We’re back with more of our gardening 101 series! If you missed the last edition, we talked all about finding your own space for planting some edibles, even if you don’t live on a farm or even near garden! I showed you my little terrace veggie patch and some of the vegan delights we’ve made with all our veggies. There’s nothing as magical as planting a seed and watching it grow, and then having it nourish you. There’s also something extremely special about knowing how much a plant goes through to give you that perfect tomato we seem to take for granted when we see it on top of a giant pile of replicas in the supermarket. Nothing is further from the truth, and we are truly blessed to live among all this bounty! If anything, having my own veggie garden has taught me to be grateful for the vegan food on my table, and all the effort it took to get those veggies to grow. Since the seed is the starting point, I’m going to teach you all about seeds today! How to plant them, what they need, and how to love the process of growing your own veggies. We had some friends over for brunch last week, and our breakfast table is of course outside in the middle of our veggie patch, so they asked me how I had learned to grow all of those veggies. The only answer I have for that question, is trial and error. With every passing year I learn from my mistakes and get that magical instinct every single wannabe farmer or veggie aficionado develops (you will too!). You just “know” when your veggies need more water, or more soil, or more nutrients added. Nature really does take care of the rest.
Step 1: Buy your seeds
Once a year, I go to my local plant supply store and stock up on seeds. Granted I always have seeds left over from the year before, and the longer you keep up your gardening, the less seeds you’ll need to buy. But I always run out of the usual suspects and need to restock. Once you start using the recommendations in this post, your little seeds will last for a really long time, and you’ll get a huge bounty from a simple packet of seeds which costs next to nothing. Not sure what to start with? Here’s what I usually grow (although your local climate might allow for some different veggies), from the easiest to grow and maintain, to the hardest but still doable. Many veggies are missing from this list, not because it isn’t viable in an urban terrace but because I either ran out of space on any given year, or I haven’t tried it yet:
– Arugula: the easiest and fastest to grow. You’ll have it sprouting in as little as 3 days! Soon you’ll be having the freshest arugula salad.
– Lettuce: I grow them year round, my favorite is the batavia lettuce, but I’ve grown many varieties.
– Spinach: Grows super fast and is deliciously sweet when cut fresh from the stalk!
– Cherry Tomatoes: Easy to grow the actual plant, but needs extra care once the tomatoes start forming.
– Tomatoes: One of the most blissful experiences is watching the first big tomato ripen. Just as with the cherry variety, they take a little extra care but they are very easy to grow.
– Eggplant: I postponed this one for years thinking it was very difficult to grow, but we’ve had more eggplants than we know what to do with this year. What is even more incredible is the fact that we planted them in a window sill sized pot, and we still got our delicious eggplants!
– Herbs: My favorites to grow are flat leaved parsley, cilantro, chives, sage, rosemary, thyme and basil. Chives, cilantro and basil are quite delicate and have given me some headaches, but the rest will practically grow without much maintenance. Especially sage, one of my favorites.
– Radishes: Here’s another one that will sprout very fast, and it’s a fun way to start on growing your root veggies. These grow under ground without you seeing them. The leaves are beautiful as well!
– Green onions: These will grow like weeds, giving you ample toppings for yummy baked potatoes or a Mexican seven layer dip!
– Green beans and other beans: Beautiful plants and very easy and fast to get the beans from plant to table! You won’t believe how tender they can be. You can eat the bean fresh or let them dry and collect the dried beans from the pod.
– Peppers: Another magical one when you get it to grow. Takes a bit of patience and care but the result is amazing.
– Artichokes: I’m not sure if I was a lucky lucky girl, but my artichoke plant started giving artichokes almost immediately! It is however very likely to get critters, so it takes some effort in preventing this, and this can be done organically with a spray made out of water, chopped garlic and chili peppers or cayenne pepper.
– Zucchini and pumpkin: Here are two veggies that will give you the most beautiful plant ever. Giant cascading leaves and huge yellow flowers that are delicious and used in high-end cooking, especially in Italian cuisine. You can grow them to eat the flowers (if you harvest the flower, the veg won’t grow), or wait for the veggies. In the interest of full disclosure, these are the thorn on my side. I love them dearly, but they’re a bit more challenging, especially if you’re growing organically like I am, because it’s one of those plants that can get infected easily and once it does, it’s hard to get it to heal. Still, it is one of my favorites since it always brings about the biggest challenge for me.
– So many others: try planting strawberries, kale, collards, celery, potatoes, onions, even a lemon or lime tree! Lots of flowers and lots of herbs to get your space smelling and looking beautiful. It’s all about practice and growing what you love to eat and what can grow in your area.
When to plant
Seed packets will usually recommend the possible months for planting, but I find that this is much more flexible than stated, especially when it comes to plants like herbs, lettuce, spinach and arugula, which I plant year round. However, planting season for most edibles and flowers is towards the end of winter (January, February and March). You can stretch this a little bit, but it’s especially helpful to do it in these months (unless you live in a place with a similar year round climate, in this case you can go nutty all year round). Keep in mind these three main facts: tomatoes ripen in the summer, zucchinis and pumpkins start appearing and growing in the fall, flowers bloom in the spring. So you need to plant these seeds with enough time to have them be fully grown at these times of year so the weather can help them do their thing. For other plants, I’ve been successful in growing them year round, with the seedling system I’ll describe below.
