It is perfectly natural for gardeners to feel an itch to plant as spring is coming on, even with many weeks of winter still ahead. The soil in my garden will probably stay frozen until March, but indoors, under lights, things start getting lively in mid-January. After reviewing my garden records for the last seven years, I can report consistent success with five great veggie garden plants when started indoors in midwinter: leaf lettuce, sweet alyssum, bulb onions, seed-sown shallots, and kale. Each plant requires a little special handling, but this is always time well spent.
Please note that tomatoes and other summer vegetables are not on my list of veggies to start very early. There is no point in jumping ahead with warm-natured vegetables, because they will not grow until the soil is warm. Wait until six weeks before your last frost date to start tomato seeds.
It's also crucial to have an indoor grow light if you are to grow vegetable plants indoors in late winter, because most vegetables are full sun plants. Late winter days are so short and cloudy that even the sunniest window will not do. This year we replaced the bulbs and ballasts in our 10-year-old florescent light shelf, and I can already tell that my seedlings are extra happy. After all, plants are basically solar beings that run on light.
Super Early Seed Starting
Back to my list of which seeds to start first:
The first seeds I sow each year are small pinches of leaf lettuce, which I plant in translucent salad containers. Twice-daily sprinklings of cool water keep the seedlings growing fast, with tender greens ready to cut in about four weeks. I cut the greens by holding the containers sideways over a colander, and snipping above the crowns with scissors. When the trimmed lettuce plants are returned to their place under the lights, they quickly start growing new leaves. At this point I begin hardening them off, and transplant them to the garden and grow them under cloches or tunnels until they are harvested or the weather settles, whichever comes first.
To transplant lettuce seedlings that have grown together into a mat, I use a sharp serrated knife to cut the root mass into brownie-size chunks instead of trying to separate out individual plants. This same technique works well with sweet alyssum, a frothy, go-everywhere little flower that tolerates cold and attracts beneficial insects. In late winter, I like to grow a couple of small patches of sweet alyssum "sod" to plug into beds and containers.
Starting Onions and Shallots Early For Bigger Bulbs
Onions started from seed are less likely to bolt compared to sets, and the seedlings are not difficult to grow as long as you're patient. An early start is always beneficial, because the longer onion plants grow before they form bulbs, but bigger and better the onions will be. If you're new to growing onions from seed, my 2010 blog on top ten tips for growing onions from seed will help you nail down the important details.
Little shallot bulbs store for eight months or more, plus I like their small size in the kitchen, when you want just a little onion flavor in a dish. In many climates shallots are grown like garlic, by planting mother bulbs in the fall, but in my climate seed-sown shallots are more reliable producers. I start the seeds in January, along with my bulb onions, and I've noticed that shallot seedlings often stand a little stiffer than bulb onion seedlings, and are generally easier to handle. But then, all onion tribe seedlings – including leeks and scallions -- are tough little soldiers.
Sowing Kale For an Early Summer Crop
Vigorous forms of kale like the 'Red Russian' variety are accepting of an early start and being transplanted into cold soil provided they are protected from wind with a cloche or hoop tunnel. When the soil finally does warm in late spring, the kale explodes with growth and provides copious pickings in May and June.
This list of first seeds to sow should be enough to keep you busy and off the streets, and please stay mindful of the fact that lighted space will soon be in high demand, with cabbage and her cousins in need of lodgings in a few short weeks. This is just a warm-up. The big seed-starting fun is yet to come.
By Barbara Pleasant