Spring Vegetable Garden

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Champaign, IL (WCIA)

Starting Seeds for the Vegetable Garden

Consider the unique, unmatched taste of the first home-grown tomato of the year.  That is truly something that money cannot buy and also something that I often think about this time of year as I start the seeds that will hopefully yield many pounds of fresh, ripe fruits later in the season.

There are many advantages to starting your own seeds each year, but gardeners often have quite a few questions on the subject, especially if they are new to the process.  I encourage anyone that is interested to dive in, as this form of indoor cultivation can be a motivating activity when snow is afoot and few outdoor gardening activities are timely.  In addition, starting your own seeds offers a few advantages since you set the timing of plant availability as opposed to relying on retail outlets for seedlings and you’re not limited to what seedlings are at the garden center.

One of the main questions I receive lies in the timing of seed starting.  To figure this out, begin by counting back from our local frost-free date.  Seed packets often relay the timing in reference to the frost free dates, with language such “start indoors 4-6 weeks before the frost-free date”.  For most of central Illinois the frost free date is between April 15 and May 1st each year.

Next you need to consider the relative cold-hardiness of each crop.  In some cases, such as spinach, kale or broccoli, plants are quite cold hardy and can be set outside prior to the frost-free date.  Whereas my old favorites, such as tomatoes and peppers, have little cold hardiness and must wait until well after the risk of frost before planting outdoors.  For tomatoes in particular, nighttime temperatures need to stay above 45⁰F, which typically doesn’t occur until mid or late May.

Some of the decision on when to start seeds also lies in determining the size of plant desirable by our frost free date.  A good friend of mine has the goal of having one of the first fresh tomatoes in the southern Illinois area each year.  I am sure he has already started seeds in his greenhouse.  After re-potting to larger sized pots several times in the coming months, he will have 2ft tall plants that are nearly flowering by May 1st and will yield ripe tomatoes by early June.

For those of us that are not overachievers and don’t have a green house, small-scale grow lights are typically the cheapest and easiest way to start seeds.  I usually plan to have plants that are just big enough to move outside at the appropriate time.  By doing this, I have limited the time needed to nurse them along indoors while using my limited growing space efficiently. 

Over the years, I have had some of the best luck starting tomatoes and peppers.  In addition, there is a huge number of varieties available in seed that you will never find at the garden center as seedlings.  If you are interested in staring some of your own this year, there is still time.  Mid-March is just the right timing to start seeds that will be ready for the outdoors around mid-May.  So, take the next month to do some research and get some seeds growing.  Nothing increases the invaluable worth of a home-grown tomato more than starting them from scratch.

If you are interested in learning more about starting seeds indoors, or other aspects of home vegetable gardening, the University of Illinois Extension has an Illinois-specific guide available at: https://go.illinois.edu/vegetablegardening

Nothing beats the taste of a fresh, home-grown tomato.  Consider starting your own seeds this year so you can be one of the first to enjoy this seasonal delicacy.

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