If you're new to gardening, this guide may help you get started on the right path to a successful backyard heirloom vegetable garden. Planting time for vegetable seeds depends on the average date of the last frost in an area. The best place to find frost/freeze dates for your area is at almanac.com. You can search for your area by state or zip code.
When starting seeds indoors, use a soil-less commercial seed starting mix. Some growers use potting soil mixed with an equal amount of vermiculite or perlite and peat moss. If you use potting soil, we suggest sterilizing it first by heating to a temperature of 180° F for 30 minutes.
Seeds can be started in almost any container that will hold a a couple inches of starting mix, and has holes in the bottom to allow drainage. We use a lot of yogurt cups with holes drilled in the bottom. They are free (after you purchase the yogurt of course) and it is a good way to recycle. Seed starting trays are available as well. Soil mixture should be damp, but not wet. After sowing the seeds at the correct depth (usually 4x the seed size), cover the container to retain moisture and place in a warm area. If you don't want to buy the fancy domes for the seed starting trays, plastic cling wrap works well.
Optimum soil temperature for germination for most vegetables is about 70°-75° F. The top of the refrigerator or water heater works well for seed germination if you are starting just a few plants. Remove the covers as soon as the seeds germinate and move the containers to a sunny window or grow under florescent lights. Most vegetable seedlings need 6-8 hours of light per day. If using florescent grow lights, make sure plants are within a few inches of the light source 12-14 hours per day. It is said that most people are 5 times more likely to over water than under water. Let the top of the soil dry between waterings.
All seedlings must be “hardened off” before transplanting into the garden to reduce the shock of the new outdoor environment. Hardening off seedlings will take 7 – 14 days. Start by lowering the level of watering, but don’t let the plants dry out. Place the seedlings in a somewhat protected outdoor area for an hour or so for the first day. Each day increase the amount of time outdoors by an hour or so. Watch for signs of scorching or wilting.
Below is a starting guide for some of the more popular vegetable varieties. Tomato
- Start tomato seeds about 6-8 weeks before the last frost. Plant seeds no more than 1/4 inch deep. Seeds can be started in individual cups or cells, but we have stronger plants when we germinate many seeds in a larger tray, then transplant into individual containers after plants develop first true leaves and are 2-3 inches tall. Germination will be 5-8 days at 70°. Fertilize with a very weak solution of fish fertilizer (about 1/4 strength) or other liquid fertilizer after plants reach about 3 weeks. Let the top of the soil dry out between waterings. Transplant outdoors after danger of frost is past. Even a light frost will harm tomato seedlings.Peppers
- Start pepper seeds about 8 weeks before the last frost. Plant seeds in individual containers (cells) no more than 1/4 inch deep. Fertilize with a 1/4 to 1/2 strength solution of fish fertilizer or other liquid fertilizer after plants reach about 3 weeks. The soil should be kept moist, but don’t over water. Avoid high nitrogen fertilizer on pepper plants. The higher nitrogen tends to make big bushy plants, but fewer peppers. Transplant outdoors 18-24 inches apart, in rows 24-36 inches apart after danger of frost is past.Broccoli
- Start spring crops in individual pots 6 to 8 weeks before the last expected frost date. Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep in individual pots. Keep the soil moist, but not wet. The seed should germinate in 10 days at 70°F. Transplant the seedlings into the garden when they are about 6 inches tall, with two to four leaves, not earlier than 2-3 weeks before the last frost. The optimal garden growing temperature is 50° to 60°F. Broccoli grows best in cool, moist conditions. Broccoli will be ready for harvest 50-60 days after transplanting to the garden. Direct seed fall crops in midsummer. Radish
- Radish grows best in the spring and autumn and will tolerate light frosts. It requires full to partial sun, ample water and rich, fast draining soil. Loosen soil to a depth of 8 inches and work in compost to keep soil from compacting. High temperatures and drought make this vegetable tough, strong tasting and prone to insect pest problems. Sow seeds in the garden, 1/4-1/2 inch deep, as soon as you can work the soil. Space rows 12-18 inches apart, planting eight to ten seeds per foot. Thin to one plant every 2 inches. Pull radishes when they are of usable size, usually when they reach up to 1 inch in diameter, and relatively young. Check often, as radishes can turn from tasty to pithy and spongy in a short period of time. Spring radishes mature in 3-5 weeks.Cabbage
