While it’s viable to find starts at the local farmer’s market, or the nearby hardware store, nothing is more rewarding than starting your entire garden from seed.
What is Needed for Seed-Starting
- Decide whether or not to use starting trays or starter pots. This could be a professional-grade starting setup or simply reused materials you have lying around the house. Some of the most viable seedlings I’ve received from friends were in plastic cups with drainage holes poked in the bottom.
- Finding the right seeds is important too. Think regionally, sourcing your seeds from reputable sources, or consider those that work well in your fall and winter climate. Disease-resistant varieties help you control some of the maintenance that may be required as your plants flourish.
- A good seed starting mix is important too! You can buy a pre-made mix or fashion your own from 1 part peat moss, 1 part perlite (medium and fine grain), 1 part homemade compost, a handful of azomite, a handful of kelp meal, and a homemade worm tea to moisten and inoculate. Or simplify the above recipe to include peat moss, perlite, and compost, leaving out the additions.
- Finding a sunny window or grow lights isn’t important at first, but will be as your seedlings grow into viable transplants. Most seeds don’t need light to germinate, but once their leaves unfold, they rely on it to proliferate.
- Seeds definitely need warmth and humidity for germination. A heating mat provides the former, and domes or plastic wrap affixed to your starting pots or trays provides the latter. Once the seedlings get large enough, remove the cover to allow for more growth.
A tray-dome combo is a great way to begin. Trays with open spaces at the bottom air prune roots and help them develop more readily. Soil blocking is another starting option that allows you to remove the potential for root disturbance in the transplant process.
Place your starter trays or pots on a heating mat. As they grow, remove the cover and place them under appropriate amounts of light. Adjust your light source as needed, and don’t forget to rotate the plants a quarter turn daily to help them develop healthy roots. Keep the soil moist and trim away less viable seedlings as needed.
After they’ve been exposed to the elements and have adjusted accordingly, plant your seedlings in a raised bed, containers, planter boxes, or in-ground. Mulch around the base with your preferred material. Not only does mulch provide a passive fertilizer to the soil and your plants, but it also protects roots in hard freezes.
Which Crops to Grow
The Charter’s series of Hollyhocks includes cold-hardy double flowers, reminding growers of the abundance yet to be found in spring. Try Charter’s double mix for pink, yellow, white, and red blooms that are showy in fall, and overwinter for three more sets of blooms next year.
The Golf variety of alyssum flowers in the fall and sometimes into early winter depending on the regional climate. Their carpets cover areas with lovely-smelling flower clusters, providing a habitat for pollinators who are still doing some work in the early holiday season.
Larkspur, poppies, penstemon, and cosmos are other flowers that bloom long and self-seed, emerging again in spring. Provide all your flowers with a bit of mulch at the end of the season to keep their roots or seeds-in-waiting warm in winter.
Collard greens, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, and cabbage are obvious choices too. Collard Big Daddy Greasy Greens are roughly a 65-year-old variety and will survive multiple touches of frost in a season. Their prolific heads provide leafy goodness throughout the fall season, into winter.
If mustard greens are what you spring for, try the fast-growing variety, Florida broadleaf, which grows 25 inches in just 45 days. A succession schedule that involves multiple plantings of this lovely cultivar will give you spice for soups into late fall and early winter.
Bok Choy is another brassica packed with nutrition that makes winter meals much more special. Despite its name, Black Summer bok choy is ready for harvest in winter. Its dark green leaves can withstand both frosty climates and the heat of your wok.
The more bulbous beets and radish make wonderful additions to sandwiches, roasted medleys, and your annual pickling. Try the bicolor Masquerade variety for an interesting look and rich flavor. You’ll only have to wait 63 days to harvest them.
Dwelley chickpeas are cold-hardy and disease resistant. Alternatively, try the blue-green speckled lentil variety, Puy, which is best for soups and salads. This French variety is built for the cold fall and winter months.
Alliums make great companions for cabbage, lettuce, and beets, improving their overall flavor. If onions aren’t your favorite flavor, try garlic. Porcelain is a cold-hardy cultivar hardneck that offers a good harvest for every gardener, no matter how seasoned they are.
Leeks make a delectable spring treat in soups, egg dishes, and bread. Shoot for Siegfried for plentiful greens that top substantial white stems and root bases.
Arp rosemary thrives in heat or cold and has plump leaves perfect for teas, chicken dishes, or root veggie roasts. Like all of the herbs listed here, its flowers attract pollinators when you don’t feel like harvesting. Greek Oregano is an annual that can act like a perennial if you let it flower, attract bees, and seed out.
Sorrel is a surprising herb for most North American gardeners, with a few cold-hardy varieties. English sorrel adds a dash of fruity herbiness wherever it’s spread. Large leaf sorrel provides wide leaves perfect for soups and meat dishes.
Cool season coverings include red clover, Dutch white clover, winter wheat and rye, and hairy vetch. All of these affix nitrogen into the soil for your winter crops. For adding biomass to the growing media, consider a thick planting of spinach, which can be chopped, frozen, and added to smoothies and soups as needed.
A hoop tunnel is perfect for row crops. Crafting one of your own from PVC pipes, re-bar, and shade cloth is also relatively inexpensive. If time is of the essence, consider purchasing a kit from your local garden store. A bell-shaped cloche is more individualized, covering one to two plants at a time. Wrap these with a frost or shade cloth to provide more protection in cold weather.
Written by: Kevin Espiritu