Selecting and Planting Seeds
The key to a bountiful harvest is variety. It requires no more time to plant, weed, and water well-adapted seeds than it does with less productive varieties, but the outcome is much improved. Choose the best varieties and pay slightly more money, if necessary, to get increased yields of high quality vegetables for the same effort.
Selecting seeds from the thousands available can be a puzzle. Check with your local county extension office for a list of the best performing varieties for your area.
Some seed packets carry the "All-America Selections" label. The AAS is a non-profit organization that tests seeds by growing them in a variety of soil and climate conditions nationwide. Only those found to perform well under a variety of conditions and produce crops superior to other top selections on the market earn the prestigious AAS seal.
Planting Seed Outdoors
Moisten garden soil before planting. Plant seeds according to the directions on the seed packet, 1 1/2 to twice as deep as the diameter of the seed, in parallel rows far enough apart to allow space to work and for plants to grow.
Tap small seeds directly from the packet or rub them between your fingers to spread. Plant larger seeds individually. Cover with soil and water carefully to avoid washing the seeds out.
Create furrows for small seeds by pressing soil with the edge of a board or stick into the soil. Cover fine seeds with potting mix to avoid crusting. Larger seeds will generally grow through garden soil. For intense heat in summer planting, provide some sort of shade for the new seedlings.
Incorporate a complete fertilizer into the soil or bury it in bands two inches away from the seed row and about three inches deep. Complete fertilizer has nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium expressed in numbers on the packages as percent plant food content. A good analysis for a complete garden fertilizer is 16-16-8.
As seedlings reach about three inches in height they are ready to be thinned.
With the exception of tomatoes, most plants benefit from nitrogen fertilizer applied near the base every four weeks. Use 1/3 cup ammonium nitrate, 1/2 cup ammonium sulfate or 1/4 cup urea per ten feet of row.
Water your garden whenever the soil surface dries out. Seeded rows require frequent light watering, but you should reduce the frequency of watering and increase the quantity of water as the season progresses to develop deep root systems that will withstand heat and drought.
Keep weeds out. Despite a myriad of sprays on the market, the best weed control is a hoe. Getting rid of seedling weeds isn't a major chore. Visit the garden often with a hoe in hand.
Insect control can often be accomplished by hand as well. Mechanical controls or hand labor are advisable unless a crop becomes severely infested. Pesticide use and recommendations for various areas are constantly changing. Check with your county agent for current recommendations. A nurseryman can help find the right product. Always check the package labels for the types of insects the product controls and for the types of plants for which it has been approved.
Planting for Transplants
Plan for starting transplants by counting backward from the day you might expect to plant them outside. Determine the time required for seeds to germinate and develop into acceptable transplants. Count back that many weeks from the expected last frost date. Plant seeds so they will have time to develop before placing them in the garden.
Crops in the cabbage family develop transplants in four to five weeks. These crops can be set into the garden as soon as the soil can be worked – about six weeks before the expected date of last frost. Count backward from that date to start transplants.
Tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants require about six to eight weeks from seeding. These plants should be planted when the soil is warm, ten days or so after the date of the last frost until mid-June. With proper temperatures, tomato seedlings may appear in four to six days, but peppers may require ten to fourteen days. If conditions are a little cooler, seedlings may take a bit longer to germinate.
Allow about four to five weeks for cucumbers and melons to reach transplanting maturity. Cucumbers can be planted outdoors on the date of last frost, plant melons about two weeks later.
Transplant shock sets these transplants back a little. The seeds often catch up with the transplants, seem just as healthy, and produce just as quickly. Timing is everything. If melons become overgrown in the pot, they tend to do poorly all summer.
The best soil for starting seeds is loose, well-drained, fine textured, sterile, and low in nutrients. Many of the best starting “soils” are soil-less mixes. Various starter mixes are available in stores, as well as labor saving peat pellets.
When uncertain about which is best, ask a reputable nursery to sell you some of what they use.
To make homemade potting soil, mix 1 part sand, 1 part sphagnum moss, with 1 part perlite or vermiculite.
Place the soil in a container. A 4-inch flower pot may be seeded with eighteen to twenty seeds. Cover seed with about 1/4 inch of the potting medium and place inside a plastic bag or cover with plastic. For the seeds to germinate, they must have moisture. Lightly water the trays or containers.
Close the plastic covering so moisture doesn't escape and place them where the temperature is right for germination. Sun isn't necessary for most seeds to germinate. Check the seeds daily. As soon as they emerge, remove the plastic immediately and put the container where it will receive plenty of light.
The ideal transplant is dark green, stocky, and healthy looking. Three factors are essential to develop such plants – adequate sunlight, proper temperatures, and fertilizer. Spindly plants are probably the result of too little light, high temperatures, and/or lack of fertility.
