BY VINCENT J. ZAZUETA
The end of September marks the beginning of our fall and winter vegetable growing season and the time is right for starting your own garden transplants.
Besides the awe-inspiring experience of watching seedlings pop their heads up that were direct seeded in your garden beds, there are practical reasons for growing your own vegetable, herb and flower transplants from seed.
Well-established young transplants will give you an earlier harvest, thus a longer harvesting season. When we garden in the low desert, we are always racing against either an early frost or the debilitating summer heat. Ideally, we want our winter vegetables to be mature at or before the winter freeze and our summer vegetables harvested before the summer heat. To take advantage of this window, I grow my own transplants.
I grow transplants from open-pollinated, heirloom varieties of seed that I purchase from small to medium size seed companies. I also use seed that I have saved from previous growing seasons or exchanged with
other local backyard gardeners. There is an incredible variety of open-pollinated seeds that are offered by companies from all over the country. I will list some of the sources at the end of this article. Most of the varieties of transplants that are sold at the “big box” stores are usually limited, and they start selling their transplants too late for our growing seasons.
The following vegetables, herbs and flowers benefit the most from an early start as transplants. These include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, summer squash, melons, watermelons, loofah, okra, lettuce, basil, calendulas, celosia, sweet peas, zinnias, marigolds, sunflowers, nicotiana, strawflowers and amaranth.
Crops that I usually do not sow for transplanting are carrots, radishes, beets, swiss chard, kale, spinach, cilantro, green beans, larkspurs and cosmos.
How to Begin
After ordering and receiving your seeds, you are ready to plant. I start my seedlings in several types of containers: wood flats that are made from redwood bender boards, commercially made polystyrene SPEEDLING transplanting trays and recycled half pint milk cartons. Other types of commercial seed starting containers are available at local garden stores.
The wood flats are made so that they are not too heavy when full of planting medium and are no more than 2 to 3 inches deep.
I consider the SPEEDLING trays to be the most efficient transplanting containers. The trays are lightweight and are available in a different number and size of cell to accommodate different seed sizes and crops. I use the 1-inch cells (200 cells per tray) for planting small seeded crops such as lettuce, basil and celosia. I also have good success with the 1.25 inch and 2-inch cells designed especially for the crops (such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplants) that normally stay in the cells for a long time. The 2-inch cells are exceptionally good for sowing seeds of melons and squash. The SPEEDLING trays may be purchased online from www.groworganic.com.
Using Your Own, Or A Commercial Seed Starting Mix
A good seed starting mix encourages germination and root growth. The characteristics of a good seed starting mix includes being friable, noncrusting and moisture-retentive, but also quick to drain. Most commercial potting soils and seed starting mixes are made from a combination of municipal compost, peat moss, vermiculite and perlite. Peat moss and perlite tend to lighten the mix and allow for better drainage. Compost and vermiculite increase water retention.
Begin by pre-moistening the seed starting mix and placing it into the seedling containers. Next, plant your seeds. As rule of thumb, plant seeds to a depth of twice the length of the widest part of the seed. After sowing the seeds, lightly cover the seeds with the seed starting mix. You are then ready to label your seed sowing container with the variety name and sowing date.
Place your seed sowing containers on a potting bench in a location that gets plenty of sunlight. Keep the seed starting mix moistened like a wrung-out sponge. Striking a balance between keeping the seed starting mix moistened and not overwatering can be the most chal
lenging. However, finding the right seed starting mix can be the key. Remember when gardening, the process is just as important as the result. Keep notes as you go.
Seed Sources for the Home Gardener
Home Garden Planting Calendars for the Imperial County
Vincent J. Zazueta is a Garden Based Community Educator and earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Agricultural Systems and Environment from UC Davis and a Secondary Science Teaching Credential from San Diego State University. He learned the love of gardening from his Grandma Josefa. He lives in El Centro and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org