While sourdough bread and jigsaw puzzles might have gotten all the headlines last year, it turns out that many Americans have spent the coronavirus pandemic growing vegetables.
So it’s no surprise that seed companies have seen sales soar since last March. Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, in Mansfield, Missouri, “has done about five times what we normally do in orders ever since COVID,” says Shannie McCabe, horticulturist and garden educator for the company. “Pandemics do tend to trigger seed buying and renew interest in gardening.”
Similarly, Owen Taylor, who founded Truelove Seeds with his business partner Chris Bolden-Newsome in Philadelphia in 2018, not only saw sales skyrocket at the beginning of the pandemic, but has also seen a 266 percent increase in sales so far in 2021. Truelove Seeds works with farmers across the eastern United States who grow fruits, vegetables and herbs that are culturally and regionally significant and, often, uncommon. It operates as a profit sharing model, with 50 percent of sales going back to the growers.
“Our model is that as more and more people get excited about growing, and more and more people order our seeds, it directly benefits growers that we work with,” he says.
Taylor is concerned, though, that seed hoarding may impact this year’s supply and is “hoping that all the seeds that people are ordering are going to get planted this year or shared with people who will plant.”
McCabe has a few theories as to why the popularity of gardens has boomed over the past year. For one, it‘s easy to social distance while gardening. It’s also an effective therapeutic and stress-relieving tool. “There are so many studies about the stress relieving benefits of gardening,” she says. “We’re really happy that people are getting so interested in gardening. It’s so good for the soul.”
Now is the perfect time to start planning—and planting—your summer vegetable garden. To help you get started, here are some tips and advice from McCabe and Taylor.
One of the trickiest aspects of growing food from seed is determining the right timing, so that you can get the best and biggest harvest possible. For some, this may mean starting seeds indoors in order to transplant them outside once the ground has warmed up enough. Others can be sown directly into the garden.
“The first thing you have to do is figure out your average last frost date—that is the most important thing,” says McCabe. You can find yours through a quick Google search or at The Old Farmer’s Almanac. “Then, when figuring out exactly when to start your seeds, you’re going to consult the back of your seed packet because it’s going to say something like, ‘Start ten weeks before the last frost date indoors and transplant out.’”
Some varieties, like peppers, eggplants and tomatoes, require a jumpstart indoors so they have enough time to mature and you can harvest earlier. Other crops should be started exclusively outdoors, including corn, cucurbits (cucumbers, squash, melons, etc.) and beans. These plants typically germinate in three to five days and grow really quickly, but they “have root systems that do not like to be transplanted,” says McCabe. “The risk doesn’t outweigh the reward.”
Beginner gardeners may find that they have more success by starting with varieties that can be sown directly into the outdoor garden come spring. “Trying to start out growing your seedlings in your house is very challenging,” says Taylor. “Is it enough light? Maybe not enough water? Maybe too much water? You know?”
Taylor says he often fields questions about the best time to plant. His usual response: Get in touch with the local extension program at your nearest state university. “They have pretty much all developed a [printable] calendar for when to plant crops for reliability to help people miss any kind of weird weather windows, especially if you’re new to an area,” he says. “People have the best chance of success if they’re following local guidelines, but we don’t always know how the seasons are going to go.”
He also recommends reaching out to local garden centers. Oftentimes, local shops will stock seed varieties that they know grow well in the immediate area “and a lot of times they can answer a lot of these questions as well.”
Taylor says that Truelove’s most popular varieties continue to be “those that are relatively difficult to find, but are extremely essential tastes of people’s homelands,” including Jamaican amaranth and African okra. However, since the pandemic began he has seen an uptick in interest in medicinals, including herbs, and in nutrient-dense, protein-heavy crops like beans and black-eyed peas. For home gardeners, especially those just starting out, he recommends seeds that can be sown directly into the garden once the weather starts to warm up a bit more, like arugula and tatsoi lettuces, collards, kale, squash and turnips.
McCabe says that one of her favorite vegetables to grow is carrots. “There’s nothing more rewarding than pulling carrots out of the ground,” she says. One thing to consider is the soil you’ll be growing in: Deeply hued varieties like Cosmic Purples and anthocyanin-rich Black Nebula carrots tend to perform better in well-draining, sandy soil. New Kuroda and Oxheart carrots, however, can grow well even in poor soils “and they’re really sweet and yummy.”
