This page reflects what works for me in my Sumner, Washington garden. As such it is a work in progress - as I gain experience and/or discover different techniques, my methodology changes (as does this page!).

Although it is being written from the perspective of the maritime Pacific Northwest, most comments should be applicable to anyone's circumstances.

General Comments on Transplanting

Speaking in general, most crops which are well-adapted to our cool climate can be direct-seeded into the garden; this can actually be an easier way to grow them. Heat-loving crops, if you want them to produce well, need the six-to-eight-week head start that growing transplants can produce. In addition, I have found that raising some crops as transplants lets me make more efficient use of my garden. For example, I raise some fall broccoli transplants, even though they grow well when I direct seed them; the bed I want to plant the broccoli in usually has late spring peas, which aren't quite done at the time I'd need to direct seed the broccoli.

Cultural Notes

Fertilizer recommendations, when given, refer to the complete organic fertilizer that I use. Unless otherwise noted, the fertilizer is mixed into the soil below the plant (or row) before the seed is sown or the plants are transplanted.

If you use a different fertilizer, be sure to follow its label guidelines regarding application for the various crops.

Crucifers    read related articles

The problem with the brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi) is they tend to handle stress by bolting at a young age. So you don't want to start them too early; if they get rootbound, you probably will be disappointed in the final results. This is well documented in many writings; unfortunately I have also demonstrated it in my garden a few times. If you're growing them cool (and you should be), individual 2-inch pots will still only hold them for about 4 weeks. Up here in western Washington, I figure mid-March is safe for putting them outside under a cloche, so I start them inside about February 15th.

Once the soil warms up, I find it easier to direct seed my brassica crops. One idea of many I've borrowed from Steve Solomon: Scoop a cup of soil out where you'd like your broccoli/cabbage/cauliflower to be. Fill that hole with potting soil, and sow the seed in there. Your seed will get off to a quicker start than if you sowed it directly into the native soil.

Fertilizer recommendations:

Edible Greens    read related articles

Lettuce is hardy to the low 20s (F), so you can start that darn early. I start mine indoors during the first half of January. But then, I can pretty much guarantee no temps will be below 20F by March 1, and usually before. Like other greens, it'll get off to a quicker start under a cloche if the spring is cold and wet.

Spinach is a very hardy green, but is somewhat succeptible to diseases which thrive in cool wet weather (such as downy mildew). Now that I know this, I can keep it alive most winters by covering it with a cloche. Sometimes my overwintered spinach doesn't perk up in spring, even with some bloodmeal added; so I start more inside with my earliest lettuce around January 15th.

Endive, Escarole, Kale, and Arugula are all quite hardy, and are very easy to direct seed in the garden. 'Perfect' escarole, grown under a cloche to protect it from the constant winter rains, has taken 8F in my garden without flinching. I've grown several types of kale, always out in the open; they all seem able to take all the rain and cold our winters can dish out. Various types of endive and escarole vary in their tolerance of cold, and in their bitterness. Generally I direct seed these in August, and don't grow them spring or summer because their flavor is too strong (and, in the case of kale, the texture is too tough) until they've been frosted a number of times.

One green I am learning to love is Garden Cress. I have grown it without any protection for the past two winters, during which it has held up admirably. Despite tons of rain, and colder than average temperatures, the plants look as good in March as they did in September. This green will really pep up those winter sandwiches! It also grows great during the "normal" gardening season; and, being biennial, gives you a LONG harvest from one sowing. Like most crucifers, it is easily transplanted; but I suggest trying direct seeding.

Fertilizer recommendations:

Root Crops    read related articles

Many of these - carrots, celery, parsley, parsnips) - are umbellifers, and form taproots. Any vegetable that develops a taproot is going to be difficult to transplant. Commercial celery growers direct seed their crops. Transplanted celery, as anyone who's grown it knows, just needs amazing amounts of water to do anything at all. When I've direct-seeded it, celery seemed to get by (in my silty clay soil) with just regular garden irrigation. But, if you direct seed it before the daytime temps are consistently above 50F or so, it often will bolt on you.

