Fine Details of Seed Shopping

Seed catalogs are beginning to arrive in mailboxes and gardeners are beginning to feel the ‘itch’ to order seeds.  This week on the farm page, I’ve been sharing tips to help you make the best choices from seed catalog purchases.  The tips I am sharing today are kind of all over the place and also there are too many words to fit in a Instagram post, so, I am putting all the nitty gritty in an old fashioned blog post.  Let me know if you have any questions I can answer.

The Fine Details

When it’s time to shop for seeds, you will often come across these terms or information in your seed search and it’s helpful to know what they are and how they apply to you:

Hardiness Zone–  Seed catalogs may make reference to how well something grows in zone 4, or zones 4-7, or some other number.  What hardiness zone are you?  Our country is divided into certain growing zones, because certain things grow better in some areas than others. As well, something that grows as a perennial in some zones, may have to be treated as an annual in others. These hardiness zones are based on the average low temperatures during the winter. Something that grows well in Florida may not grow well up here in Michigan due to differences in climate, In the US we start at zone 1, and go up to zone 13. If you were looking in a seed catalog to find a plant that would grow well in your area, knowing your zone will help you pick out the plants that are best suited for you.

When looking at seed catalogs and considering your hardiness zone, sometimes the zones the plant grows well in will be a range, say, zones 3-7. It’s important to make note that if you are trying to grow something in a zone higher than 7, it will not grow well because it needs the dormancy period that winter time provides in those zones.  To find your zone, google ‘usda hardiness zone’ with your zip code.

Days to Maturity- This is really useful information especially for those of you with shorter growing seasons.  The days to maturity, or days to harvest, is the number of days that you can expect to pass before your first harvest.  Harvesting happens over a period of time, it doesn’t all happen in one day, so it’s important to note that days to maturity refers to the point at which you can begin harvesting your vegetables.  Of course, weather, soil conditions, etc. can all affect this and the number is not absolute. Also, depending on the seed company that number can refer from the day the seed germinates outdoors in the soil for direct sown plants, but then refer from the day you set your transplants in the ground until harvest, for those seeds you start indoors.  Some seed companies use the days to maturity to refer to the day the seed germinates, regardless of where it was sown.  There is a huge difference in days to maturity between varieties, so if your growing season is short, you may want to look for a variety with fewer days to maturity to maximize how much you can harvest before your first anticipated frost.

Seed pack size- This is also useful information, especially if you don’t want to end up with 300 broccoli seeds in a packet, or if you were expecting more than 5 seeds in a pack.  Every seed packet comes labeled with a weight, and some actually list the minimum number of seeds in a packet.  If you use your search engine you can find an approximate number of seeds based on type and weight, and some seed companies specialize in seed packs with smaller quantities especially for gardeners with small gardens.  There is no sense in paying for a full packet of seeds when you might find more affordable options with quantities that fit your size better.  Of course, if you end up with more seeds than you will use, you can store them from one season to the next, and also have seeds for trading with friends if you wanted.

Last, but not least:

To maximize your purchases, be sure you understand the growing conditions of the plants you will be growing.  Perhaps two of the biggest considerations is that of sunlight and drainage.  Some plants require full sun in order to produce fruit and grow well.  If they don’t have full sun, you may be wasting your money by trying to grow something that is not well suited to your space.  The other consideration is drainage, especially for vegetables that grow directly in the soil such as carrots and potatoes.  They (and roots of other plants) don’t like to be surrounded by muddy conditions, good drainage is very important.  Soil that is not compacted is also important for proper formation and growth of those vegetables that grow in the soil.

Making a list of what you want to grow, before you open the catalog, is very helpful.  This will help keep you centered and –maybe- help you avoid too many impulse splurges that you don’t have room for…..  But in all honesty, if your space or budget is limited, make a list of the things that are most important to you.  In my early garden days when I had limited space and very limited funds, I’d try to stick with growing the vegetables that would cost us the most to buy, that I had room to grow in my garden.  While we’re talking about limited space, don’t forget about growing vertical (trellising, grow bags hanging from fences, etc.), container gardening (squeeze plants in places you otherwise wouldn’t, without breaking ground), and intercropping (planting more than one crop in the same space – but soil health is really important to make this work as is understanding the nutritional needs of your plants and what should be planted next to each other – great time of year right now to research all of this stuff).

As you make your list, simultaneously make a garden map to make sure you have the space to grow the things you want.  Space is a very common concern for backyard gardeners because it’s not often unlimited, so growing has to be planned well in order to achieve the most harvest.

As you search catalogs, you may wish to find varieties that will compliment each other with intercropping and not overcrowd – perhaps a variety that will mature quickly and shade the ground of a slower-growing variety that will benefit from the weed suppression, the quicker maturing variety will be harvested and removed before the slower maturing variety, so there will be no competition for space or nutrients.  Or, consider succession planting, and when one succession is complete, something else can be planted in its place with enough days to maturity to mature before your last frost. Another consideration would be plants developed especially for container gardening, if you plan to grow in containers.  Some varieties of vegetables can be harvested at a ‘baby’ stage and also allowed to mature into a full grown vegetable or leafy green plant, which maximizes your harvest possibilities.

Once your seeds arrive:

I like to check my seeds with my order, then inventory them so I know what variety I purchased, packet weight or how many seeds, how many packets total, and any other notes I think are important.

Occasionally you may find that you have an empty seed packet, or part of your order is missing. Seed companies are happy to fix this right away, so the sooner you let them know, the sooner you will have your whole order.  It’s no fun to pack your order away only to notice you’re missing something or you have an empty packet of seeds when you’re ready to start them.

Be sure to store your seeds carefully where they will be cool, dark, and dry.