She’s also hoping to see growers this year try some of the exciting tomato varieties, as heirloom tomatoes are what “kind of spurred the heirloom seed movement in the first place.” Her top three varieties for 2021 are the striped Brad’s Atomic Grape Tomato, and two new, colorful varieties, the “ruffled” Orange Accordion and the bright yellow, teardrop-shaped Buratino.
When it comes to starting seeds indoors, there are a few tools you’ll need to ensure success—and most can be fine-tuned whatever your budget may be.
Spend: “One thing that I absolutely don’t recommend people skip on ever is your seed starting mix—please do not go out to the garden and dig up dirt,” says McCabe. “It’s going to make it so much harder to start your seeds.” Invest in a good quality seed starting mix that’s lightweight with a fine particle size and well-draining, and can be easily found at your local hardware store.
Save: Though you can find plastic trays at your hardware store designed for seed starting, you’re just as well off raiding your recycling bin for old yogurt cups, plastic nursery pots, milk and water jugs that can be cut in half, or takeout containers. You just need to make sure they’re at least two inches deep and that you add small holes in the bottom so water can drain freely.
Spend: “Peppers, tomatoes and eggplants will not germinate well in soil that’s under 75 degrees Fahrenheit and your chances of molding will be increased,” says McCabe. If you’re starting seeds in a particularly drafty window or find that it takes a while for your tomatoes to germinate, invest in an inexpensive horticultural heat mat that you can reuse year after year.”
Save: If you’re on a particularly tight budget, you can even take advantage of local resources, including seed libraries (sometimes run through a local public library), seed and plant swaps, as well as local social media gardening groups. “A lot of times more seeds come in a packet than you need,” says Taylor. “That’s a way to build community, even if it’s not in person, with people that you can share your mistakes and successes with.”
There are just a few things to keep in mind as you start your garden indoors or out: water, light, fertilizer and when to “harden off” your seedlings for transplanting. As you plant your seeds, it’s “always a good suggestion to not empty the entire seed packet in the first go, so that you can try another method,” says McCabe.
Place your tray of seeds in a sunny window and, if your window is drafty, be sure to place a heat mat underneath. Many varieties of fruits, vegetables and herbs require full sun to thrive. “Most houses don’t have enough light for a plant to thrive,” says Taylor. “You want to find the sunniest, south facing window if you’re doing it without a grow light.”
You’ll also want to make sure you keep your seedling tray consistently moist. Don’t drench it—that’s where you’ll run into problems with over-watering and rot—and don’t let it dry out completely.
“Forgetting to water your seedlings is pretty much a death sentence,” says McCabe. “If you let them dry out when they haven’t yet germinated and they’re still getting ready to germinate, that’s less impactful,” says McCabe. “But if you forget to water them while they just sent out their little cotyledons [seedling leaves], then they’re really sensitive and they want consistent water.”
Once they get their first set of “true leaves,” however, you can start to let the seedlings dry out a bit more between waterings. It’s also a good idea to give your seedlings a boost with a balanced, organic fertilizer a couple of times before they’re transplanted outside—just wait until they’re at least four to six inches tall. A balanced fertilizer will have equal or close to equal nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium (NPK) values—listed on the label, such as “2-2-2” or “3-2-3.” This will “tremendously help to give them a little push of vegetative growth,”says McCabe.
Once it’s finally time to transplant seedlings that you started indoors to your garden outside, you’ll want to do it gradually. Placing them outside too soon or immediately planting them in full sun could have dire consequences.
Two to three days before the last frost, as long as it’s sunny outside, “bring your tomatoes out on a [sheltered] sunny patio and let them get exposed to wind and the outdoors, then bring them in at night,” says McCabe. “Then, after your last frost has passed, you can maybe take them out to a sheltered space and let them stay outside overnight before you transplant them out. Just make sure that you harden them off for at least three days.”
Once you’ve gathered all of the essential information and get to work on starting your seeds, be sure to keep track of your garden goings-on, from the beginning of the season to the very end.
“That’s something that you’re going to refine year after year,” says McCabe. “As you know more you say, ‘oh, wow, the county was kind of off this year on its projection of my last frost date, so I might want to wait a little bit longer to start my seeds,’ or ‘oh, I found out I live in a colder microclimate so I’m going to need to wait a little longer to transplant.’”
Taylor also recommends keeping a gardening journal and tracking all of your successes and failures. This, along with your seed starting/transplant calendar, will help you improve your technique and timing year after year.
“Don’t make the same mistake twice—learn from it,” he says. “Even very experienced people, we have crop failures, because no two years are the same in terms of weather, in terms of what pests show up, in terms of our soil health. So it’s really like a big science experiment.”