First Things: Start More Seeds

by Sandy Swegel

I had the good fortune to go backstage, so to speak, at a CSA farm this week.  Lara’s farm is amazingly

small. On just over an acre she almost single-handedly feeds 35 families.  She has an unheated greenhouse and a rototiller, but otherwise, that’s as high-tech as she goes.  Trying to fathom how one person can feed so many people, I kept asking questions and observing what she did.  One thing was obvious.  Farmers don’t stand around with their arms folded gabbing, at least not at the beginning of the day.  We had a running conversation, but her hands were busy, filling planting trays or picking off dead foliage, watering here and there.  But her primary motto, that she learned from a mentor farmer, was to keep starting seeds.  Every day, every time you go into the garden, “she said” you should ask if seeds need to be started.  Weeding, composting, deadheading and even watering can wait till later but if your seeds aren’t started and going, you aren’t going to have plants which means you won’t have enough food or enough flowers.  Watering is second on the list.  It doesn’t do much good to have started seeds last week if you let them dehydrate this week.

Growing a garden from seed is both miraculous and frustrating.  Miraculous is obvious:  you take this tiny seed and it becomes something magnificent: a pumpkin or a breathtaking flower.  But the frustrating part is that there’s no catching up if you procrastinate getting your seeds started.  You can fiddle with heat mats and lots of extra plant food, but there’s really no way to do last minute cramming to get plants growing.  They need time to grow. 

So let that be the first question in your garden today. Are there some new seeds I need to get started?

Here’s my answer of seeds I should start today:


 Spent daffodils and tulips have left an empty spot in the flower garden.  I should plant some cosmos seeds there to have flowers for the rest of the year.

 We harvested the radishes in the square foot garden.  I need to fill that square so I put a few kale seeds in.

 Last year I learned how to roast butternut squash with olive oil and rosemary so I need to make sure I have lots of butternut squash saved up. I need to start six seeds on the window sill (the soil is still cold at my house.)

 I visited a friend’s garden that was full of foxglove which often doesn’t bloom until the second year.  I need to start those seeds so I have a beautiful flower garden like she does next year.

What seeds should you start today?





Succession Planting ~ Part 2

Last week I talked about Succession Planting by using varieties that have different times to maturity. There are two more easy kinds of Succession Planting you can use to you have a steady source of the best-tasting food and to make the best use of your space.

Plant the same crop at intervals.

The seed packet again gives you the information you need.  It says things like “plant at two-week intervals.” This is a great idea for crops like lettuces and carrots and beets or similar crops that just taste best when young.  If you plant all your carrots at once, you’ll have nice young carrots mid-season but by the end of the season, you’ll be pulling big gnarly carrots out of the ground.  Sometimes these can taste great and sometimes they get too woody.   Likewise, you’re going to want to have fall carrots because they get so sweet when the weather gets cooler.  If you planted all your carrots in May, you’re either going to run out of them, or the stress they went through during the heat of summer will have made them tough.

I help myself remember to plant at intervals by picking specific calendar dates. I pick the 1st and the 15th of each month as days to plant again.

Plant two or more crops in succession.

This technique is especially good for people with limited space or who practice square-foot gardening.  You start a cool season crop such as greens or radishes in an area. When they are ready, you harvest and eat them, and then you plant a summer crop such as corn or beans in that spot.  It’s like having twice the garden space. Sometimes I’ll “interplant” crops such as green onions or carrots and tomatoes.  Tomato plants stay small until the heat of summer kicks in, so I’ll plant green onions and carrots in front of the tomato plants.  By the time the tomatoes start to get really big, I will have already harvested the onions and carrots and the tomatoes have lots of room.  The more things that are planted and growing in an area, the fewer weeds you’ll have to pull.  And that’s always a good thing. So keep an eye out…if you’re pulling up a crop that’s finished, plant something new.

Crops to plant every two weeks:

Beans Carrots Corn Green Onions  Lettuce Spinach

Crops to plant one after the other:

Peas followed by Corn Radish followed by Zucchini Green Onions followed by Peppers Cilantro followed by Beans

Succession Planting ~ Days to Maturity

One of the challenges in the home vegetable garden is the cycle most gardeners experience of feast or famine…Either nothing’s ready to harvest or you have so much of a single crop all at one time, that lots of good foods end up going to waste.  Succession planting is the common way to manage the garden, staggering plantings over several weeks instead of just one big planting that first nice warm day. An even easier way to stagger your harvests instead of going out every weekend to plant again is to plant different varieties of the vegetable…each of which has a different time to harvest.  On the back of every seed packet, there’s a little bit of vital information “days to maturity.”

Surprisingly, not every variety of vegetable takes the same period of time to be ready to eat. Taking my spring favorite, the green pea, the labels reveal that Alaska Pea is an early pea and is ready to eat in only 55 days.  At the other end of the spectrum, Green Arrow is a late-season pea…It takes 68 days to ripen.  Dwarf Gray, the pretty pink-flowered oriental pea, is ready right in the middle at 59 days.