If you have trouble direct-seeding things like carrots or celery, try covering the seed with seed-starting mix instead of soil. It won't crust they way clay soils do. This is a good trick (borrowed from Roger Swain) for any not-too-vigorous seeds, such as spinach or parsnip.

Beets are not umbellifers, and transplant reasonably well. Since they germinate in fairly cool soil, there isn't usually much reason to raise them as transplants.

Fertilizer recommendations:

Cucurbits    read related articles

Cucumber, melons, squash: You have probably read that these plants are very touchy about transplanting. After trying several growing techniques, I have decided this mainly applies if you are trying to dig them out of a seedling flat. I've had good success transplanting cucurbits, as long as I sow them in either large peat pots or plastic pots. Sow 4-5 seeds in a pot, and thin out all but the two strongest plants as soon as the first true leaf starts to form (please see the next paragraph as well). They should only get transplanted once, meaning when you move them to the garden. Don't let them get rootbound! Squash will be ready to transplant in about 21 days from sowing in a 3-inch pot!

Although most references say to start two seeds (or plants) in each planting hole, I have been experimenting with only growing one plant per spot for two years. The initial appearance is that (at least in our marginal climate) yields for heat-lovers, i.e. the cucumbers and melons, are not hurt by this, and production may actually be advanced by a week or two. If true, this may be due to the fact that these marginal plants need every advantage they can get, including minimal competition for nutrients and water. It will take a couple years of trials before I am ready to whole-heartedly endorse this idea, but you might consider trying it if you don't live in a heat pocket.

Fertilizer recommendations:

Solanaceae    read related articles

The nightshade family includes tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and potatoes. These are easy, except for getting them to germinate. Tomato seed germinates slowly below 70F. Eggplant and peppers generally will not germinate at all in cool soil! Use a heating pad or tape. Some people put newly-sown flats near a woodstove, or on top of the water heater; but then you have to watch them carefully to prevent etoliation (long, spindly growth due to lack of light). Once they're up, it's mainly a matter of providing enough light and enough root room. Until I get my greenhouse, I just don't have the room for anything bigger than a 4" pot. So I start my tomatoes and peppers about 6 weeks before they'll go outside (March 1 on tomatoes, and March 21 on peppers). As my garden night-time temperatures are rather low even in mid-summer (50F-55F), I grow my tomato and pepper seedlings on the cool side, with daytime temps in the 60s and nighttime temps typically between 50F and 55F with occasional dips into the 40s. This guarantees me the "hardest" seedlings possible, that won't easily get shocked when I put them outdoors.

Many people set out peppers and eggplant at the same time they transplant the tomatoes. This is a good way to shock these tender plants. Tomatoes are quite a bit more hardy than their cousins, and can take 40F if they've been properly hardened and are under some sort of cover. Peppers and eggplant will often get shocked if the temperature falls much below 50F, even if hardened off.

One note: If your problem is mainly NIGHT temperatures, you can start these earlier. Once they're in big pots, you just cart them outside during the day, and back in at night. It can be a pain in the neck, though. When I did this with peppers one year (they were in gallon pots by early May, and I didn't want them planted until about June 1), my wife got REALLY TIRED of having our back porch stuffed to the gills with plants in the evening!

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Brief Comments on Damping-Off

Many gardeners experience problems with damping off when they try to raise certain transplants. There are several different fungi which will attack newly-germinated plants; some hit before the seedlings break the surface of the soil, while others attack your apparently healthy little seedlings after they've gotten their start. There are certain preventative steps you can take, although some plants are just more succeptible than others (tomatoes and petunias spring to mind; commercial tobacco crops also fall prey to damping off).

All contents © Travis Saling
This page was last updated November 19, 2013