Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide

This Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide will help you with all the planning you need to do in the coming weeks to get your garden off the ground. Here’s a quick run-down of what you’ll need to get your Spring garden going this year! 

  1. Know your last frost date. This dictates how much time you have left before you need to really get things going. You can find it by putting in your zip code here. The date the calculator spits out  is the average range of the last frost in your area (+/- 2 weeks). That’s a month long window, so it’s really an estimate. 

You can plant up to two weeks earlier than the official date, BUT you’ll need to watch the nighttime temperatures like a hawk. If it dips to below 32F, you’ll need to get ready to cover any tender seedlings. Some years you win the gamble of planting early, and sometimes you end up like Linus, covering your plants every night for three weeks. It’s up to you how much effort you want to put into it.

Linus covering Christmas Tree

2. Decide how you’ll start your plants. If you haven’t made your decision yet, check out last week’s post about the pros & cons of transplants vs. direct sowing vs. indoor seed-starting

Here’s my honest opinion on the matter:

IT IS OKAY to buy transplants from a local nursery. You can buy nursery plants and STILL GET THE SAME DELICIOUS PRODUCE! You are not a “lesser” gardener for buying transplants. Anyone who judges you for going with transplants over seeds is probably a little full of themselves and not someone you want to be taking gardening advice from anyway.

Want more of a challenge than buying transplants? Do you like to live dangerously? Well, danger is my middle name. If you’re really sold on seed starting, then I HIGHLY recommend direct sowing.

Austin Powers: Danger is My Middle Name

3. Make a plan for what you want to plant and where it’s going to go. 

Consider these three things:

SPACE: How much space do you have? Will you be planting in containers? A garden bed? Make a paper chart (or spreadsheet you can print) of where everything will go. And make sure it’s to scale. Take into account plant spacings using the Square Foot Gardening method (post coming in the next few weeks!) and/or underplanting for getting the most out of your space. Ignore traditional row spacings on seed packets unless you’re a farmer. 

SELECTION: Every gardening website in the history of the world will tell you “plant what your family eats”. I didn’t take this advice for the first six years I gardened, because I wanted to see what I could grow, how plants in different families grow, and maybe because I thought deep down that I would enjoy eating Malabar Spinach (reality: slimy, gross texture) and Nasturtium (reality: smells like wet dog). I was wrong. Look at what your family eats regularly and plant that. Think about things you get at the grocery store every week (or at least every week in the summertime). Eighty percent of your space should be dedicated to those things. For our family, those are things like potatoes, onions, carrots, tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, peppers, and lettuce. Not Nasturtium (though this makes a great companion plant!).

FUN FACTOR: Growing plants is also about learning and having fun, so I recommend getting 2-3 plants that will bring you joy or be a challenge to grow. WARNING: DO NOT experiment with things like PUMPKIN, MELONS, GOURDS, or WINTER SQUASH. They require a huge amount of space, so unless you’re trellising them over a massive arch or have a patch of grass you really want to kill, don’t do it. 

4. If you’re sowing seed, order seed catalogs/peruse seed websites NOW. Most companies send them for free, though Baker Creek has a coffee-table like book you can also buy for $14 if you just want to drool over some botanical eye candy. You can also peruse their websites if you don’t want the clutter/temptation of seed catalogs in your house. My favorites are: – Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds & Seed Saver’s Exchange

**Special Note for 2021: There may be issues with seed shortages due to a boom in COVID gardening. You may have to get creative here… see step #6.

5. DO NOT PLANT ANYTHING OUTDOORS RIGHT NOW. Let me remind you that it is February, and unless you live in Zones 9 or 10 (think FL/south GA), we’ll be going through some menopausal weather from now until mid-April (at least here in NC). If you try to plant now, your seedlings will get tricked into thinking it’s Spring about eight times between now and then, it will freeze and those poor little babies will bite the dust. Control yourself! Spring is coming but it’s not here yet.

Winter is coming... no wait, warm again. Ok it's cold, winter is coming... nope, warm again.

6. Buy/source your seeds or transplants. ONLY do this once you’ve planned out your space. Get your order in as early as possible for seeds (February or early March at the latest). Have a back-up plan in case something you want is sold out. Share or swap seeds with a friend or neighbor to keep costs down. Many public libraries also have “seed libraries” where you can give/take seeds for free!