Also, very important:  Just about every seed company that I have ever visited online has a resource section with helpful planting information, charts and even video to help you become a better gardener!  Be sure to check them out.

Seed Starting Essentials

When it comes to starting seeds ahead of season indoors, there are a few things you will need.  My main goal in gardening is to grow good food for less than what I’d spend in a store, and it’s really not that hard.  But, with that in mind, I generally don’t get into needing multiple tools for the job – my seed starting essentials are pretty basic.  I will share with you what I use because I have a very limited budget, if you use something different that works for you, I would love to hear about it in the comments.

Essentials I use every year:

  • Seeds
  • Seed Starting Mix
  • Containers for Starting Seeds
  • Light
  • Heat Source
  • Water Source
  • A Safe Place to Grow


This is pretty obvious, but if you are going to start seeds, you need seeds to start with.  You can order them online, from a catalog, or stop in to your local grocery store or greenhouse for seeds. I suggest buying seeds early in the season and storing them until you need them, because your favorite picks might be sold out by seed starting time.  If you are confused by terms like organic, heirloom or open pollinated, I have a post that might help you.

Seed Starting Mix:

When it comes to starting seeds, I prefer a potting mix that has fertilizer to feed for a few months time.  You can buy the special seed starting mix if you wish, but I find that it is more expensive.  A seed starting mix is often much lighter, making it easier for delicate seedlings to sprout.  Potting mix can contain heavier bits like compost or bits of wood which has been said to impede germination, but to be honest I don’t think I’ve ever had an issue with germination because of this.

Containers for Starting Seeds:

This is where you can get creative and frugal.  You can spend money on a seed tray, cell inserts or plug trays, or you can use what you probably already have on hand: old plastic food containers, yogurt cups, k-cups, egg cartons, toilet paper rolls, you can even make your own using newspaper.  Any container that is large or small enough (large enough to properly grow a seedling without being too large which will cost you more in potting soil, but you can’t have the soil level too far down in the container or you won’t be able to get sufficient light to your seedling and it will grow weak and leggy.  Be sure to fill your containers!) and has a way to drain excess water.  Ask friends to hold on to their seedling containers that they often throw out after transplanting and you can reuse these year after year.  I’m not saying an investment in seed starting equipment is bad, but I am saying it is not necessary.  If you plan to do a lot of seed starting, it is probably worth your while to invest in seed trays, inserts or plug trays of various sorts.  They can all be washed and re-used for many years with proper care.

Light Source:

My light sources are fluorescent “shop lights” that are hung on a chain so they are adjustable.  I position two, 4ft lights across my 4ft shelves in the basement greenhouse.  Each has two lights, most are fitted with one ‘warm’ and one ‘cool’ bulb.  You can use grow lights if you have them, for sure.  Lighting is often a worry for new beginners and I want to make it clear that grow lights are not necessary to start seeds, so you can take a deep breath of relief knowing that expense isn’t necessary.   You can try to find them used, but if nothing else I buy them new for between $15-19 per fixture.

During our seed starting period here in Michigan, sunlight alone is not sufficient to grow strong seedlings this time of year.  You may find your seedlings grow tall and weak, lighter in color and eventually fall over.  Some seedlings can be repotted (such as tomatoes), but this is a death sentence for many others. Another consideration is that right next to a window is often cold and drafty, which can stunt and slow the proper growth of your seedlings, also.

Heat Source:

Heat is important for seed germination.  Some seeds prefer to germinate in soil that is quite warm (such as peppers and tomatoes), while other seeds prefer cooler soil temperatures, like onions.  Each vegetable has a specific range in which soil temperature it germinates best in.  While many seeds are fine being started in a room-temperature room, some may need a little help if your room doesn’t warm the soil sufficiently.  You can set the seed containers near a wood stove or near a heat source, or invest in a germination mat that should be turned on and left on until seeds germinate.  You might even be able to build a simple germination chamber which keeps the air warm and humid in a box making it the perfect environment for germination.

Water Source:

This could be as simple as a cheap spray bottle from the dollar store.  When seedlings emerge, some are very delicate. Using the spray nozzle on your kitchen sink may be too powerful for delicate seedlings and if you try watering them with too heavy of a stream they will become damaged and die.  Once they get a bit bigger using the sink spray nozzle should be fine, but for the early days or weeks, a spray bottle is great.  I have a lot of seedlings to water, so I invested in a 1.5 gallon sprayer that I just fill with water each day and I can adjust the spray from a mist to a stream.  You can purchase a larger sprayer, also.  When watering seedlings, you want to water them thoroughly so the water reaches the roots, but don’t saturate them.  It’s ok if the top layer of potting mix dries between watering.

A Safe Place to Grow:

I can’t tell you how many times my poor seedlings have been mauled by my children, dogs or cats.  I’ve had cats poop in my tomato trays, dogs knock whole trays over, children pulling seedlings out and playing in the dirt.  One year I had a dog overturn a piece of wood that held four trays of squash seedlings on a makeshift table.   I work so hard to grow our food that these setbacks are heartbreaking.  Please consider the threats that your seedlings will be under and plan around them so you don’t experience the same fate.  I eventually kept all of my seedlings in one of those four shelved “mini greenhouses” with the cover.  That worked well for a little while, but it trapped too much heat and moisture so I needed to undo the front cover and left my seedlings vulnerable again.  Another option that worked for me was wire dog cages.  I collected a bunch of them from various sources and create long crates wide enough to hold my trays and long enough to fit on a desk or table.  I zip-tie this together and also include cage pieces on the top to keep all animals out.   The wire cages were perfect for mounting the shop lights in, also.  Now I have an actual greenhouse in my basement, and I use the mini greenhouses as my shelving.  I zip the door down each night and nothing bothers them.  It has mesh windows on the side that I can open if it ever gets too warm, but that has never been necessary because the basement seems to stay a consistent temperature and  I control the heat inside the greenhouse using a radiant heater.  I also keep a small oscillating fan in here and turn it on frequently to simulate a gentle breeze, which helps seedlings grow strong.

