This story first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Edible Seattle
Have you discovered the wonder of growing at least some of your own food? Then you know how good fresh-from-the-garden-moments-ago produce can be. This year, take the next step and sow your own. It’s easy!
Remember planting peas in paper cups in kindergarten? We didn’t have to understand the horticultural intricacies to know that something pretty special was afoot. According to my daughter the kindergarten teacher, the practice is still a springtime rite in her classroom. Antsy kids in tiny desks spilling dirt and making messes is a small price to pay for awe.
Today I know more about timing, germination, and selecting the best varieties for our area, but I never get over the thrill of tiny sprouts muscling up through a seedbed. These days, rather than leaving plants to wither on the windowsill, my stomach growls as I think ahead to garden peas sautéed with butter, lettuce and a little nutmeg; or peas and sausage mixed with creamy, cheesy pasta; or lunching on a fistful of juicy pods right in the garden. It’s all about the food, people.
A single packet of seed costs about as much as a cup of coffee and is capable of providing weeks of good eating. But while economics may be a factor, the wealth of varieties available from seed is the real gain. Nursery racks and seed catalogs offer an enticing treasure trove I find hard to resist even if realistically I don’t need 12 different kinds of lettuce. Premixed collections, whether salad greens, beans or carrots, are a great way to efficiently—and deliciously—add variety.
Garden prep for direct sowing is the same as for setting out starts. Select a location that receives at least 6-8 hours of sun, and turn the soil to about 12 inches, or about the depth of your shovel. Digging in generous amounts of compost creates light, yet moisture-retentive growing conditions in the critical root zone. A light dusting of organic fertilizer adds to soil health, and boosts beneficial microbial activity, while feeding plants slowly and steadily throughout the growing season. Rake the surface of your finished seedbed to a fine texture and you’re set to sow.
“Seed wants to grow; our job is to simply help it along,” says Willi Galloway, the Northwest’s own vegetable-growing, go-to girl and author of Digginfood.com. She confesses that early in the season she can’t resist purchasing pots of baby lettuces, glossy chard and chubby broccoli starts at her local nursery, farmer’s market or grocery store. But the bulk of Galloway’s bountiful backyard harvest springs from seed she sows herself.
Like the effective garden instructor she is, Galloway simplifies matters, “Basically, you’ve got big seeds and little seeds.” For larger seeds like peas, beans, and sunflowers, she digs a furrow or shallow trench, spaces seed out according to seed packet directions and backfills with soil, gently tamping to form a snug seed and soil sandwich.
Small seeds like lettuce, carrots, spinach, beets, onions and many herbs, often fail if planted too deeply. Galloway pats the raked seedbed smooth before scattering a scant pinch of seed finely over its surface. Next she sprinkles the seedbed with a watering can fitted with a fine head to settle the tiny seeds firmly in contact with the soil. A light sifting of compost or potting soil rubbed between her palms tops off the planting area providing a fine, weed-free layer to keep the soil from crusting. Galloway “tucks in” her seeds with a pat and sprinkles again with the watering can to finish.
March in the Pacific Northwest can be a warm breath of spring and pale sunshine or mired in wintry mud; often it’s both. Follow seed packet instructions and try not to rush things too much. Planting too early leaves seed vulnerable to loss from rot in chilly wet soil or scavenged by hungry birds and rodents. Wait too long and you’ll forfeit yield.
Armed with her trusty soil thermometer, Galloway carefully follows detailed germination tables set out in The New Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubell, but admits she’s a bit of a “seed dork.” “It’s not complicated, but you do need to pay attention,” Galloway advises. “Seed waits to germinate until conditions are just right. You can learn a great deal from observing when self-sown crops from the previous season sprout.” Lettuce, arugula, dill, cilantro, chervil and nasturtiums are reliable self-sowers returning each spring when left to go to seed the previous growing season; transplant young seedlings to a freshly prepared bed and water well to settle roots.
Summer’s tomato, bean, corn, squash, and pepper production is months away, but now is the time to begin sowing cool season vegetables. Peas, leaf lettuces, mache, spinach and spicy greens, radishes, beets, and fava beans all prefer cool, moist growing conditions, making them ideal for spring sowing. As last summer taught us, we can’t always count on heat, but cool season crops are a sure bet.
Keep newly planted seedbeds evenly damp. One sunny afternoon or a drying wind can wipe out an entire sowing. A protective layer of burlap, damp newspaper, or garden fleece anchored with stones helps moderate the fickle fluctuations of typical spring weather. Water as necessary and check for germination daily, removing the cover to expose young seedlings to light.
Once sprouts are about two inches tall, thin to recommended spacing indicated on seed packets. Snipping with scissors just above the soil neatly removes plants without disrupting neighboring roots. Given enough room to fully mature, properly spaced plants are more productive. Overcrowding limits growth and stresses plants, leading to problems with pests and disease. For the same reason, keep up with weeding so crops don’t have to compete for water and nutrients.
Boost your total harvest by re-planting a bed as soon as your first crops are harvested. You’ll be dining on tender greens, plump peas, crunchy radishes and baby beets long before summer even shows—provided it does this year.
Sidebar: Willi Galloway gets a jump on the season by pre-sprouting pea seeds in her kitchen before planting. This simple step cuts germination time to a fraction of what it would be in cold soil. Sandwich seeds between two wet paper towels, slide into a partially sealed plastic bag, and keep warm. After about a week you’ll see a tiny white root emerging from the swollen seed. Plant sprouted seed as soon as possible, root end down. Like an eager kindergartener, I can’t wait to try this.