Example of a Seed Library: https://www.blounttn.org/1464/Seed-Library

7. Prep the planting area. Have you made your planting beds yet? If not, now’s the time. If you did step #3, you should know how big to make your beds or how many containers to source/buy. If you’re doing raised beds, get yourself a load of certified organic compost (make sure it’s certified, meaning they test for heavy metals & persistent herbicides!) from a local landscaping company (they’ll deliver by the truckload for cheap compared to getting bags) and spread it over your planting area (at least ⅛ in thick, but more is better). For my garden (2- 4’x4’ and 2- 3’x4’ raised beds, plus 4’ wide beds around most of the perimeter of my house), I get 5 cubic yards (the minimum the landscape company will deliver, since I don’t have a truck to pick it up myself). It costs ~$180. It’s a huge pile of compost, so I end up laying it on thick. It takes 2-3 full afternoons to wheelbarrow and spread it by myself, but it’s worth it – I rarely fertilize my plants because the compost does such a great job providing nutrients. A good mix for raised beds is 1/3 compost, 1/3 coconut coir/peat moss, and 1/3 vermiculite/perlite. You can get a few bags of the coir/peat moss and vermiculite/perlite at Home Depot or Lowes.

Compost delivery

This is what 5 cubic yards of compost looks like.

8. When it’s time to plant, water the planting area BEFORE you direct sow OR after planting if using transplants. Why? Because tiny seeds will get washed away by a stream of water from a hose, whereas transplants need to “settle” into the soil by being watered in. Better yet, plant right before/after it rains and you can skip watering entirely! Note that for transplants, you’ll need to harden them off (acclimate them to being outside for gradually longer periods each day for about a week) before planting.

9. Plant your seeds/transplants. Bring a written diagram/chart outside with you so you know where everything goes. If you need to make adjustments when planting, write down your changes on that paper so you know what got planted where. Then, take a picture of it because YOU WILL LOSE THAT PAPER. You can also label with plant tags, but the diagram should be the source of truth. Seedlings all look VERY similar. A diagram helps you know what’s a weed and what’s something you planted when things start popping up! Pay attention to the proper plant spacing as outlined in the Square Foot Gardening Method or for underplanting. Seeds should be planted twice as deep as they are wide. A 1 cm seed would be planted 2 cm deep. 

Planting chart

My planting chart from last year with some edits.

10. Keep an eye on seedlings until they are established. This means not allowing them to dry out, protecting them from potential frosts, and shielding them from critters like birds, rodents, and insect pests that enjoy munching on the fresh new growth.

That’s it! Now go order some seed catalogs and curl up with a mug of hot chocolate. Enjoy this time of preparation and rest before the mad rush of planting in a few short weeks!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: Kingdom First

Next Wednesday: All About Seeds! Choosing Varieties and Deciphering Seed Packets

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Where to Start? Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting

Spring is just around the corner! It’s hard to believe, but in just a few short weeks, it will be planting time. Have you thought about how you plan to start your garden this year? Here are some tips for choosing between Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting, including a run-down of the pros and cons for each option, with a handy flow chart to help you make your decision.

 

Nursery Transplants

Pros: 

    • Least amount of work. The nursery has done the hard work for you! You don’t have to deal with planting schedules, germination fails, and plants keeling over/getting leggy because they don’t have sufficient lighting (no, putting your plants in a windowsill is NOT enough light for baby seedlings… you need a fluorescent or special spectrum LED light to mimic the sun – I’ve learned this the hard way in growing the world’s floppiest tomatoes)
    • No waste! Did you really need 45 lettuce seedlings? That’s what you’re going to have when you sow indoors (lettuce seeds are TINY, betcha can’t plant just one!). Have you thought about how they will fit once they are full-size? At proper spacing (4 per foot in the Square Foot Gardening method), you’d need 11 square feet (close to three-quarters of a 4×4 ft bed) to plant all those lettuces. And I’m guessing you probably wanted to eat more than just lettuce this year. Plus, if you’re like me, you hear Sarah McLachlan’s “In the Arms of the Angels” every time you have to cull a perfectly good seedling because there is no room in the inn.