That’s it!  Do you have a favorite tool or supply not listed here that you use for starting seeds?  Let me know in the comments!

How long do seeds last?

Seeds are not usually confined to their use during the planting year.  Most last at least two years, sometimes as long as 10 years or more.  Proper storage will help extend their lives.  It is helpful to know both how to store them and how long they keep for, and perhaps you can several years use or more, out of a single seed packet.

Best practices for seed storage:

  • Somewhere Dark
  • Cool (Ideally, 40F)
  • Dry
  • Airtight container (jars or ziplock baggies)

Before counting on your seeds when they are past their prime, you can do a germination test to determine viability.  Pick out about 10 seeds from your packet and place them in moist layers of paper towel, place them in an unsealed plastic bag and set the bag in a warm, sunny location.  Check the moisture of the paper towels daily, and also check for germination.  Once you notice a root poking through the seed coat, the seed has germinated.   Wait a week, then count to see how many seeds have germinated to determine if you should order new seeds or proceed with these.  If you plan to do your germination test right before you need to start seeds for the season, you can use the sprouted seeds from the paper towel and place them in your seed starting medium and allow them to continue growing.  Generally, a germination rate of 80-90% is acceptable, anything less than 50% and you will probably want to buy fresh seeds.  If some seeds did not germinate but you’d still like to use them, you may wish to plant the seeds more thicker than usual (if broadcasting over your garden bed), or include an extra couple of seeds in each cell if starting seeds indoors to make up for what may not sprout.

Lifespan of seeds:  The lifespan of seeds can vary, depending on your storage conditions, so the chart below is simply a guideline.  Always do a germination test if you are unsure.  Keeping your seeds in their best environment at all times will help ensure a longer lifespan, as each time they are removed from ideal storage conditions, they will experience a decline in viability.  The more exposure to adverse conditions they experience, the sooner they will fail to germinate all together. The exposure to adverse conditions can also contribute to a lack of vigor, or the ability of a plant to grow well.   Seedlings that don’t have great vigor will often grow slowly, look stunted, succumb to diseases easier, or be deformed.   So even though your seeds may have germinated, the next challenge is getting them to grow strong, uniform, and healthy – but if they are too old, with even the best care they may not thrive.


Vegetables Lifespan
Asparagus 3 years
Beans 3 years
Beets 3 years
Broccoli 3 years
Brussels sprouts 4 years
Cabbage 4 years
Carrots 3 years
Cauliflower 4 years
Celery 3 years
Chard 3 years
Chicory 4 years
Collards 4 years
Corn (sweet) 2 years
Cress 5 years
Cucumbers 5 years
Eggplant 4 years
Endive 5 years
Kale 4 years
Kohlrabi 3 years
Leeks 2 years
Lettuce 3 years
Muskmelons 5 years
Okra 2 years
Onions 1 year
Oriental greens 3 years
Parsnips 1 year
Peas 3 years
Peppers 2 years
Radishes 5 years
Rutabagas 4 years
Spinach 3 years
Squash (Summer & Winter) 4 years
Tomatoes 5 years
Turnips 4 years
Watermelon 4 years


Picking the right onion (and growing guide)

(just a quick note, I’ll update this with pictures through the season as onions get bigger, I am working with the pictures I took from last season, which apparently ended with transplanting, lol)

If there was ever a confusing vegetable to pick out, I think onions would take that title. Onions are classified by their shape (flat, round or globe), or color (red, white, yellow), pungency, how well they store, and how the bulb responds to different lengths of daylight.  Onion varieties are suited for different climates, and come with descriptions such as “short day” or “long day” or “intermediate day/neutral.”  To complicate things further, you can grow onions from seed, seedlings/transplants, or sets.  Some are considered sweet, others are considered storage… What does all of this mean??  To someone who has never grown onions before, this can be very confusing.  This new gardener may just pick a variety blindly, then grow it unsuccessfully because it wasn’t well suited to their climate.  Don’t be that gardener! Let’s talk a little bit about picking the right variety for you, and how to grow them, because they all grow the same (and that’s the easy part!).

Fun fact:  Onions grown for their immature green stems are called bunching onions or scallions.  You can harvest any onion early and use it as a bunching onion!  But, bunching onions left in the ground too long won’t always produce a large bulb.

Let’s settle the confusion on long, short, or intermediate day onions.  This refers to the type of climate and amount of sunlight the onion grows best in.  The amount of sunlight is important, because that is what causes the bulb of the onion to form.

  • Long Day: These onions require 14 hours of daylight or more in the summer, which occur from zone 6 up to the north.   The long day onions are best suited to our area. Long day onions can be started indoors in late winter for a mid to late summer harvest, and generally mature in 90-110 days.  You can have success with these onions in our area if we have the right kind of summer.   If we don’t, your bulbs may not be as big as they could be.  Common varieties include:  Walla Walla, Red Cipollini, Southport Globe (red and white), Sweet Spanish (white and yellow), among others.
  • Intermediate/Neutral Day: These onions are best suited where they will get 12-14 hours of sunlight each day.  They generally mature in about 110 days.  Plant seeds indoors in early spring for a mid-late summer harvest.  Common varieties include: Candy Onion, Early Yellow Globe, Australian Brown, White Portugal, Southport Yellow Globe, among others.  The intermediate day onions are sort of a ‘buffer’ between long and short day onions and tend to grow decently in either a well as their own area. 
  • Short Day: these onions are best suited for zones 7 southward, where they will get 10-12 hours of sunlight per day and generally mature in about 110 days.  These varieties don’t generally do well in our area, but you can try grow them.

