I find there are two ways in which things will normally go for new gardeners. Either you have tremendous beginners luck, or you don’t.
In the latter, you suffer for all your mistakes right from the get-go and are forced, very early on, to become the best damned gardener you can be.
In the former, your transgressions are inadvertently rewarded by your stupid luck and when that luck finally runs out you’ve got a host of horrible habits and deep seated entitlement mindsets to overcome. You have to, essentially, go back to the beginning and relearn everything.
That’s the one where I fit. The one where it all goes really, really well… until it doesn’t.
The first garden I ever kept was, all things considered, quite a success. I stuck some tomato and pepper plants into the hard clay at the bottom of the hill, watered once in a while and weeded never. We ate tomatoes and peppers all summer long. They were delicious, even if we did have to wade through waist deep weeds to find them. In hindsight, I probably should have saved some seeds; obviously those plants were not just survivors, but thrivers.
The next went just as well, and then the one after that. In fact, to be perfectly fair, I have yet to have a year of tremendous failure. A few years worth of the creeping sort of failure have been enough. And now? I take this shit rather seriously.
So seriously, in fact, that this weekend, as I was getting ready to replant after the mole/vole/dog disaster (you’re tired of hearing about that, aren’t you), I got to thinking about how much differently I do things now. In the beginning I just plopped seeds and plants in the ground with little concern for their growing conditions, chances for germination. Soil temperature? I don’t need no stinkin’ soil temperature! Except, I really do — plus so many other things — and it only took me almost a decade to admit it.
And it is, with that in mind, that I give you my tops tips for seed starting success. Some are for inside, some are for outside, some are for both and all? All are, hopefully, for better results. Who doesn’t want that?
Seeds Are Cheap. Sow Generously, Thin Ruthlessly.
Let’s get this out of the way right up front. Seeds are cheap! Save some extremely rare varieties (that if you’re just starting out you’re probably not growing anyway) it’s not like there’s a shortage of the things. And while I admit that the prices have gone up, and up, and up along with the popularity of backyard gardening, they’re still (relatively speaking) very, very cheap. I mean, when’s the last time you went to the store and bought a couple hundred pounds of tomatoes for two dollars and fifty cents? And yet, with a packet of tomato seeds and a little patience that’s precisely what you can have.
Seeds are cheap, so don’t be stingy. Plant those little suckers. Sow a couple of seeds per plug and thin ruthlessly once your seedlings are up. This ensures 1) you have enough in the event of poor germination and 2) those you keep around are the strongest and best plants for the job.
This Isn’t Vegas. Go Ahead; Stack the Deck, Count the Cards, Be a Cheater.
There’s no shame in stacking the deck. The garden is a finicky lass, Ma Nature a real wench. Soak your seeds before planting — it increases germination, shortens sprouting time and puts the odds in your favor — use row covers to hold in heat, use heat mats to warm your indoor seed starting trays, buy treated seed for those crops which are prone to rot in the ground if you so desire, decorate your garden up like a gypsy cart to scare away the birds, set a mouse trap every six inches for the voles. Give yourself every edge you can, nature will win every time anyway, but most especially if you don’t.
Know Their Needs
Lettuce will sprout in a week in fifty-degree soil, but not at all once it hits about ninety. Eggplant, on the other hand, won’t even think about sprouting much below seventy and hits its prime at about eighty five. Every plant has its preferences, get to know them. You can plant everything at once, but it’s probably not going to work out all too great for you once the beginner’s luck runs out. If you’re setting out your potatoes and your tomatillos at the same time, you’re doing it wrong.
This Is A Far Cry From a One-Night Stand. Go Ahead, Get Attached.
I’d actually love to give you advice quite to the contrary, but I know it’s impossible, so I’ll just go ahead and give you permission to get your heart all busted up instead. The one kind of tomato you just had to have? Will probably be the only one to die before you finish hardening them off. The year you were really, really, really looking forward to peas? Spring will forget to come at all and you’ll go straight from winter to summer without ever looking back. It sucks, but it’s yours. So go ahead, get attached, get your heart broken. If you don’t, you won’t have the heart to get out there and re-plant when something goes wrong, you won’t wade through the waist deep weeds to get the tomatoes, and you certainly wouldn’t do it all again next year hoping for a different outcome.