1. Should I start from seed or buy starts? If you are new to gardening, starting plants form seed can be a little daunting. But it is a skill well worth having and I encourage everyone to try something from seed. The varieties of plants you will find is much greater in seed form, than starts. So if you like different and unusual, you will have to start from seed at some point. Some plants don’t like to be transplanted and do best when directly sown from seed into the garden. Root crops like radishes, beets and carrots or flowers with long tap roots like California poppies should be grown from seed. Purchasing seed is less expensive than purchasing starts so you can grow more plants. If you wait until after the last spring frost, direct sowing straight into the garden means you can forgo any seed starting pots or trays and light systems for many vegetables.
Despite the many reasons you would want to start from seed, starting with a transplant is OK too. Growing your garden from seed takes a bit of planning early in spring and sometimes you get busy. This doesn’t mean you missed your opportunity to garden completely. Planting your garden with transplants will be a bit more expensive, but you save yourself some time. Plus you already know how many plants you will need to set out. Often I’ll pick up one or two varieties of new tomatoes as transplants because I’m not sure how they will perform here so I don’t want an entire pack. Or maybe a squash has fallen prey to a gopher and needs to be replaced. Transplants can help you flesh out your garden so you can make the most of your space.
2. What’s eating my seedlings? I hear this one a lot. The bugs, birds and rodents are very hungry in early spring. Many are caring for families and their appetites are voracious. Sometimes you have to do a little detective work to determine who is the culprit. First did the damage happen during the day or at night? Birds peck at seedlings during the day (like the sunflower seedling in the photo) while bugs like earwigs or snails do damage at night. Is there a slime trail or just some chewing? Slime trails always indicate snails or slugs, absence of one normally indicates earwigs. Earwigs love new growth and will chew plants to the point where only a nub of stem is left. Did an entire row of lettuce disappear in the early morning? If you find a lot of damage that happened in a short period of time you are probably dealing with a rodent. Bunnies will chew lettuce from the top down to stumps while voles will chew around plants at their base. If it looks like something went through your garden taking bites out of everything, you might be dealing with deer. Rabbits and deer require barrier fences or repellents, birds require barriers in the form of netting or cages, snails, slugs and earwigs can be deterred with diatomaceous earth. You can check out the Useful Things page for more details on the products I use to combat pest safely in the vegetable garden.
3. What is the difference between an indeterminate tomato and a determinate one and which do I want? An indeterminate tomato will continue to grow and vine throughout the entire season. A determinate tomato will grow to a certain point and stop. Many paste tomatoes are determinate which is good because you will have a lot of fruit that is ripe at one time. This means you will have enough to can or make sauce at one time. Determinate tomatoes are also a good choice for pots because they don’t grow too large. Indeterminate tomatoes are perfect for when you want to harvest a couple of tomatoes each day throughout the entire season. They can get quite large and will require sturdy support.
4. What is the difference between an annual and a perennial? An annual will generally grow for one season, set seed and die. Some common annuals are alyssum, marigolds, cosmos and most warm season vegetables. A perennial will live for several seasons or more and generally does not die after it flowers and sets seed. I use the term generally because some plants that are considered annuals in some areas due to climate can act as perennials in another. Mild climates mean plants don’t set seed because they don’t have a cultural trigger like really hot weather to tell them to do so. On the other hand extreme climates mean that some tender perennials can be killed out by the first frost. For folks that have trouble remembering which is which, I suggest thinking perennial means permanent. Not exactly true but because both words start with the same three letters it heads you in the right direction. For food production what this means is most vegetables will need to be replanted each season while fruit trees and berries will live for many seasons to many years.
5. What is the difference between warm season crops and cool season crops? This used to be easier to figure out because buying produce in the store was limited to when it was culturally available in our area. Now, because fruits and vegetables come from a global market, a lot of what we see in stores is actually harvested at times that are out-of-season for our area, but in-season for others. In areas with long growing seasons, like here on the Central Coast, cool season crops generally refer to items that are grown from fall through winter. Vegetables like broccoli, spinach, cauliflower and peas are all considered cool season crops, meaning they grow best when the weather is cool. For crops like broccoli and cauliflower if they are planted too late, when the weather turns warm (say April) they will grow but never produce a large head. Instead they produce single flowers on a long stem before the plants are a foot high. For some root vegetables like radishes or beets, they often will not produce a large root if grown when the weather is warm. Instead, they too will put all their effort into producing flowers.
For warm season crops, like tomatoes, peppers and squash, the term generally means that they grow and produce fruit while the weather is warm. If planted too early or too late in the season, they will often be killed by frosty weather. Many warm season crops like melons and cucumbers, also prefer to have warm soil to grow in. Just because the air temperatures are warm in early April, it doesn’t mean the soil is. It normally takes almost another month for the soil to truly warm up here.
For areas with short growing seasons, the difference between timing of warm season and cold season is much smaller. Cool season crops will be the first you plant, as soon as the soil can be worked in early spring. Your warm season crops will be planted much later, after all chance of frost has passed.