Next question is, should you plant seeds, buy seedlings, or sets?

If you plant seeds, you have a wide variety of onion varieties available to you.  You can choose from some at garden centers/greenhouses, or order from seed suppliers online.  You will usually end up with more seeds than you will have room to start/plant, but they can be saved for the following year.  Onion seeds are good for 1-4 years when stored properly

If you grow seedlings, or buy transplants, your onion plants will have their head start, all you will need to do is set them in the ground when the time is right.  Selection on variety is limited this way, but if you don’t have the ability to start seeds indoors yourself, this is the next best thing.

Onion sets are another way you can grow onions, but varieties are extremely limited in stores.  Sets are onion plants (small bulbs) that were started the previous year.  Onions that are in their second year are preparing to set seed, so the onions will not grow very large.


Onions are one of those vegetables that are best started indoors in our location – and start them indoors early!  I start mine mid to late January for a summer harvest, but you could wait until about mid-February.  Onions can be set out 3-4 weeks ahead of our last frost date, of course weather permitting (if there is still snow on the ground, that’s a good indication that it’s still a bit too soon, haha), and many require a long growing season.  Being able to get them started indoors gives them the opportunity for a head start for the best quality onion possible.  

For indoor  seed starting specifics, visit this post.   Onions follow the same basic guidelines of:

  1. Select a seed starting container that will tolerate moisture, is the right size, and has drainage holes in the bottom.
  2. Fill the container with seed starting mix or potting soil, then lightly press on the surface to create an indent.
  3. Onion seeds can be started indoors 8-12 weeks before you intend to put them out.  They may be able to be put outside 3-4 weeks before your last frost.  This can mean starting them indoors 16 weeks before your last frost.
  4. Place your seeds in the indent.  You can sow single seeds per plug or cell, or you can multisow them – 3-5 seeds per hole.  Onions are one of the few plants that can be multisown quite easily to conserve space, their roots generally separate very easily with minimal damage to transplant.
  5. Cover the seeds with an thin layer of soil, cover with plastic wrap if you will be starting them in a very dry location that lacks humidity, keep the soil around 60-70 degrees (F).
  6. When seeds begin to sprout, begin placing the seedlings within 2-4 inches of an overhead light, such as a fluorescent light, 12-16 hours per day.
  7. When your onion seedlings get to be a few inches tall and the tops start tangling with the others, it’s time to give them a haircut.  Each time you give them a “hair cut”, it forces the onion to put energy into growing roots, which in turn will help grow bigger bulbs.  Trim the onions to about 1-1/2-2 inches with a pair of scissors.   Do this several times before planting them outside, allowing them to get a little taller with each trim.
  8. If your onions roots begin to get crowded transplant them to a larger container. 
  9. When the weather is favorable for transplanting, begin to harden seedlings off and transplant in loose soil, 2-4 inches apart  I like to dig my rows and line the rows with aged compost that will help give the onions a great start in their new home.
  10. Weed control is important, as is moisture.  To prevent a lot of weeds, you can plant leafy greens in the rows between the onions.  They will provide shade over the soil, which will deter some weed growth.  The shade will also help the soil retain some moisture as it won’t be baked away in the sun. Mulching is also beneficial.
  11. Harvest when the tops fall over, when the majority of the leaves are dry. Leave 1-2 inches of stem on the onion, then spread them in a sunny or dry location to dry (about 3-7 days).

What onions are your favorite?

Indoor Seed Starting 101

Starting your own plants from seed is the most economical method of growing food.  If you buy a pack of yellow onions for say, $2-something per pound,you get maybe 8 or so onions.  But you can buy a pack of seeds that has 300+ seeds for $2.75 or so and grow tons more.  It makes sense to save money on your grocery bill by planting a garden starting with seeds in most cases.

Some seeds do require a head start indoors though.  Most of the materials you will use, can be re-used year after year, which helps keep gardening affordable.  The seeds that require starting ahead indoors (sometimes as many as 15 weeks ahead of your last frost) will require a container to plant them in, seed starting mix or potting soil (or peat cubes or pellets), a way to water tender seedlings (a spray bottle works just fine for small amounts of seedlings), and a way to provide sufficient light to growing seedlings.  In our little area of Michigan, that late winter sun isn’t close enough to the earth to fuel our seedlings, which can leave them reaching for the sun and growing leggy and weak.  Supplemental lighting, such as fluorescent light fixtures, are extremely helpful for success.  A warm spot for the seed to sprout is also vital.  Different seeds sprout and grow best at certain soil temperatures, so it is important to know what those are for optimal germination.  If water, light, and temperature are not provided in sufficient amounts, you will experience spotty germination or weak and slow growth.

Extra things that are helpful include a way to circulate air around your growing seedlings (such as a small fan) and a way to hold in humidity in the early days right after planting until your seeds have sprouted (if you purchase a 72-count seed starting tray, those sometimes come with clear plastic domes to place over the top which are sufficient for holding in humidity.  If you don’t have those, plastic wrap will do just fine).

First things first…

The process of starting seeds is fairly easy.  You will first want to find out when the last frost date is for your area.  Then, decide what needs to be started indoors and when.  Some seeds, like celery, onions or artichokes benefit from a very early start – 10 to 15 weeks ahead of your last frost. Most seeds are best started in the 4-8 week range, ahead of your last expected frost.  Mark these dates on a calendar so you can see at a glance, what to start when.

