How to start your own vegetables

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It’s time to look through seed catalogs and your favorite nurseries’ seed racks. When choosing varieties, stick with three criteria:

1. Don’t over plant; a crowded garden is an under performing garden.

2. Choose varieties with fewer days to maturity (80 or fewer for tomatoes, 100 or fewer for winter squash).

3. For maximum harvest, select a variety of cool- and warm-season vegetables.

Next, determine which plants will be direct sown — the method in which seed is placed directly in the ground — and which seeds will be propagated inside and transplanted out later. Most seed packets will provide this information, but there are a few general rules to follow.

Root crops (beets, carrots and radishes) are always direct sown. The same goes for quick-growing, cool-season greens like lettuce, spinach and arugula. Greens that will be harvested over a longer period, like chard, kale and collard greens, will grow better and larger if grown as transplants. The same is true for nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos and eggplants), basil, broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. The squash family, including melons, cucumbers and summer and winter squash, can either be direct sown or transplanted. Direct-sown squash are in danger of drying out or being eaten by wildlife, but squash transplants take up a lot of room in your propagation area. Lastly, the larger, warm-season seeds like beans and corn will grow better if direct sown.

Knowing how many plants will be propagated indoors helps you design a grow space that fits your needs. This space will need consistent warmth — at least 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit — access to water, good airflow and supplemental lighting (12-14 hours of light per day). The two most affordable options for lighting are fluorescent grow lights and LEDs. The latter are more energy efficient but also more expensive. With either type, make sure that the light is a minimum distance of 2-4 inches from your seed trays. As the seedlings grow, you will need to raise the lights or lower the trays. Consider setting up an adjustable system.

Seeds can be grown in a variety of pots. Nursery-grade seed trays will save the most space. Many recycled items, including egg cartons and plastic food containers, can also be used, but remember to add drainage holes. More important than the container is the growing medium. A good germination mix contains peat moss and bark and, possibly, vermiculite, ground into very fine particles. It can be found at most nurseries. Seed trays should be kept consistently moist, but not left in standing water.

Lastly, schedule your transplants so they are ready for planting when the weather allows. Most cool-season transplants will take five to six weeks to grow indoors and can be planted outside in early to mid-April. For warm-season transplants, plan on six to eight weeks for tomatoes, eight to 10 weeks for peppers and eggplants and four to five weeks for the squash family plants. Plant outside towards the end of May or past the danger of the last frost.

Brien Darby is a senior horticulturist and manager of Urban Food Programs at the Denver Botanic Gardens. She can be reached at horticulture@denverbotanicgardens.org.

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