Seed Basics for Beginners

a guide to when and where to start your vegetables, herbs and flowers

There’s nothing like watching seeds sprout to excite even the most seasoned gardener. Each spring, you should start with seeds suitable for early spring planting. If you're really ambitious, you can also start some of your plants indoors. Seeds for frost-sensitive, tender vegetables and herbs should be started a little later. Around here, you'll need to wait to plant those until the Frost Free Date - that’s generally May 10th, unless the weather proves to be even wackier than it has been the last two seasons.

If you’re a beginning gardener, it’s helpful to think about what you’ll plant based on when & how is best to plant each vegetable, herb, or flower. The two big questions to ask are: Is this plant cold tolerant (or “cold hardy”)? and Will I plant the seeds directly into my garden or start them inside first and then transplant them out later? If you plan your garden out in these groups, it’ll take away a good bit of the guesswork. We’ve listed examples for each group with a sampling of varieties from one of our favorite seed companies - Seed Savers Exchange.

Cold-Hardy, Direct Sow

These are ready to plant outside in the window of time between “as soon as the soil can be worked” and “late spring” (although some of these you can continue to plant all season long for a continuous harvest). Some people get out there religiously on St. Patrick’s Day every year to plant their peas, others wait until the soil has dried out enough to safely run a rototiller through. (To plant as early as possible, be ready for spring with already-constructed raised beds that you’ve amended with compost or manure the fall before.) There are lots of root crops in this category, since they don’t like the disturbance of being transplanted.

Beets - Early Blood Turnip, Chioggia, Burpee’s Golden
Carrots - Scarlet Nantes, Dragon, Paris Market
Flowers - Blue Boy Bachelor’s Buttons, Ladybird Poppy
Herbs - Cilantro
Lettuce - Bunte Forellenschluss, Seed Savers Lettuce Mixture
Peas - Dwarf Gray Sugar (snap), Green Arrow (shell)
Radishes - Watermelon, Philadelphia White Box, French Breakfast
Salad Greens - Arugula, Bloomsdale Spinach, Mizuna

Cold-Hardy, Transplant

These benefit from being started especially early (February or March) in a greenhouse, or really sunny window, or under lights in your basement. Plant them out once their roots have filled out their container and they have at least 2 sets of “true leaves.”

Broccoli - Calabrese
Cabbage - Copenhagen Market
Cauliflower - Early Snowball
Kale - Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch, Lacinato, Red Russian
Swiss Chard - Five Color Silverbeet, Rhubarb Red

Frost-Sensitive, Direct Sow

This group includes lots of the bigger-seeded summer crops: corn, beans, cucumbers, squash, melons. Some people plant these in “hills” (as in “a hill of beans”). Plant them after any chance of frost has passed and the soil temperature has consistently warmed. (Another tip: you can keep an eye out for when the farmers around you are planting corn and soybeans.)

Bean (Snap) - Rattlesnake Snap, Empress, Provider
Bean (Dry) - Ireland Creek Annie, Speckled Cranberry, Lazy Housewife
Bean (Lima) - Christmas
Corn - Blue Jade, Smoke Signals, Two Inch Strawberry
Cucumbers - Japanese Climbing, True Lemon, Poona Kheera
Edamame - Shirofumi
Flowers - Moonflower, Cosmos, Nasturtium
Herbs - Lemon Balm, Borage
Melon - Charentais, Moon & Stars Watermelon, Eden’s Gem
Squash - Waltham Butternut, Black Beauty Zucchini, Musquee de Provence
Sunflowers - Tarahumara, Teddy Bear, Titan

Frost-Sensitive, Transplant

This group includes plants that benefit from being started inside early, long before you’re ever able to plant them outside. In an Ohio climate, this lets you get a jump on crops like tomatoes and peppers that take a long time to mature. You can also start vegetables like cucumbers and squash inside if you want to keep a close eye on their germination.

Basil - Thai, Lime, Genovese, Purple Dark Opal
Flowers - Amish Cockscomb, Strawflower
Peppers (Sweet) - Jimmy Nardello’s, Marconi Red, Orange Bell, Sweet Chocolate
Peppers (Hot) - Thai Hot, Jalapeno
Tomatoes - Black Cherry, Red Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Brandywine, Rose, Aunt Ruby’s German Green