The seed starting process:

To start your seeds, fill your planting container with potting mix or seed starting mix.  Do not use soil from outdoors or garden soil from your garden center.  You want the bag to read “potting mix” or “seed starting mix.”  The reasons for this are simple – soil from outdoors may contain pests or disease that will kill your seedlings, and it is often too heavy for tender seedlings to emerge from.  It is famous for developing a ‘crust’ on top if moisture isn’t kept perfect, which can prevent some seeds from sprouting at all.  It may hold too much moisture, causing your seeds to rot.  Potting mix and seed starting mix are key because they are light, retain moisture, and in some cases, will even feed your seedlings if fertilizer is included.  Seedlings don’t need fertilizer right from the start as they have food stored up in the seed, however, if they will be kept indoors longer than a few weeks, fertilizer is beneficial and in many potting soils, is already included in the bag.

Once your container has been filled, lightly firm the soil, creating a place for the seeds to be placed.  If you are like me and starting many seeds at once in a plug tray, I find it helpful to take another seed starting container of the same size (such as a 6-cell insert or a whole plug tray) and gently set that on top of the filled tray to help the seed starting medium settle into its container and create a place to place my seeds. You may also plant seeds in rows or broadcast them over the surface of a wider container, or a seed tray without the 6-pack inserts.  If planting seeds in rows in a wide, flat container, make furrows for the seeds about an inch or two apart to make the best use of your space.  If planting more than one variety of seed in the same container, be sure to mark which rows belong to which variety.

Place your seeds into the container, then cover with more soil if necessary.  Your seed packet will tell you how much, but if you don’t have specific information for your seed the general rule is to plant the seed 1-2 times its diameter. Teeny tiny seeds may not need to be covered at all, but rather gently pressed into the planting medium.  I water all of my seeds once the seed has been set in the planting medium, and the watering helps press the seed into the soil instead of doing it by hand.


Once your seeds have been planted, this is a great time to water them. Be sure that whatever container you use has holes for proper drainage.  I like to give my seeds a thorough watering at this point and then sometimes I cover them with plastic wrap (not wrap tightly, just cover to retain humidity).  From this point on, any watering will be done with a spray bottle.  Generally, I don’t need to water the trays again that have plastic wrap on them until the seeds sprout, but this can vary considering some seeds can take up to three weeks to germinate.  I avoid heavy watering from there on out though, to prevent the seeds from rotting.


Some seeds require light to germinate, such as celery.  For these seeds, they get put right under lights for 12-16 hours per day as soon as they are planted.  Other seeds don’t require light until they sprout, so they are set in the greenhouse on an unlit shelf until I notice the first germination occurring, then they are placed under lights.  All seedlings do require light, and in many cases late winter sunlight coming through the window is not sufficient.  The closer to spring you get, the better the sun will be, but for the early season stuff you will need supplemental lighting. I have found great success using fluorescent light fixtures, also called shop lights, and I have two of these per shelf on many shelves in my greenhouse.  You can choose to use grow lights, but they are unnecessary for sprouting seeds.  If you want to grow plants to the point of flowering or fruiting, you will need grow lights.


Check the optimal soil temperature for seed germination and growing (these may be different) and plan accordingly.  Place your seed tray in a suitable location – such as on top of your refrigerator, near a wood stove or other heat source, or on top of a heat mat made for seed trays (keep the mat on 24 hours a day, and turn it off once your seeds sprout). Then, it’s time to wait.

While You’re Waiting…

Check your seed trays twice per day to turn on/off lights, check moisture and consider temperature to be sure it’s not too hot or cold.  Make note of what seeds you started and when, then figure when you can expect to see sprouts poking through the soil. Once you notice seedlings poking through the dirt, it is usually safe to remove the plastic cover you may have been keeping on them for humidity and remove the heat mat, if you were using one.  At this point, keeping the soil moist enough but not too wet is critical, especially once any protective coverings have been removed.  If you have not yet placed your seeds under lights, once they sprout it is critical that they are able to be put under artificial or natural light. If using artificial light, set the light within a couple of inches of the tops of the seedlings, and raise the light as they grow. Seedlings should get about 16 hours of light per day.

From here, maintain daily care.  You may need to fertilize the seedlings after a few weeks, and depending on how fast they grow you may need to “pot up” or transplant the seedlings to a larger container before they are ready to head to the garden outside.  We will talk about these things in later blog posts.


Here are some pictures of seeds in the process of sprouting.  I set up a 4×8 greenhouse in the basement and placed four of the 4-shelved mini greenhouses in there (4ft wide) for shelving.  Some of the shelves have 2-4ft shop light fixtures per shelf and I can fit 4 seed trays per shelf. In here I keep a oscillating fan and a radiant heater, to provide air circulation and temperature control.

Growing Celery for Your Home Garden

Celery is one of those vegetables that is seldom grown in backyard gardens.  It’s near impossible to find seedlings at the store, and they are finicky to start from seed.  But if you have success, you will be able to grow your own crisp, delicious celery – organically.  Celery you purchase from the store is one the “dirty dozen” list due to the amount of pesticide residue on it!

I have been growing celery in my garden for the past 5 years. The first year of course was hit or miss, but with continued practice, last year I had a whole 50-ft bed stuffed with celery.  It was WONDERFUL!

I will share a few things I have learned over the years.