- Cabbage is a cool-weather crop that can be grown in spring or fall. Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep and 2 inches apart in cell packs or flats, about 5-7 weeks before the last expected frost date. Seed will germinate in 10 to 14 days at 70°F. About 2-3 weeks before the last frost when seedlings have three leaves and daytime temperatures reach 50°F, transplant cabbage outdoors. Set transplants slightly deeper than they grew indoors. Cabbage grows best in temperatures between 50° and 60°F and will be ready for harvest 40-90 days after transplanting to the garden. Mid- and late-season varieties can be either direct-seeded in midsummer or started indoors.Cauliflower
- Cauliflower is a cool-weather crop that can be grown in spring or fall. Sow seeds 1/4 - 1/2 inch deep and 2 inches apart in cell packs or flats or in individual pots. Sow cauliflower indoors 8 to 10 weeks before the last frost. Seed will germinate in 10-14 days at 70° to 75°F. Seedlings can be transplanted into the garden about 2-3 weeks before the last frost. Cauliflower grows best in temperatures between 50° and 60°F and will be ready for harvest 45-70 days. A second crop can be sown directly into the garden 12-14 weeks before the first fall frost.Summer Squash/Zucchini
- Summer squash can be grown by starting seeds directly in your garden after danger of frost has passed and soil temperatures are above 60° F. For earlier crops, seeds can be started indoors 3-4 weeks before the last frost date. Squash are susceptible to root damage, so care should be taken to avoid disturbing roots during transplanting. Seeds should be planted 1/2 -1 inch deep in rich moist soil, or a seed starting mix if starting indoors. Fertilize with a very week solution of fish fertilizer (about 1/4 strength) or other liquid fertilizer after plants reach about 2 weeks. Let the top of the soil dry out between waterings. Space plants 3-4 feet apart in rows 4-5 feet apart. The use of black plastic or mulch can help retain moisture and keep down weeds and insects.Cucumber
- Cucumbers are usually started by planting seeds directly in the garden after the danger of frost has passed, but may be started indoors to obtain an earlier crop. Germination times run from 13 days at 60° F to 4 days at 77° F. Cucumbers thrive in warm summer weather with ample soil moisture. A second planting in mid to late summer can provide a fall harvest. Use a very week solution of fish fertilizer (about 1/4 strength) or other liquid fertilizer after plants reach about 3 weeks. Let the top of the soil dry out between waterings. Transplant outdoors after danger of frost is past 1 to 2 feet apart in rows 5 to 6 feet apart when they have two to four true leaves. Cucumbers are susceptible to root damage during transplant. Do not allow transplants to get too large in containers or they will not transplant well. Melons & Cantaloupe
- Melons, including watermelon, cantaloupe, and honeydew can be planted directly in the garden once the soil warms to 70° F, or started indoors 2-4 weeks before the date of last frost then transplanted outdoors 2 weeks after last frost. Sow seeds 1/2” deep in moist soil. Melons are susceptible to root damage during transplant. Bio-degradable pots such as peat pots can help reduce the risk of root damage. Peat pots can act like a wick and dry the roots of transplants if not planted completely beneath the soil. Plants should be spaced 4-8 feet apart and rows spaced 6-10 feet apart depending upon size of melon. The use of black plastic mulch can help warm soil earlier and retain/control moisture.Onions
- Sow onion seeds in cells or flats about 8-10 weeks before the last expected frost. Sow seed 1/4” inch deep, about four seeds per inch. Seed will germinate in 10-14 days at 70°F. Transplant seedlings into garden from as early as 4 weeks before last frost into mid-spring. Onions prefer a growing on temperature of 60°F or warmer. If seedlings get too tall and spindly before transplanting, cut them back a couple of inches to encourage them to become more stocky. Long day onions are best suited for northern climates, while short day varieties grow best in the south. Onions can be harvested in 45-90 days as green, while bulb onions mature in 90-300 days depending upon the variety.Beets
– Beets require rich soil that is loose and drains well. Seeds should be direct sown in the garden after frost danger has passed, and every three to four weeks until mid-spring. Plant seeds 1/2 - 1” deep spaced 3-4 inches between plants. Beets need adequate water as they will not form well in soil that becomes compact and dry. Keep weeds to a minimum. Use low nitrogen fertilizer after plants reach 2-3 inches. Both the roots and the greens can be eaten. Harvest in 55-65 days.Greens
