Spring.

You now know the importance of good soil.  But if you plan to grow a garden this summer, there is a little more you need to know.  Like when, where and how to start your seeds.  Yes, that’s right, shocking as it may be, the planting of seeds is fundamental when your ultimate goal is eating fresh veggies from June to September.

I do however have a bit of bad news.  The list of plants you can still start indoors and enjoy a full growing season is dwindling.  I apologize for not getting you the information sooner, but there is too much to talk about in the realm of sustainable agriculture.  It may be too late for some (onions!) but there is still time for others.  And if nothing else, you will learn the basics of seed starting for next year.

The experiences I’ll be drawing from this semester will come mainly from my work with the rooftop and courtyard gardens at the Pyle Center (on Langdon, next to the Red Gym).  Our conditions will feature some partial sunlight and a lot of lake effect wind, so we will be trying to accommodate for these not-quite-perfect growing conditions.  But that is often the price to be paid for urban agriculture.  And as I hope to show you in a couple months, beauty and abundance can still be achieved!

I am working with a horticulture graduate student, so your personal techniques could likely differ (gardening is largely based on personal experiments with each individual’s own garden conditions), but for the time being I certainly feel like I am learning from the best.

We began our planting on Friday, March 18th: about two months before Madison’s average spring frost date of May 13th (a guide to frost dates in some key Wisconsin cities can be found here, amongst countless other places).  This is quite common.  A major mistake that many indoor gardeners make is starting their seeds too early (because of that whole cold, wintery disconnect with all things green).

Lettuces and greens can be started in the first couple weeks of March indoors, although this isn’t required.  They are fast growers and cold-tolerant.  From mid-April to May most greens can be either directly seeded or transplanted.  So if April snuck up on you, there is still plenty of time to get your salad growing going outside.  Also remember that you can direct seed every couple weeks to keep yourself in steady supply of salad greens throughout the summer.

However, if winter’s gloom leaves you eager to plant something before March, leeks, onions and celery all fare well being started up to three months before the spring frost date.  Onions can then be transplanted outdoors around April 10th and leeks a few days later around April 15th.  Keep your celery indoors until all fear of frost has passed.

Other long-season plants (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cabbage and broccoli) must be started by early to mid-April at the very latest because their growing season is too long for the Midwestern growing season.  Preferably, plants will be planted week by week beginning with peppers around March 15th.  This will be followed by eggplant around the 20th, broccoli and cabbage around the 25th and tomatoes around the 30th.

These plants need to be planted early to reach full maturity.  And if you missed the correct starting date, which you likely did since I’m posting this in April, I would advise picking up starts from a garden centers, nurseries and farmers’ markets.  Note: fruit on the plant is a bad sign.  Look for starts that are stocky and less-advanced rather than tall or leggy.

Basil could also benefit from indoor early planting around mid-April (although basil tastes the same at all maturities) but it is similar to greens in the sense that it is certainly not required.

Now, this is the perfectionist’s guide to indoor seed starting.  It is merely the base guidelines for gardeners who (like me two months ago) were clueless about what and when to begin.  As I said before, for the garden I’m working on we did very little staggering in our planting.  We planted cabbage, broccoli, eggplants, lettuces, tomatoes, peppers and herbs all in one fell swoop on that March 18th day of spring break, because that is when we had the time.  It may only be early April, but things are looking beautiful.  If time doesn’t allow for sticking to a planting schedule, your tomatoes may not get to their full size.  Your onions may not be behemoths, like your average grocery store onions.  But when harvest time rolls around, the taste of your personal garden veggies will be what matters most.  And well-cared for (and loved) vegetables always taste better than those commercially grown.  I promise, size won’t matter.

Your Quickie Guide to what Doesn’t Need to Be Started Indoors (and therefore what seeds you should buy for the upcoming months if you still want to do some direct seeding):

  • Peas (they resent moving, so it’s best to plant them where they will be staying)
  • Beans (also resent moving)
  • Root vegetables such as turnips, carrots, potatoes, beets and radishes
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