First, a few tips I want to tell you right off the bat:

  • Finding celery seeds locally has been difficult.  I found them once or twice, but they are definitely not part of the annual display at local stores each year.  I order them.  My favorite variety is Utah Tall.
  • Celery seeds prefer cooler temperatures.  For germination and early growth, they prefer 60F degrees at night, and up to 70/75 during the day.
  • Temperatures that are too hot can cause celery to become woody and bitter.
  • Celery seeds do need light to germinate, and do not need to be covered with soil.
  • Celery seeds do need consistent, constant moisture. Not soaking wet, but moist (sorry if you abhor that word!  lol)
  • It takes a while for seeds to germinate!  It can take 14-21 days.

To start your seeds 10-12 weeks or so ahead of your last frost, place your potting soil in whatever container you will be planting them in.  I try to get one seed per spot, then gently water the seeds into the soil without covering them purposely.  Then I set the seeds in my basement greenhouse with plastic wrap over the top to retain moisture. I will set the seeds under light

I prefer to plant them in plug trays, where they don’t have much room to grow, and transplant them to bigger containers when they are two inches tall.  My reasoning for this is, celery seeds are tiny and difficult to place just one per spot.  Pricking them out to transplant allows me the chance to separate or pinch off the weaker seedlings so they don’t crowd the one I want to keep.  Doing this all from the same container  can be tricky with an overhead view because the seedlings each grow multiple baby stalks and it can be difficult to tell them apart without the ability to lift them out of their containers.  Once I transplant the one main seedling I want to keep, I still keep the seedlings indoors!  They are not yet ready to go outside.

Once seedlings are transplanted, they are still kept in my basement greenhouse where the temperature is kept at their optimal temp and they are kept under lights for a long portion of the day.  From here, they continue to grow until they are about 4-6 inches tall and we are nearing our final frost date.

Celery is a cool hardy plant meaning they can tolerate colder temperatures, but as babies they are still pretty picky.  I like to set them out when the nighttime temperatures are not frequently lower than 40F.  If the nights are still below 40F and days are no warmer than 55F on a regular basis, it may cause your celery seeds to bolt (go to seed) prematurely.  Be sure to take the time to harden them off.  Once the plants are mature, at the end of the season, they can tolerate light frosts well. Mulch your plants to keep the weeds down, space your transplants about 8 inches apart and plant just a bit deeper than they were growing in the pot.  Celery is not the type of plant that you want to plant deep, like you would tomatoes.

Keep your plants watered regularly.  A hot spell or a dry spell can cause your celery to grow hollow, bitter, and/or stringy.  Around their 2nd or 3rd month outdoors, side dress with compost to give them a little boost.

Growing celery in our climate can be a gamble, because we can have some pretty hot summers.  I have found that home grown celery is a gamble I am willing to take! I have grown some bitter celery, but it eats just fine in my opinion.  The bitterness does give it a stronger taste, so you may choose to use less in your recipes.  As you harvest, take the outer stalks and the middle will continue to grow new stalks all season long.

Unconventional Mini-Greenhouses

We have all seen the mini greenhouses in the garden centers – seed trays with a clear, plastic cover that is often so flimsy it doesn’t last much past the essential time period needed to get those seeds off to a good start.  The seed trays often have a longer lifespan than the cover, and this is ok, to a point, because there are other ways we can recreate the greenhouse effect. I have found some success in storing the clear cover inverted underneath the seed tray as the tray is still in use (as they are often purchased), which prevents it from being in the way, however it doesn’t last very long even when stored that way because it is such thin plastic.

First let’s discuss why a cover is necessary for starting your seeds: A clear cover over the top of seeds just started helps retain moisture and heat that will keep the top layer of the seed starting medium favorable for new seedlings to emerge, and provide a beneficial atmosphere for the new seedling to grow.  Without that cover, the seed starting medium can develop a crust, making it hard for new seedlings to emerge, and the environment that it sprouts into can be cold and unwelcoming.  Some seedlings are more sensitive than others, but it’s generally a good idea to provide some sort of a cover until the seedlings have sprouted, especially if you are starting the seeds somewhere in your home that has varying temperatures and/or dry air.

If you are in need of a makeshift cover, in years past I have put the seedling trays or containers in plastic bags and tucked the ends under the tray, and I have also laid plastic wrap over the top of the containers and it is lifted as soon as I notice seedlings starting to sprout.  Poke some small holes in the cover so developing seedlings can still breathe. After seedlings have begun to sprout, I often remove the cover all together, however some seedlings will benefit from continued covering until they have grown a little more.  For plastic coverings that need to be raised off the surface of sprouting seedlings, I have inserted popsicle sticks or similar materials around the corners and some supports on the inside to lift the plastic off the surface of the seed starting medium.

Are seed starting trays with the plastic domes necessary?  While they are helpful, they are not vitally necessary.  There are other containers that will offer the same benefit, that you may already have laying around your home.

Salad trays, rotisserie chicken trays, berry containers, and other takeout containers that have a solid-bottomed container with a clear top will work perfectly.  You may need to add some holes at the bottom to allow drainage and in the top if it is not already vented.  You can also use a milk jug or plastic pop container with the label removed.  Cut the containers in half leaving them connected on one side so you can insert your seed starting medium and seeds, then close the container again.  You may want to tape the container together on the opposite end to keep the top end from lifting.

Another way I have made mini greenhouses is by buying the $1 plastic shoe boxes at the dollar store and drill a few air holes in the box, then use the lid as the tray that holds the seed starting containers and set the box over the lid.

In what ways have you made an “unconventional” mini greenhouse?  Feel free to share what has worked for you!

Saving Tomato Seed

This post will focus on how to save tomato seeds.  In order to learn which plants are best to save seed from, be sure to read this article!

