely continue to provide you peppers for most of the season, thus ensuring that you only need to plant it once.
Radishes and lettuce, on the other hand, need to be replanted as the season goes on. Lettuce only provides one harvest per plant and it does not keep well in the field, giving it a narrow harvest window.
These crops need to be planted frequently, about every two weeks, to ensure that you have a consistent supply. Beets and carrots are also one-time harvest crops, but they have a longer harvest window than radishes, lettuce and baby greens. You can plant carrots and beets once every six weeks or so during the season to have a consistent supply. When planning out your garden, look up each crop individually to see how often it needs to be planted.
The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner once said, “A farm comes closest to its own essence when it can be conceived of as a kind of independent individuality, a self-contained entity.”
I agree with this notion and I encourage all of you to take growing matters into your own hands and to create gardens that are representative of who you are. It is a great feeling to watch a garden take on a life of its own. Happy growing. ///
Aidan Feeney is the owner of Fog Town Farm on Nantucket and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.