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Starting your Vegetable Garden, with lots of Q&As

Carol Allen

In late January Carol Allen talked to Behnke customers about how to get their vegetable garden ready for the new season.  Carol’s an “honest-to-God horticulturist,” in her words, and avid organic vegetable gardener.

First she reminded us why it’s so great to grow our own food (freshness, control over inputs, cheaper than Whole Foods, soul-deep satisfaction, etc.) and said this is the perfect time to plan and start this year’s veg garden.

She handed out this chart from the University of Maryland, which lists first dates for planting outside for each vegetable.  Then counting back the number of weeks it takes to germinate, February is the time to to start broccoli, leeks, onions, parsley, and cabbage seeds indoors.   Consult the seed packets for each plant you grow for the number of weeks ahead of time to start the seeds indoors.

Seed-Starting Indoors

Start with a top-notch seed-starting medium, not just any potting soil.  The ones for seed-starting are more finely milled.  Carol’s favorite?  “I’m a Pro-Mix babe.”  Okay!  And always, always use fresh soil – if the soil has been used before, it’s too compacted, and has lost its porosity.  (If you have left-over potting soil in a bag, that’s fine because it hasn’t been compacted by watering).

Seeds can be started in any number of containers – 4? pots if they’re large seeds that grow quickly, like beans.  Free containers like plastic carry-out containers work great, as do Solo cups and the seed-starting flats available at your friendly garden center.

But wait – if you’re re-using pots, it’s really important that they be clean, and putting them in the dishwasher is not good enough.  First, to remove that salty crust, scrub them with white vinegar.  Then to remove disease organisms, soak them overnight (at least 4 hours) in a solution of 10 percent Clorox.  Do this for both plastic and terra cotta pots.

Fill your container with the medium, and sterilize the soil with boiling water to kill surface spores that can (and often do) cause damping off – that horrible collapsing of the whole plant.  Let the soil cool down, and you’re ready to plant.  But resist the urge to pat down the medium!!

If you’re using those little 3×3 inch cells, put two seeds in each cell, then sacrifice the weaker one after they’ve germinated.

Okay, now you’re ready to plant, spacing the seeds according to the seed packet (great info there – read it all!).  Insert labels – tongue depressors work well but there are other types available.  In addition to labeling the actual seeds, Carol keeps track of the date planted and the date it germinates.  The record of your own successes and failures is more valuable than any book.

Now where to place your seeds?  Not necessarily in light – read the packet.  Some seeds, like pansies, germinate better in the dark.  If they do need light, a window is okay IF it receives full sun.  A better technique is to use lights – a fixture that is 48? long equipped with four, 40-watt bulbs.  Start with the light about 4? above the soil but make sure the system allows you to move the light upward as the seedlings grow.

If using lights and when the light fixtures are very close to the seed bed, Carol recommends using a small personal fan to blow over the seeds 24 hours a day. That will insure good air circulation – to avoid that horrible damping off mentioned above.

As to whether or not a plastic cover should be used, there are pluses and minuses.  Unless it’s propped up, the air underneath the cover can get too hot.  But with the cover down, it’ll keep out mice if they’re a threat.

Thinking ahead to April

If you can, prepare the soil in your garden ahead of time. Sometimes the soil is too soggy early in the spring when you want to plant (Carol preps some of her beds in the fall for early planting.)  Just make sure the soil has dried sufficiently before working it.

After the plant-outdoors date (here’s the link again), you’ll need to harden the seedlings off over the course of a week.  That means putting them outside in the shade on a balmy day, then gradually giving them more sun until they’re ready for their full-sun spot in the ground.

When you remove the seedling from its container to plant it out, spread the bottom of the root ball to give its roots maximum exposure to the soil.  And now’s the time to install cutworm collars and floating row covers, if needed.

Q&A Time

  • After Carol called corn a “space hog” a questioner asked – even planted in the traditional Three Sisters?  Yep, those three sisters need to be widely space so you can get to your harvest.
  • What to do if you don’t have full sun?  With a half day of sun you can grow greens in succession.
  • And speaking of full sun, how is that defined?  “Horizon to horizon.”  If you have less than that you can still grow sun-loving crops but the yields will be lower and they’re be more vulnerable to disease.  So use your best sun wherever you have it – in containers on the roof or in a driveway.  “Hubby’s BMW goes on the street!”
  • Is it okay to use the rest of the seeds in a packet at a later time? Yes if you fold and tape it, seal in a clean mason jar and store it in a dark, cool place.  Brassicas and tomato seeds last for years.  Just make sure they’re safe from mold, heat, and moisture.  Here’s how to tell if your old seeds are still viable:  Place 10 seeds between moistened paper towels, roll up the towel and place it in a plastic bag. Put the bag on top of the refrigerator or other warm location and check after 5-7 days to see what percentage has germinated. Discard seed lots with less than 75% germination.
  • How about those upside-down tomato towers?  They’re a “cute novelty” but a waste of money, producing disappointing results.  No “pluses and minuses” on that one!
  • In preparing your beds, add compost or Leafgro – Carol does every time she turns her soil.
  • Is it okay to use fireplace ashes in the garden? Nope.

Disease Q&A

  • A participant with cucumbers that don’t produce confessed that they’re growing in the same place every year.   “Bad, bad child!  Rotate your crops!!”  Seems that powdery mildew has been a common problem with cucumbers in the last couple of years, and rotating crops is an important way to avoid many diseases.
  • More ways to prevent powdery mildew?  Buy mildew-resistant plants, give them full sun and good air circulation, or spray for it.  Organic gardeners can use horticultural oil or a mix of baking soda in water but the spraying must be done before problems occur (think of it like applying sunscreen).  The preventive spraying needs to start by May 1 and be repeated every week to 10 days, and it’s worth doing if you’ve had problems with that plant in the past.
  • To prevent tomato blight, rotate crops and mulch well because the disease spreads through rain splash.  The spores have been known to ricochet as high as 6? up from the ground.  Carol’s favorite mulch is straw, 3-4 inches of it.


Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

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