March is one of my favorite—and busiest—months of the year. As the air begins to warm with spring, I start dreaming about growing tomatoes, eggplants, squash, basil, and all the other yummy summer vegetables.
March is the best time to start summer vegetable seeds in our region. Get them going now and those seedlings will be ready to transplant in six weeks. I know many anxious gardeners want to start seeds sooner, but that’s not a good idea. The soil is too cold and the days too short until mid-April at the earliest. If you plant before then, the seedlings will sit and sulk, waiting for warmer times. And while they wait, they are susceptible to critters, mildew, fungus, and other maladies.
So I’ve learned to take a deep breath and wait until March, which gives me plenty of time to plan and marvel at the whole process of growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers from seed. And it gives me time to teach in-person, hands-on seed-starting workshops across San Diego County. This year, of course, that won’t happen, so I’ve put the workshop online so it is available on demand. Visit waterwisegardener.com to register.
Whether in person or online, you’ll see how miraculous seeds are. They look like little pieces of dead wood, hardly big enough to see in some cases. But set them on soil, add water, keep them at the right temperature, and in just a few months, they grow into enormous plants that, in turn, feed us.
Start from seed to witness the entire process from beginning to end. Starting from seed also offers many more options for trying new varieties or finding old favorites that you won’t find as seedlings in the nursery. You can swap seeds with friends, pass them down through generations, and save your favorites to be sure to enjoy them one year to the next.
While I’ve been starting seeds for decades, the pandemic has brought many new gardeners into the world of seed starting. Some are curious to see the process. Some are looking for a connection to nature and the outdoors. Some want an activity to do with children. Many new gardeners are looking to feed themselves and their families, and to have a safe, reliable source of fresh fruits, herbs, and vegetables.
This sudden surge in starting seeds has made for big challenges in the seed industry. Last year, companies that sell seeds to home gardeners struggled to keep up with the unexpected demand. According to my friend Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee’s Garden Seeds near Santa Cruz, seed companies project the number of packets they expect to sell each year based on the previous year’s sales. But in 2020, the packets they produced to last through June sold out in April, which put a huge stress on the supply chain. Most companies had enough seeds, but they ran out of printed envelopes and other critical supplies for fulfilling orders.
This year, those companies planned to meet the larger demand, but even so, some wholesale suppliers (not the retailers that you and I buy from) were running low by January. Fortunately, I have plenty of seeds on hand, including my three top favorite tomatoes: Nova, a golden grape tomato; Valentine, a brilliant red oversized grape tomato; and a new one called Apple Yellow. Every year, I test new varieties for the National Garden Bureau. They send seeds scheduled to come to market in a few years, and last year, Apple Yellow was among them. I was really impressed. The plants grew huge but not out of control. The fruits formed early and kept going longer than any other of the 16 varieties of tomatoes I grew. The fruits themselves were bright yellow and the same size as a grape tomato, but with square “shoulders” much like an apple. And they were delicious!
Fortunately, I have enough Apple Yellow tomato seeds for this year. By next year, I’m hoping the seeds will be readily available so I can include them in my seed-starting workshops.
Let me show you how to start vegetables from seed. Sign up at waterwisegardener.com for my online seed-starting workshop, and you’ll learn all my tips and tricks for growing the summer yummies you and your family love to eat.
If you’d like to see how vegetable seeds are bred, tested, selected, produced, and brought to market, check out the Season 5 episode of A Growing Passion called “The Story of Seeds: From Breeding to Eating.” And stay tuned for A Growing Passion’s Season 8 episode, “Pandemic Pivot,” premiering on KPBS (San Diego) in April 2021. We explore how the pandemic has affected our farming and horticulture communities, and feature San Diego’s only local seed producer, San Diego Seed Company. All episodes of A Growing Passion can be viewed online anytime after their television debut at www.agrowingpassion.com.