Tomato seeds are one of the few seeds that can be saved when your tomato is nicely ripe – and still edible.  You want it to be on the verge of being over-ripe, but not inedible.  These plants are self pollinating, and due to flower structure (exposed stigmas) the ability for insects to cross pollinate is extremely limited.  There are three types of tomato plants that may still cross with one another: currant tomatoes, potato-leaved varieties (those with a smooth leaf edge, vs. a serrated edge), and any fruits that are formed from double-blossoms on beefsteak types (do not save seed from double-fruits).  If you choose to grow one of each variety, you should have no problem with cross pollination.

Pick and wash your tomatoes first.  As you are preparing to eat your tomato, just squeeze the tomato seed “guts” into a clean jar.  Be sure to label your jars and use one jar per variety if you are saving seed from more than one variety.

Fill each jar with water and stir to help separate the seeds from the gel surrounding them.  They won’t separate immediately, but you can get a lot of debris to rise to the top of the jar after stirring and letting it sit.  Seeds will set to the bottom, while bad seeds and debris will rise.  Pour off this debris, replace the water, and allow the seeds to sit at room temperature overnight.  Stir a few times per day, but allow the debris to stay on the top.  It will eventually start to mold, and this is actually encouraged.  The fermentation will help kill seed-borne tomato diseases.  Your tomato mixture will begin to stink, so you may wish to move these to a less populated area of your house or garage or other space, but keep it in warmer temperatures.

Once the mold covers the top  surface of your seeds, or you notice bubbling, you may stir the debris, let it sit for a few moments, dump off mold and debris, refill with water, stir, and allow seeds to fall again.  Pour off debris again, replace water, stir again.  By this time, the seeds should be well cleaned and ready to dry.

Using a fine-mesh strainer, pour the remaining clean water and seeds into the strainer, then place on a screen to dry.  You can create a drying tray by building a small wooden frame and stapling screen on the bottom.  You may also dry on a ceramic or glass plate but remove excess moisture with a paper towel before letting them dry.  Don’t dry seeds on paper towel or cloth, as removing them will be too hard.  Stir the seeds a few times per day to eliminate sticking and clumping.  Don’t forget to label the screen with the variety, because most tomato seeds look the same.  Don’t dry the seeds in direct sunlight, or in an oven or dehydrator.

Save the seeds in an airtight container and stored in a cool, dry area.  They can last 4-10 years with proper storage.

What are plant families?

“Plant Families” are mentioned quite a bit in the gardening world. It refers to a group of vegetables that share many of the same care, growth, pest/disease and nutrient need characteristics. If you know how to care for broccoli, you stand a pretty good chance at growing the rest of the brassica family too – such as cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi and brussels sprouts. Please allow me to introduce you to the common families you will host in your gardens!

Who belongs in what family?


Also called crucifers, brassicas, or cole crops. This family includes cabbages, radishes, mustard greens, turnips, rutabega, arugula, broccoli, kale, brussels sprouts, kohlrabi.

These plants are started indoors and placed outside in March/April for a spring harvest, or started in June for a mid-July planting (for a fall harvest). They are a cool weather crop and don’t tolerate heat. For fall harvests, allowing these plants to withstand a light frost can enhance the sweetness of their flavor.

Brassicas don’t tolerate acidic soil, prefer lots of organic matter, and are shallow rooted.


Also called nightshades. This family includes tomatoes, tomatilloes, eggplants, peppers, and white & red potatoes.

These plants are warm weather plants and should be started indoors and transplanted out after danger of frost has passed, with the exception of potatoes because they are planted underground early in the season.

Nightshades prefer lots of organic matter in their soil, and prefer the soil be kept damp. They can tolerate warm weather as long as they are kept watered, and they do best watered at ground level vs. from the top (as with a sprinkler). All of these plants have medium to deep roots.

Potatoes are kind of an odd plant in this family when you consider that we eat the tuber of that plant vs. the fruit of the rest, and the potato can be planted in the ground much earlier than the others. So why is it included in this family? All of the plants produce a compound called solanine.

Interesting to note, sweet potatoes are not a part of this family.


Also called legumes. This family includes peas, beans, peanuts.

Some fun information about this family: Beans are available as bush beans (they stay small and require no trellis or support), or pole/runner beans, which spread by vine and love to climb trellises. Green beans are eaten whole, in the pod, which contain immature seeds. Some green beans that are eaten fresh will have a tough strong that needs to be removed prior to consuming or canning, thus known as “string beans.” You can find “green beans” in colors such as green, yellow (wax) and even purple. some varieties are preferred because they are ‘stringless.’ Beans left to dry in the pod are commonly called soup beans. These are mature seeds that are removed from the pod already dry, and ready to be soaked and cooked. This includes beans such as kidney beans, black beans, pinto, canellini, and much more. Beans are direct sown in the soil after all danger of frost has passed.

Common peas grown are snow/snap peas and garden/shell peas. The snow or snap peas are eaten in the pod, before the peas mature. Garden or shell peas are grown until the peas are noticeable (but not too big or they taste horrible) and then the pod is removed from the peas. Peas can tolerate cool weather and are often planted out early – about six weeks before the last frost.

Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, converting atmospheric nitrogen into a form that can be used by plants. This is helpful for returning nitrogen to the soil after a heavy nitrogen feeder was previously planted in the same spot, such as corn. They both prefer less organic matter in the soil, don’t require much nitrogen, and have medium-depth roots. Fun fact: Transplants reduces the nitrogen fixing ability, so direct sow whenever possible. Luckily these grow great as direct sown seeds.


Also called cucurbits or the gourd family. This family includes cucumbers, watermelon and melons, pumpkins and other winter squash as well as zucchini and summer squash.