Getting enough light is essential to keep the plants from getting long and leggy and to prepare them for the intense sun they will encounter in the garden. A fluorescent fixture about four inches above the plants provides adequate light for good growth. Raise the bank of lights up keeping it four inches above the plants as they grow.
After the plants germinate, expose pots and seedlings to lower temperatures (about fifty-five degrees at night and sixty-five to seventy degrees during the day). Water when the soil becomes dry to the touch and add a soluble fertilizer to the water weekly.
When seedlings get their first true leaf, separate them. Thin plants in jiffy pellets to one per pot. Moisten and loosen soil in flats, pots, or trays using a dull knife blade. Take hold of the plant by a leaf and lift it out of the soil and separate it carefully from the others. Do not lift the tender plants by the stems because if the stems break the plant is no longer useful. Damage to a leaf may not render the plant useless.
Place the plant in prepared potting soil and give it plenty of sunshine, protect it from the wind or frost, and continue fertilizing the plant until it is time for transplanting. About ten days before transplanting, harden the plants by exposing them to cooler temperatures. Put them outside for a short time in the morning and increase the time outside each day.
Check the pots often to make sure they don't dry out and do not let the plants wilt in the sun and wind. Potted transplants outdoors may need frequent watering since the pot won't hold enough water to support heavy transpiration. However, do not keep the pots soaked.
Midsummer is a good time to think about planting garden crops for fall harvest. Spring is not the only time for planting crops. Success in mid-season planting depends on planting the right crops. Midsummer is too late to plant winter squash, melons, tomatoes or other crops that require a long season for harvest. But many of the vegetables planted early in the spring develop quickly and are harvested by mid-summer leaving empty space in the garden. Such crops as lettuce, radishes, broccoli, carrots, spinach, peas, and cauliflower fit this description. Many of these vegetables and some others will develop quickly producing large vigorous plants yielding a large second crop during the cool fall days.
Use the bare soil left by harvesting short-season spring crops, or leave space intentionally for this purpose. Empty spaces in gardens tend to accumulate weeds. Efficient consecutive planting provides for a longer harvest and helps keep down weeds. Some plants are tastier when harvested during cool fall weather.
Cool season plants may do better planted in midsummer than in the spring. Plants in the cabbage family such as broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage make excellent late season choices because cool weather enhances their flavor and they are frost tolerant. The late season harvest means good eating later into the season than many other crops.
Brussels sprouts, also a member of the cabbage family, may not have enough time to mature if they are planted in July. However, they are very tolerant to frosts. If planted early enough to form small heads before frost, they will withstand hard frosts and may even remain useful after snow melts.
Carrots and beets planted in midsummer will not have time to grow excessively large before harvest. They will be prime for storage rather than surviving the stress of going through the hot season as mature plants. Leaf or head lettuce develops a sweet, mild flavor in cool weather. They will be the best quality in the fall – broccoli and cauliflower do likewise.
If space is not available exactly when mid-summer planting needs to take place, start seeds of plants like lettuce, cauliflower and broccoli in a sheltered location of the garden. Plant the seeds in good soil and seed them in a nursery bed with the rows close together. Transplant them to their growing location as earlier crops mature and are removed. This will save garden space and require less seed.
Midsummer plantings need to grow quickly and vigorously. Take care of the preliminaries to give them the best start possible.
Remove all dead plants and weeds (including roots) from the area to be planted. Till or turn the soil to loosen it and work in organic matter. Fertilizer is most efficiently used when it is banded along the vegetable row. Make a two to three-inch trench and scatter 1/3 to 1/2 cup of 16-16-8 fertilizer for every ten feet of trench. Cover the trench.
Make a seed row two inches to the side of the fertilizer band. The roots of the crops will be nourished by the fertilizer, leaving weeds between the rows to fend for themselves. Nitrogen fertilizer may be needed as a side dressing two to three weeks after planting.
Germination can be a problem in hot, dry summer weather. As the soil surface dries out quickly and crusts, the small seeds have a hard time emerging. Conserve moisture in the soil by covering rows with a light mulch of grass clippings. Water lightly and frequently until the seeds appear. Another option is to cover the row with a 1 x 4 or 1 x 6 boards or burlap strips. Check frequently to see when the seedlings germinate and remove the board. Burlap allows water to penetrate without causing the soil to crust over. Remove the burlap covering when the seeds germinate.
Seedbed covers, made from two long boards nailed together at a 90-degree angle, form an excellent cover to let the seeds germinate. These covers form a "tent" over the row to keep the seedbed moist. Light shelter or shade should be provided during the hottest portions of the very hot summer days until the seedlings are established.
Do not forget to control harmful pests. Maggots will destroy all of the cabbage family and the turnips. Treat the soil before planting with diazinon or chlorban granules if maggots tend to attack your crops.