- Plant 2-3 weeks before the last average frost date and again 2-3 weeks later. Greens can be planted in mid to late summer for a fall harvest. Fall plantings are usually of higher quality because they mature under cooler conditions in most locations. Sow seeds 1/4 to 1/2 inch deep and thin seedlings to 3 to 5 inches apart. Harvest in 40-60 days for most varieties. Okra
– Okra is a warm weather plant that grows best in rich well drained soil. Okra requires about 1 inch of water per week for optimum yield. Direct sow seeds in your garden 1/2 - 3/4 “ deep after the soil warms to over 60° F. Seeds should be soaked in water overnight before sowing to help germination. Sow or thin to a plant spacing of 12-18 inches in rows spaced 2-3 feet apart. Harvest okra when pods are 3-4 inches long and still tender. Celery
- Whether starting seeds indoors or direct sowing in the garden, presoak seeds overnight to speed germination. If starting indoors, sow seeds in small pots or flats. Transplant into individual containers when they are 2 - 3 inches tall. Transplant outdoors 8 to 10 inches apart in rows 2-3 feet apart 1-2 weeks after your last spring frost date. If direct seeding outdoors, sow seeds in the garden at a depth of 1/8 inch in rows 30 to 36 inches apart after soil temperature reaches 60 degrees F. Thin seedlings to 8-12 inches. Harvest when still growing and stalks are tender. Harvest in 120 days.Carrots
– Carrots, like other root crops, grow best in deep, loose, well-drained, low-acid soil. Sow seeds 3/8 inches deep directly outdoors one to two weeks after last spring frost date in rows spaced 12-18 inches apart. Soil should be above 50°F. Seedlings should be thinned to 2-4 inches. Harvest in 65-85 days.
Brussels Sprouts – Brussels Sprouts are a slow growing vegetable closely related to cabbage. Seeds should be started indoors 6-8 weeks before the last frost date in your area, then transplanted into the garden two weeks after the last frost date. Sow seeds 1/4 inch deep in flats or trays and transplant into individual containers after seedlings reach 2-3 inches tall. Transplant outdoors 24-30 inches apart in rows 30-36 inches apart. Harvest while heads (sprouts) are still firm. If harvested too late, heads will “blow” loosen up and the flavor will be bitter and weak. Harvest in 90-100 days. Spinach
– Spinach is a fast-growing cool weather vegetable. During warm summer months, it tends to bolt (go to seed) quickly as well. Spinach is also a heavy feeder. A high nitrogen fertilizer will help plants produce dark, bushy leaves. If you prefer organic fertilizers, fish emulsion and soy meal work well. Start seeds outdoors as soon as soil can be worked. Sow every 2 weeks until weather warms and resume sowing in late summer. Plants should be spaced at 6-8 inches in rows spaced 12-16 inches. Harvest in 45 days or when leaves reach suitable size.Lettuce
- Lettuce is a cool weather crop and should be planted about 2-3 weeks before the expected date of the last frost in your area. Lettuce grows best in temperatures between 40-60°F and tends to bolt (go to seed) in temperatures of 90° F or higher. Successive plant every 2-3 weeks thru late spring and during early fall to extend lettuce season. Plant lettuce in partial shade in warmer areas. Sow lettuce seeds thinly outdoors about 1/8”-1/4” deep. Thin plants to 4-6 inches when they reach 1-2 inches tall. Head lettuce grows better from transplants than direct seeding and should be spaced 8-12” apart. Leaf lettuce is easier to grow than head lettuce, especially in warm areas and is suitable for container gardens. Fast growth in cool areas keeps lettuce sweet and tender. Harvest outer leaves of leaf lettuce or cut entire plant 1” above the ground for romaine and head lettuce.Collards
- Collards are a cool weather crop that can tolerate temperatures into the lower 20’s. Collards are also more heat tolerant than most other cole crops. For spring crop - Start collards inside about 8 weeks before the last frost, and transplant when about 6 weeks old at 12-16 inches apart in rows 18-24 inches apart. For fall crop - Direct seed about three months before expected fall frost. Plant seeds 1/4-1/2 inch deep 1 inch apart in rows 18 to 30 inches apart. Thin seedlings when they reach 2-3 inches tall. Harvest when leaves reach 6-10 inches long.
We hope this guide has been informative and helpful. No advice can be a replacement for experience. You may use somewhat different methods than those described above and achieve good results. The most important thing about gardening is for you to plant the things that you enjoy and ones that will grow in the area where you live. Have fun experimenting with new varieties and growing methods. Make notes as to what varieties and methods perform best. If, or I should say when you have a bad growing experience, don't give up. Learn what you can from the loss and give it another go. There really is no more satisfying feeling than harvesting fruits, vegetables, and herbs fresh from your very own own garden.
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