February and March are confusing times for the California gardener in any normal year, and this warm winter especially. We start feeling that itch to get outside, and the warm afternoons make it feel just like summer. We’re tempted to jump into the greenhouse and potting shed to start seeds for the summer garden, and we flood the local nurseries looking for transplants.
But wait! Yes, the sun’s high in the sky. And yes, nights have stayed well above freezing. But we’re still far away from our average last frost dates, and the ground in most areas is still pretty cool and damp. Don’t believe the afternoon sun. In most areas, it’s way too early to start planting the summer garden.
But we may have time to sneak in a spring garden. There are tons of varieties of hardy annual flowers and food crops that we can sow now, plant outside when ready, and trust to keep alive through any potential late frosts. Below you’ll find a few tips for starting seeds and a list of 5 of my favorites.
First, a few tips:
Whether you’re starting seeds in trays or in the garden, the same general rules apply. In both cases, you need fine soil or mix, nothing too chunky. Think small particles. When it comes to water, you want to keep the soil surface around the seed consistently moist until germination, which can take anywhere from 3 – 10 days for most vegetables. You don’t want to over-saturate the soil, but water or mist it lightly a few times a day.
5 Great Crops To Sow Now
Radishes can be ready as early as 3 weeks after sowing! I’d suggest sowing one little succession in the ground every week from now through October for a continuous supply. My favorite varieties include the long, slender French Breakfast, or the round Pink Pearl.
Lettuce grows easily from seed and can be sown in the greenhouse or on a windowsill in any size tray you have available. They don’t need any heat but should be covered with a thin layer of soil mix and kept moist until they’re ready to be transplanted out into the garden, about 5 weeks after sowing.
Such a quick and versatile green, arugula is a perfect cool-season crop for both spring and fall. It’s another one that prefers to be seeded directly in the ground, and you can start cutting it after about 21 days as baby leaves or wait the full 40 days to have mature plants.
Much like cucumbers, carrots, and beets, peas don’t love having their roots disturbed, making them a prime candidate for direct sowing in the ground (though you can also sow them in 2″ pots in the greenhouse in order to get a jump on the season outdoors). For home gardeners, I would suggest using pea seeds as an easy introduction to direct germination if you haven’t done so before.
Sweet peas seem to be many gardeners’ gateway flower. Once you grow them with some success, experience their fragrance and get fresh flowers to bring into the house every week, you start to wonder what else is out there. A few tips on sweet peas: they do better when allowed to develop deep roots, so sow them in deep trays. As they’re growing on in the garden they need a lot of water, and often. Train them up a trellis or some netting, and tie them up toward the netting every foot or so. They’ll keep flowering through a good part of the early summer.
For more tips on how to start seeds, check out our handy seed starting guide. In addition, I welcome you all to come out to my seed starting workshops at B-Side Farm in Sebastopol on March 3rd or 10th where we’ll learn all about sowing spring flower seeds, and send everyone home with 50 newly seeded flower plants to grow in the home garden.