Planting in seedling pots
Seedling pots are tiny containers to get your seeds started and are extremely useful in helping them sprout really fast as well as the best seed savers around. When you plant directly on the soil, you need to use many more seeds to increase the chance of some of them sprouting. In seedling pots, you can simply plant 2 or 3 seeds and keep it warm and cozy in its little pod to stimulate sprouting and growth. Once they’ve grown slightly, you simply transfer them to your larger pot and watch it thrive. Very large seeds however like those of zucchini, pumpkin, and beans, are best planted directly on the large pot.
Option 1: You can choose between soil based seedling pots:
These eventually decompose when planting them directly in the larger pot once grown, meaning you don’t need to take your baby plant out.
Option 2: You can also use plastic, reusable, seedling pots:
With these you need to take the baby plant out and transfer it to the bigger pot. I definitely recommend the plastic ones more, since the soil based pots absorb a lot of water and tend to steal it from the plant. This means that one weekend away from the babies and there might not be a baby when you get back! Plastic ones don’t absorb any water and they are reusable for years and years.
Steps for planting in seedling pots
– Get a high quality soil, I use seedling soil which allows for ample root growth, but almost any soil will do if you can’t find it.
– Prepare your seed packets on a table and your seedling pots and get organized, thinking of the space you have and where you can place all your plants once grown. Plant more than one seedling pot of each variety since some seeds might not sprout.
– Fill your seedling pots with soil between 1/2 and 3/4 of the way full.
– Add 2 or 3 seeds to each one and cover with the soil, patting it down slightly. Identify which veggie or flower you’re planting in each. With time you’ll recognize all the veggies as soon as the first leaves pop up, and you won’t need to identify them, but I always do. It helps you learn a lot about the different veggies and their growing times!
– Water them very lightly, to avoid a lot of movement in the soil. Seeds need three things to start sprouting, they need water, they need to be slightly warm if possible (watering them and receiving sun throughout the day will give them the heat they need), and they need to be very still. Seeds in movement will not sprout, so keep them protected from the wind and rain, and water them carefully. I bought a teeny tiny greenhouse this year just to keep my babies, and they’ve been growing super fast. Simply keep them protected if you don’t have space for one, and they’ll be just fine.
Steps for planting large seeds directly in large pots
– Use pots that have holes on the bottom to allow drainage. If you live in an apartment simply place a dish below to keep the water from going everywhere.
– Get your pots ready by filling the bottom with rocks (any will do), this is an at home drainage system!
– Fill your pot with soil about 1/2 to 3/4 of the way full and plant your seeds.
– Cover with soil and water them.
Green bean and other bean seeds need to be soaked in water for about 30 minutes before planting them, to start the sprouting process.
Planting your grown babies in regular pots
Once your babies are showing two or three leaves, or are even bigger if you’re a little patient (this makes them more stable for moving them to another pot), they are ready to be taken to their final large pot and begin growing and growing.
– Prepare your pots with the same layer of rocks as described above to create a drainage system.
– Add soil to the top, create a little hole and carefully place your hand over the baby plant, turn it over to take it out of the seedling pot and plant it again in the hole, patting the soil against it tightly. If your pot is big enough, you can add more than one plant, but keep in mind that the more soil they have, the better they grow. This will depend on how much space you have for individual pots. I mostly share large pots with a small number of plants, but not too many.
– Water your plant immediately.
– Watch your garden grow!
Soil is really the one that will tell you when to water your plants. You’ll want your soil nice and damp all the time, not over soaked, and definitely never dry or sandy. Keep it rich and moist and the plant or seed will do its thing. Always water directly on the soil, not on the dish below if using one to collect the water. Be careful not to use too much force if using a hose, water force can jiggle seeds and prevent sprouting, or even topple your growing veggie to the ground (as I sadly learned with my perfect baby zucchini this year). Water your plants early in the morning or late at night to prevent brown spots from forming in the leaves (water and sun creates a magnifying effect which can burn your pretty leaves).
I have a system so that I don’t forget to water my plants, which is that I check the soil and water as needed, every night after I take our dog for a walk. It has become so automatic that I’m totally used to taking care of all my babies at the same time, exercise for doggie, water for babies. Don’t forget to water your plants! You’ve worked so hard on them!
My little seedling system
Once your babies have been planted in their new homes, plant more seedlings! Especially with fast growing edibles like lettuce plants, spinach, herbs, etc. That way, when your plant is grown and ready to be harvested, you can immediately plant new babies in their place. This means, organic lettuce year round!
Arugula, my special friend:
For arugula, one of my absolute favorite greens, skip the seedling pot system and plant directly on a window box or pot making a line with the seeds (sprinkle generously with the seeds and top with soil), and replant when harvested. Arugula grows fast and is harvested fast, so keep those seeds handy! These sprouts you see below popped up this week in about two days! I smell arugula topped vegan pizza in my near future!
Enjoy some of the photos from my harvest this year so far. All from potted plants in our terrace! This year we’ve enjoyed: several varieties of lettuce (the largest yield and biggest lettuce plants so far), artichokes, tomatoes, spinach, parsley, chives, rosemary, sage, thyme, green beans, eggplant, and we’ve had tons of beautiful flowers, while we wait for our big fall plants to start doing their thing.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll discuss more specific issues, some related to specific plants, as well as organic prevention of critters and feeding your plants with nutrients, pruning and more. I hope you enjoyed this edition of our gardening 101 series! I love the idea of urban gardens coming to life more and more each day. It will soon become one of those hobbies you regret not starting sooner. Send us photos of your urban ‘gardens’ through our contact page and we’ll be happy to feature them in future editions!