These plants are all warm weather plants that can be started indoors a few weeks before the last frost then transplanted after the danger of frost has passed, or they can be direct sown right in the soil once the soil warms. These all prefer warm soil, so planting as soon as that last frost date has passed is not recommended – I typically direct sow in June once the soil has had some warm temperatures to heat it up. Of course, a tarp can also help hurry the soil warmth, also.

Cucurbits are vining plants, so they will require a lot of room in your garden unless you can trellis the vines. Pumpkins and winter squashes will take all season to grow, while zucchini and summer squash are ready sooner. They prefer a lot of organic matter in their soil, and they have medium to deep roots. One common downfall of most of these family members is they are susceptible to mildews and blights, as well as squash bugs.


Also known as the carrot family. This includes carrots, parsley, coriander, fennel, parsnip and celery.

These plants are cool season crops and prefer regular watering. They grow best in sandy or loamy soil without too much organic matter. The soil must drain well.

One important fact about these plants is that they are very slow to germinate. Carrots should always be direct sown, which makes getting them to germinate before the weeds take over quite difficult! You can tarp their beds until they sprout, just be sure they have enough water. Their root depths are all over the place, carrots being a medium depth, celery and parsley being shallow, and parsnip is deep.

Other Families:


Also known as the onion family. This includes onions, garlic, leek, scallion and chive.

This family prefers cool weather if you are harvesting leaves, but bulb formation requires hot, dry weather. They have very shallow roots and grow best in loamy soils, free of weeds and watered well.


Also known as grasses/grains. This includes corn, along with wheat and sugar cane. This family is a heavy nitrogen feeder and requires lots of organic matter or fertilizer. You need to plant in blocks vs. long rows to help ensure pollination.


Also known as the goosefoot family. This includes beets, chard and spinach. This is a cool weather family often planted out before the last frost. They have medium to deep roots which help break up the soil and also recycle nutrients well. They grow best in soil that drains well and has a high amount of well rotted compost or organic matter.


Also known as the mint family. This includes mints, basils, rosemary, thyme, oregano and sage.

Some of these members, such as oregano and sage are perennials, so be sure you are happy with the placement in your garden. These are pretty drought tolerant and handle poor soils well.


Also known as the sunflower or aster family. This includes lettuce, artichokes, and sunflowers.

This family is fast growing, shallow-rooted plants that grow best in loamy soils. They prefer lots of organic matter and often have very few pests.

Growing Garlic

Growing garlic is a very easy task that requires very little space, very little preparation, and very little time (depending on how many you are planting, of course).  There are two main types of garlic, and many varieties of each – softneck and hardneck.  Usually the hardneck varieties tolerate our cold winters the best, and the softneck varieties grow best in mild winters – though they are pretty hardy no matter what.  Hardneck varieties have bigger cloves and stronger flavor.  Softneck varieties often have small cloves that are harder to peel, but have a milder taste.

The best time to plant garlic is in mid-October, so right about now in our area. However, you can plant garlic up until the ground freezes! In well draining, loose soil, dig a trench about 3-4 inches deep. Plant your garlic with the root end down and the pointy end up so they are about 2-3 inches below the surface of the soil, 6 inches apart, in rows 12 inches apart. Cover with loose soil, then cover with another 6 inches of straw or loose mulch if you can. The garlic will find its way through a light mulch, and early week control

I like to lay down rabbit manure or aged compost to the area I am about to plant in.  As I plant one row, already dug, I begin digging the next  row, filling the previous trench I just planted, with soil from the new row I am digging.  Make sure the soil is loose in the entire planting area – pretty deep too.  Soil that compacts will prohibit growth of the bulbs.   I make my garlic beds about 3-3.5ft wide. I feel that is a nice width for my personal preferences, having to consider how hard it’ll be to reach the middle of the bed for weeding or other care.

For my 25 ft. rows, I planted approximately 4-5 big heads of garlic per row.   All the kids gathered together to separate the garlic heads into cloves (leave the paper skins on), then we found a rock to space them roughly 6 inches apart.  The pictures above seem to show the cloves a lot closer than that, but there was a lot of paper from the garlic heads that fell into the trenches, too. I think I am seeing the paper from separating the cloves that makes the ‘cloves’ look so close.  We dug a little trench to place the cloves in, pointy side up planted at a depth of about 2-3 inches.  If you prefer making individual holes or aren’t planting a ton and don’t mind individual holes, a dibble is a great tool to use.  Simply insert it to the proper depth (measurements are often on the tool) and it makes a hole for you.  Use one wide enough to easily slide a garlic clove into the resulting hole.  I made mine using dowel rod, cut to length, a point whittled and sanded, measurements woodburned in, stained then sprayed with a protective coating.  Of course, fingers work just fine too.

In the spring, when the garlic sends up shoots, fertilizer is beneficial.  Some like to fertilize or side dress with compost again around May, then you will harvest usually early to mid summer.  Keep the weeds at bay and make sure the soil stays moist, but not soaking wet or the garlic will rot.  If you are growing a hardneck variety, be sure to cut off the ‘scape’ when it grows (they are great to eat – sautee them to add a mild garlic flavor to your food) so your bulb will grow larger.  For another treat, itty bitty garlic cloves can be grown closely together and you can trim the resulting shoots and use like you would chives (I hate waste, so I’ll plant every single clove in one way or another, LOL. These cloves most likely would not grow into a meaningful head of garlic, so they would be planted just for the shoots in the spring).

I wait until most of the green garlic leaves have yellowed before thinking about harvesting.  This way the papery skins have a chance to toughen up before they are removed from the dirt.  Don’t pull them up – gently dig them up with your fingers or a small shovel.  I like to keep the stems on and braid them to cure for a while (3-4 weeks or so) once they are out of the ground.