Starting a Vegetable Garden Indoors

tomato seedlings in Styrofoam cups

tomato seedlings in Styrofoam cups

If you want to grow vegetables this spring, now is an excellent time to start your project.
You can begin by sprouting seeds in Styrofoam cups on your kitchen windowsill. Fill the cups with any sort of moistened potting soil or even ordinary topsoil. Poke a pencil-size hole into the bottom of each cup. Alternatively, you can utilize peat pots (shaped like small cups), available at any nursery. Unlike Styrofoam cups, peat pots are biodegradable, which means you can plant them directly into the earth, as your seedling roots will grow straight through the walls of the pots. Plant several seeds together in each cup or pot. For some reason not entirely understood, seeds tend to germinate more readily when they are clustered together.
When the seedlings have four true leaves, pluck out the ones that look the weakest and keep the strongest. Some robust seedling types, such as tomato and bean, do not need to be discarded but may be transplanted to another pot without difficulty.
The advantage of starting vegetables indoors is that you have complete control of the situation until your plants are ready to be placed in the garden. Unless your soil has been rigorously prepared with lots of compost and soil-softening amendments, vegetable seeds you plant directly in the garden will have an average chance, at best, of success. Even seedlings that do emerge are likely to succumb to a fungus or insect pest before they are more than 2 inches tall.
Most vegetable seeds should germinate within two weeks, except for parsley and celery, which might take three. Three to five weeks after germination, seedlings should be ready for transplanting into the garden. You may actually want to keep your still-potted seedlings in a protected location when you first take them outdoors. If you put them in the shade of a tall tree, for instance, they will not be exposed to direct sun, which could burn them after growing up indoors. This acclimation or hardening-off process should not take more than a week. If a cold night is forecast, put inverted flower pots over your seedlings just before dark.
The variety of vegetable seeds available is truly astonishing. Look at the catalog or Web site of a vegetable seed grower, and you will see creations that seem to be the stuff of science fiction. Such curiosities include white-skinned tomatoes, white-fleshed watermelons and white carrots. Two Web sites – www.rareseeds.com and www.seedsofchange.com – provide an excellent introduction to the diversity of vegetable seeds now available to the backyard gardener.
A principal reason for the failure of novice vegetable growers is that they try to do too much. Someone who has never grown vegetables should probably not plow up his entire estate for the purpose of cultivating tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers and corn. Start with a single bed that might be 10 feet long by 3 feet wide. Dig up the soil and amend it with compost suitable for vegetable growing, many brands of which are available at any nursery or home improvement center. Add fertilizer – again, there are types specially formulated for vegetable growing – prior to planting.
Another common mistake of inexperienced growers is to locate their vegetable plots in locations that receive insufficient light. If you live in an older neighborhood with mature backyard trees, you may not be able to grow vegetables, except in the front of your house or, if in back, in containers on a sunny patio or deck. The deeper you venture into the yard, the closer you come to tall trees and hedges that steal the light from anything growing nearby.
Vegetable gardens must have most of the day’s sun shining directly upon them. Otherwise, you might be able to grow root and leaf crops – such as radishes and lettuce – but little else.
TIP OF THE WEEK: Vegetable beds should be no more than 3 feet wide, since once they are planted, you do not want to step in them. All weeding, watering and harvesting should be done without walking in the bed, since such foot traffic will compact the soil and impede the growth of your crops.

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