I have to make fun of it': Sarah McLachlan on the intense power of Angel, the unofficial song of sorrow | CBC Radio

    • Simple transplanting. Pop them out of their containers, dig a hole in the ground, and pop them in. Voila! You have plants!
    • Supporting a local business. After last year, we should all be supporting these entrepreneurs as much as possible. PREACH.

Cons:

    • Fewer variety options. You probably can’t get that super specific Russian tomato that you’ve been eyeing in the seed catalogs at the nursery. BUT the nursery will have at least 12 other varieties you can try that probably aren’t all that different. 
    • Slightly higher cost than seeds. But realistically people, it’s less than a latte. If you’re really nickel and diming it, get seed packets, but keep in mind that 4- or 6-packs of veggies or herbs at the nursery are usually only a couple bucks. Your sanity and time ARE worth something. Better yet, split that cost with a neighbor who only wants 1 or 2 plants. Now you have a neighbor with the same plants in case your plants fail. And you get to know your neighbor. Win-win.
    • Transplant shock is possible. You need to acclimate your nursery plants to their new home by leaving them outside for gradually longer amounts of time each day (over the course of about a week). If planted out immediately into new surroundings without this acclimatization, Your plants might not survive. 

 

Direct Sowing

Pros:

    • Strong plants. Plenty of sunlight and wind ensure your plants don’t end up leggy and weak.
    • No transplant shock because there is no transplanting! This happens if you don’t acclimate your plants to their final planting location (usually nursery plants need to be set outside for progressively longer periods each day for about a week before you intend to plant)
    • Low cost & low waste. You don’t have to buy potting soil or seed-starting mix.
    • Wide variety of seeds available
    • Some varieties must be direct sown to avoid root damage that would occur if transplanted. These include root vegetables like beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips, and radishes. Other types of plants that don’t transplant well are beans, peas, squashes, cucumbers, melons, and corn. 

Cons:

    • Some babysitting required. You need to keep on top of watering so seedlings don’t dry out.
    • Uneven spacing in your beds is a thing. You aren’t going to have Martha Stewart picture perfect photo spreads of your garden. It’s going to look a little higgledy-piggledy. 
    • Thinning required. You have to pull/snip baby plants that are too close together. Cue the sad violin. (OR look at the bright side and enjoy some homegrown microgreens!)
    • Not appropriate for slow growers. Look at the “days to maturity” on your seed pack. If it’s longer than your growing season is (days between your average last and first frost dates), then you’ll need to start with transplants or by starting indoors.

 

Indoor Seed Starting

Pros

  • Wide variety of seeds available. You can grow any variety you want! As long as you can source the seed packet, you can make it happen
  • You have complete control over the growing process
  • Satisfaction/bragging rights of having grown your own plants from seed to harvest
  • You can observe and learn a lot about plant growth – nutrient needs, wind
  • Get a head start on plant growth (can start plants inside when it’s too cold to start them outdoors) – earlier harvests, potentially more rounds of succession planting

Cons

  • Requires expensive equipment to do it right, including seedling heat mats, domed trays or soil blockers, fans, LED/fluorescent lights, bakers racks, plus the actual seeds. This is easily a few hundred dollars in start-up costs. This method won’t pay for itself unless you’re using it for many, many growing seasons or planning to sell your seedlings
  • Wastes a lot of potting soil/seed starting mix. I see this as an unnecessary extra expense.
  • Plants must be hardened off before transplanting into the garden. This means acclimatizing seedlings like you would transplants from a nursery (gradually more time outdoors each day over the course of a week).
  • Dampening off / other fungal infections more likely indoors.
  • It’s a much bigger time commitment than transplanting or direct sowing. With great power comes great responsibility – you will be babysitting these plants, tending to water, heat, and light until it’s time to plant out. 

Here’s a summary of the points above:Plant Starting Pros & Cons Chart

Still not sure what to do? Use this decision guide!

Plant Starting Decision Guide

What are your thoughts on choosing between Nursery Transplants vs Direct Sowing vs Indoor Seed Starting? Are there criteria I missed that you think should be included in deciding? What did you decide? Let me know in the comments below!

 

Coming up:

Sunday: How to Achieve Your Goals This Year + My Goals for 2021

Next Wednesday: Step-by-Step Planting Preparation Guide

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