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Seeds II: Harnessing their full potential

Posted by Alberto Suarez Esteban on March 2, 2021

How many seeds to get?

The better question may be: how many plants do you want to eat? For example, if you know that you eat 3 heads of lettuce/week between June and September, you would need 3 lettuce x 16 weeks = 48 plants. We tend to buy 30% more seeds than what we think we will need. That would put you around 62 seeds. If you want that steady supply of lettuce throughout the summer, those lettuce heads cannot be planted all at the same time. After 6-8 weeks or so, particularly in the heat of the summer, they start to get bitter and tough, and will eventually flower (which is great for pollinators and seed saving, but not so much for fresh eating). Keep reading!

Tomato seeds from small seed producers kindly donated to us by the Mississippi Mills Public Seed Library

Making the most out of your space

You can grow a lot of veggies in a small space if you practice succession planting. For example, at Nature’s Apprentice Farm we grow 2 to 4 crops in each bed from May to October. How to do this? Succession planting is a back-scheduling exercise. These are the basic steps:

  1. Decide on your harvest date: let’s say you want to start eating lettuce on June 1st.
  2. Look at the Days to Maturity (aka DTM; days from seed to harvest) of your variety. You will find this information in your seed catalog, seed company’s website and/or seed packet. For example, the lettuce we grow has a DTM of about 60-70 days. Keep in mind that these are average DTM. Lettuce planted in early spring or late fall, when daylight is shorter and temperatures cooler, may take more like 90 days to be harvestable.
    • The most accurate method we know to calculate DTMs is to collect your own data! Record your planting, transplanting, and harvesting dates in a garden journal or spreadsheet, and you will have a good sense of the DTM for each crop in your garden. Even though every year may be different, nobody will ever give you a better approximation for your context.
  3. Decide your growing method and schedule tasks accordingly:
    • If you direct seed, just extract the DTM from your harvest date, and that will give you your seeding date. In the example above June 1st – 60 days = April 1st
    • If you transplant, you will have two dates: one for seeding in trays/pots, and one for transplanting into your garden. We transplant all our lettuce, which are usually ready to transplant in 30 days. In the example above, June 1st – 30 days = May 1st would be your transplanting date, and April 1st would be your seeding date.
Spinach seedlings started in paper pots.

In our latitude, transplanting is particularly helpful in early spring because it is usually too cold to direct seed. For us, transplanting is pretty much the only way to get ripe tomatoes, peppers, watermelon, and other heat loving, long-season plants. It is also a great option to maximize your growing space. In the example above, you could grow lettuce for 30 days in trays or pots and they would only take space in your garden beds for the remaining 30 days, compared to the 60 days if you seed them directly. In those 30 days that you would be saving by transplanting, you could grow a fast-growing crop like baby radishes or salad turnips. Just like getting a 2 for 1 deal at the store!

Green and red lettuce seedlings, almost ready to be transplanted.

We repeat this process for every planting. Continuing with the lettuce example, if you plant all the lettuce you need for one week at a time, you would have to plan 16 plantings (1/week), each including 3 plants (or more like 5-6, to be safe in case there are germination issues or something eats a plant or two). This means planting lettuce every week for 16 weeks! This is a fantastic way to make the most out of your space and have a steady supply of fresh vegetables from your own garden.

When to start planting?

This very much depends on your region and the crop you are trying to grow. There are planting calendars available online for every growing region. The Old Farmer’s Almanac is a good resource for North America. Seed packages usually indicate when different varieties may be planted, either outdoors (if direct seeded) or indoors (if transplanted).

In the Ottawa Valley, where our farm is located, cold-hardy plants such as spinach, arugula, carrots, beets, peas, and cilantro can be seeded as soon as the soil thaws in the spring, although many of them have optimal germination temperatures well above freezing. If you use cold frames or row covers, germination will be faster, and your young seedlings will be protected during cold nights.

Tomato seedlings

We have made the mistake of starting seedlings too early more than once. If you get the gardener itch in late winter or early spring, keep in mind that the conditions may still not be optimal for that plant to grow. In such case, supplemental light and heat may be necessary to keep your plants growing. Even after all that effort and energy, if you start your plants too early, they may become rootbound and take a long time to adapt and continue to grow after you transplant them in the garden. If you cannot wait to plant something, a good alternative is to start some microgreens on a sunny spot in your house, which you could add to your salads and sandwiches. We get our microgreen seeds from Mumm’s Sprouting seeds.

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