Follow our step-by-step guide to help you select, buy, store, and test your vegetable seeds.
While you are looking through your seed catalogs, ask yourself some questions before you complete a final list and place your order.
What do I like to eat?
If you are a salad lover, then tomatoes and lettuce would be great choices and save you money at the supermarket.
How much space do I have?
Smart vegetable selection is key if you have a limited growing area. You want plants that will have maximum yield in a smaller area -- this includes plants that grow up and not out, such as beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes.
Selecting plants that prefer your climate is the best single guarantee of a trouble-free vegetable garden. Fortunately, there is a convenient and easy-to-use guide: the "Zones of Hardiness Map" published by the United States Department of Agriculture. This map divides the United States and Canada into 11 zones. Because winter cold is, in most regions, the single greatest threat to plant survival, the zones are divided according to the average monthly temperature they experience locally.
Plant descriptions in catalogs and labels typically refer to these hardiness zones to specify the areas in which any given plant will thrive. Once you have identified the zone in which your garden is located, purchase only plants recommended as reliably hardy there.
Note: If your seed list includes perennial vegetables, like asparagus and artichoke, you'll need to identify your hardiness zone. Though your zone doesn't necessarily dictate which annual vegetables, like tomatoes and lettuce, you can grow, it can inform you about which specific varieties will do best in your area.
Depending on when you order your seeds, you will have less or more time to start seedlings or plant them directly into the ground. Here's a quick reference for what can be planted when.
Early Seeds: The following seeds can be planted directly into the ground (direct sow), even before the danger of frost has passed: Asian greens, beets, carrots, lettuce, peas, radishes, spinach, turnips.
Post-Frost Seeds: The following should be planted outside after all danger of frost has passed: beans, corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, squashes, Swiss chard.
Indoor Seeds: In warm climates, even tomatoes can be sown directly into the garden. But in cooler zones, it is good to get a jump on the season by starting these vegetables a little early.
Eggplants and Tomatoes: 6 to 8 weeks before last frost
Artichokes: 8 weeks before last frost
Peppers: 8 to 10 weeks before last frost
Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, and Cauliflower: 4 to 6 weeks before transplanting out
Leeks and Onions: 6 to 8 weeks before transplanting out
Once your seeds start to arrive, be sure to store them properly. This will ensure that you achieve the greatest percentage of germination.
First, create labels to keep your seed packets organized like Martha does using a Brother P-Touch Labeling System.
Sort your seeds by sowing date. An accordion file (the one seen here is from the Japanese store Muji) helps for easy reference and browsing.
Once you have planted your seeds, be sure to store them safely. Moisture, heat, and fluctuating temperatures are a seed's worst enemies, so don't simply abandon your leftover packets to the elements by leaving them in a garden shed. By the next spring, they will have lost much of their vigor -- the ability to germinate quickly and healthily -- and many may have died. Instead, place packets in an airtight container, such as a canning jar with a new lid. Then make a few moisture-absorbing sachets to store with them by wrapping 2 tablespoons of untreated cat litter (avoid colored or scented litters) or powdered milk in a double layer of tulle. Close the lid tightly, and put the jar in a cool, dark place.
Seeds saved from past gardens may be worth sowing -- but only if they pass this test: Fold 10 seeds in moist paper towel, place in resealable bag, mark with date and type. Watch to see how many germinate. Multiply that number by 10 to calculate the percent of germinations. More than 70 percent is passing. If between 40 and 60 percent, sow thickly. Below 40 percent, it's best to buy fresh seeds.
Get an early start to the season by starting seeds indoors. Although some types of seeds are best sown directly in the garden, many annuals and vegetables, especially frost-sensitive ones that require a long growing season, are ideal for starting indoors and transplanting out once the weather warms. Learn the step-by-step process in Seed-Starting 101.
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