If you plant all three varieties on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17th and allowing some time for germination, by the last week in May, the Alaska will be ready for eating.  In early June, you’ll still be getting some Alaska but the Dwarf Grays will be ripening.  Another week or so and the Green Arrows finally start. You can keep the harvest going even longer by making sure to keep the peas picked…so they keep making new peas. After a good five weeks of peas, you’ll be ready for something new.

You can apply this technique to any vegetable…If you plant several varieties of lettuces on the same day, the loose varieties will be ready first. Then the slower heading varieties will begin plumping out and finally, a sturdy, late-season lettuce like Black-Seeded Simpson that can handle a little heat will round out the season.  An even easier way to plant lettuce is to plant a mix like the Heirloom Blend which includes several different kinds of lettuces with different maturities all in the same packet.  You can extend lettuce even longer by harvesting with a cut and come again method…Bring your scissors and cut off what you need for your salad.  The plant will regrow for next week’s salad.

So just a little, advanced planning with the backs of your seed packets will keep a nice steady supply of perfect fresh “local” vegetables on your table.  Fresh lettuce right from the garden is something beautiful to dream about during these cold winter days.

Seeds in the Garden

by Sandy Swegel

Now that we’re at the peak of summer, you’ll start to notice that your garden is likely to have more seeds than it has flowers.  The heat and long days of summer have stimulated seed formation in most plants and this is a good thing.  Don’t just deadhead the seeds and compost them… there are lots you can do with flowers gone to seed.

Collect the seeds to grow again.

Once seedheads have dried a bit (turned brown) and the seeds are loose, you can collect the seed…either to save in paper envelopes for next year or to spread around the garden now where you’d like them to grow next.  When collecting seeds to grow next year, pick the healthiest plants with the best color. You probably know that some plants are hybrid and don’t necessarily come true from seed…but sometimes they do, so I like to risk it.  This year we let a squash grow in the compost pile even though everybody knows squash don’t come true, but it was cute…and now we’ve been eating great acorn squash a month earlier than the garden’s because the plant didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to be good.

Eat the seeds.

This is especially yummy before the seeds mature when they are still green and tender.  Green herb seeds and cool season vegetable seeds are little flavor powerhouses.  It’s time to nibble on broccoli flowers or herb seeds – cilantro, dill, fennel, anise, even basil.  All the flax in my wildflower patch has gone to seed.  I’m gathering them to sprout and either put on salads or dehydrate into crackers.

Gather the dry seeds for birdseed in winter

Sunflower and flax seeds are some of the seeds that birds like, so I gather extra dry seed to put out in January for the chickadees. I leave most of the seed on the ground for them… but sometimes it’s hard for a tiny bird to find seeds through a foot of snow.  Besides, if I put the seeds in the bird feeder, I (and the cats) get the pleasure of watching through the kitchen window.

Let the seeds be.

You can grow perennial beds of annuals.  There’s a phrase to get your head around.  The plants don’t overwinter but by letting the seeds drop, they replant themselves.  Let the cilantro and dill and parsley and leeks seed themselves around and you never have to start those seeds again.  The little seedlings will produce good plants for you this fall and some will wait for Spring to grow.  I love it when Nature does all the work.

The Joy of the Garden Routine

by Sandy Swegel

Rifling through the garden in the early sunrise hour this morning, I paused to look up at the morning sky that looked just like the ones in Renaissance paintings.  Following the beauty to the earth, I saw for the first time this year my garden in full growth and fertility.  I got a glimpse not just of weeds and tiny seedlings but of orach in its vibrant purple color and arugula in bloom.  Peas and favas are reaching for the sky and putting out delicate blooms.  Re-seeded larkspur will probably open in just a few hours.  I did pull a few weeds and start some more chard seeds on a blank patch.  But I got bundles of fresh greens for my morning juice, leeks to put in the crockpot for dinner, and magnificent lettuce for an evening salad.  The garden today has begun to return much more than I have put into it.  Tomatoes are still in walls of water and many plants are tiny, but the lovely routine of the season has started.

From now, I’ll settle into my 15 minute morning routine, slightly amended with today’s revelation.

Look up at the big sky. Look at the vitality of life between the sky and the earth.
Pull the big weeds.
Harvest the food for the day.
Fill the empty spots with new seeds or plants.
Water what is dry.
Look once more in gratitude and wonder at the big sky.

There will be times I spend more time in the garden because it’s fun or an ambitious project is taking hold.  And there may be times when I’m not keeping up with the pests or weeds that sneak in and there will be some remedial work.  But for the most part, if I am consistent in my 15-minute daily routine, my time in the garden will never be a chore but will be invigorating and full of nourishment and inspiration for the day.