Short of buying seedlings or starting them on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights, the least labor-intensive way to grow your own veggies is to plant seeds directly into your vegetable garden The length of your season will dictate which crops can be handled this way.
Even in the northern third of the U.S. there is usually time to harvest the bounty from several succession plantings of leaf lettuce, beets, radishes, spinach and many types of greens since their seeds can go in the ground before the soil has warmed to summer levels. Peas actually need cooler temperatures to germinate, so get them in as soon as the soil can be worked.
Carrot are best planted about two weeks before your last frost date. Sprinkle the seeds very sparingly and cover lightly with soil. Firm in. Make sure to keep the carrot bed or row evenly moist while waiting for germination which may take 10-21 days. This is one crop which must be mercilessly thinned when the seedlings are one to two inches tall. Using your fingers or a pair of tweezers, remove as many plants as necessary so that the remaining ones are two inches apart. This will give you the largest and straightest carrots possible.
Chard and kale can also be seeded outdoors a couple of weeks before the last frost date. A single planting of chard will provide you with salad and cooking greens throughout the season. Kale leaves can be harvested at any stage, but I think they’re most delicious and sweet after fall frosts which turn their starches into sugars.
A trick which allows earlier planting of cool weather-loving veggies is to use floating row cover. This is a spun-bonded fabric which can be loosely laid directly on the seedbed and secured with metal pins or stones. From two to ten degrees of frost protection will result depending on the thickness of the fabric. Lighter weight row covers can be left on days, weeks, or even the entire season since rainfall and most available light will penetrate to the crop below. The heaviest covers must be removed during the day or the plants will suffer from lack of sunlight.
I always wait until the soil is thoroughly warm to plant zucchini, beans, corn, cucumbers, pumpkins, gourds and winter squash because they need higher temperatures to germinate. These all have large seeds which are easy to plant the correct distance apart. Just follow the directions on the seed packet, water well and soon the tender green seed leaves will be pushing up through the soil.
In warmer regions with long growing seasons, tomatoes, eggplants and peppers direct seeded into the garden will have time to come to fruition and can have the advantage of being stockier, healthier plants than those available commercially. You will also have more choice of varieties by using seeds instead of buying plants.
Here’s a valuable tip to speed germination of seeds whether indoors or out in the garden: water well with a dilute solution of fish and seaweed emulsion. This has been shown to stimulate gibberellins or plant hormones which induce germination. I know that my vegetables also grow better, stay healthier and store longer when I water with this emulsion every two weeks or so during the growing season.
So save yourself time and energy – plant seeds right in your garden!