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Jan 27, 2011 11:46 AM

Can I direct sow my veggies or must I start them indoors?

I'm a Zone 9-10 Berkeley, CA vegetable gardener-to-be. I've ordered my seeds and am building my raised beds which I expect to finish in the next week or so. I'd rather not fuss with indoor seed starting. Can I direct sow my seeds or I am setting myself up for disappointment?

My seed selection includes leaf lettuce, spinach, tomatoes, herbs, shallots, leeks and peppers.

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  1. Wow - I can only dream of gardening in your climate! Our zone is only 1 which is really, really yucky. Anyway, you are going to love raised beds! What a huge difference they make in so many ways. My husband built mine nearly 24" high with seating all the way around to make things easier on me. They are incredible.

    On average we only have 87 frost-free days a year and we direct-seed lots of stuff such as lettuces, spinach, carrots, beans, peas, etc. However, there is absolutely no way we could direct-seed tomatoes, herbs, shallots, leeks and peppers. That would just be asking for trouble. We must buy plants and sets. We often get our first frost in August.

    When would you be able to start seeding? We have snow on the ground October through April so seed the end of May. Can't wait to hear what you plant!

    2 Replies
    1. re: chefathome

      Maybe I'll try to start seeding by Valentine's Day? I love the idea of seating all around the planting bed. I'll run that up my husband's flagpole and see what he thinks.

      1. re: kellylee

        It was very simple to do - my husband just nailed boards around the top all the way around. Slick!

        Have fun seeding!

    2. The vegetable packets will tell you how many days before/after your last frost the seeds can be planted and/or the temps they need for best growth. Do you even have frosts?

      Leaf lettuce and spinach can take mild frosts and can be direct sown early in cool weather. Both are cut and come again crops meaning you can cut them down to 1-2" and they'll grow back again. Lettuce doesn't like hot weather and will become bitter and bolt as the temps rise. Spinach stands the heat a little better and will carry on for you when the lettuce is gone. Plant both again in the fall for late fall and winter crops.

      Herbs are pretty easy although I recommend starting with transplants for the perennials since those are difficult to start from seed. Some, like French tarragon (Artemisia dracunculus), can't be started from seed and grow true. It must be vegetatively propagated. Don't confuse it with Russian tarragon (Artemesia dracunculoides) which is often passed off as culinary tarragon. Some biennials, like parsley, grow pretty easily from seed. Plant this year and use but allow to go to seed at the end of the season. Those seeds will give you usable leaf next year while your original planting in it's second year will want to mainly produce flowers and seed. Allow them to do so. Annuals like basil, dill and cilantro are very easy to direct sow and grow.

      Tomatoes and peppers need night time temperatures of 55-65F to grow well. Those you might actually want to start indoors and transplant out.

      Shallots and leeks from seed can be a little difficult. You may want to buy sets of both as back-up.

      2 Replies
      1. re: morwen

        Thank you for your advice! I've been reading your posts as I scroll through the old entries. You are so generous and helpful! I will let you know how it goes. I am so crazy for leeks that I just have to try but I will do the seeds as an experiment and buy the sets for insurance.

      2. You can direct-sow everything except, possibly, your lettuce & spinach depending on what your temps are at sowing time. Lettuce, spinach, & most greens in general require cool temps to germinate - warm/hot weather sends them into semi-dormancy. Thus starting them inside in the air conditioning will most likely give you better results than sowing them outdoors if the temps are going to be 70+.

        While I have the opposite problem being in Zone 6/7 & having to start all the warm-weather veggies (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, flowers, herbs, etc.) indoors under lights about 8 weeks before our last possible frost (around May 1st), I can direct sow greens. But if I want a 2nd autumn greens crop, I have to start those greens indoors because it's still just way too hot outside here for germination.

        1. Can I assume you have the Sunset Garden Guide. Loads on info there. Also any nursery in your area is going to be very helpful. You may want to look at Square Foot Gardening which, though not new, is a slant on vegetable gardening that many have not considered.

          I wouldn't even dream of starting tomatoes and peppers from seed. You can go to a farmers market and buy transplants of every possible thing, including heirlooms. I'm assuming that you're just going to be growing for your and your friends consumption. A packet of seeds, though cheap, is WAY more than an average home gardener would use. I like to buy one or two each of several different tomatoes, peppers, etc. That's worked for me for the last 20 years. Again, Square Foot Gardening can be a relevation. Have fun.

          10 Replies
          1. re: c oliver

            I've been researching like crazy and my findings are in line with your suggestions. I am doing the SFG method. I've decided to direct sow the radishes, lettuce, spinach, scallions, herbs and carrots. I'll pick up some tomatoes and peppers as we enter into the warmer season. I bought a pack of tomato seeds that I'll start indoors this week as an experiment. I'm going to do three potato towers with staggered starts as an additional experiment. I am so excited. The sun is out today and I think I'll seed later this week once I have some cat and bird protection in place. I'll have to fence the little bed to guard against the monster deer that wander through the yard on their way to Tilden Park.

            1. re: kellylee

              Uh oh, The ultimate four letter word to a gardener. DEER. Any fence shorter than eight feet is child's play to them :(

              We used to live in SF and the fog pretty much defeated me when it came to gardening. I didn't want to put as much work into it as I would have needed to. My neighbor did but not peppers or tomatoes. But it's much warmer where you are. Have fun.

              1. re: kellylee

                We live in deer country too and here's what we do to keep the deer (and rabbits, raccoons, groundhogs, birds, etc) out of our garden. We've been doing it successfully for years and it's worked great for us in spite of the naysayers. What you're seeing there is 1/2" flexible PVC conduit slipped over 2 foot rebar that's been pounded 1' foot into the ground to make hoops. It's stabilized by a straight piece of conduit fastened to the top of the hoops with ball bungees but you could use anything (or nothing. We have one bed that's doing fine with just hoops). Over that is bird netting available in 7'x100' rolls. The end hoops have pieces of this netting cut to the shape of the arc and fastened loosely with zip ties so it can be pushed up and down. The length of the bed is covered with the netting cut to size and held in place with giant winged paper clips. The bottom of the netting along the sides is held down with rocks. Everything is available at your local big box hardware store and the clips are at your big box office supply store. To work the beds you simply unclip the netting at the sides, lift it. and clip it at the top out of the way. The netting was $20 for the roll, rebar was $1/each. as was the conduit. It worked out to approx $15 per 12'x4' bed to protect them this way. We did 4 beds the first year, have added many more and have modified this method to protect our baby fruit trees and create "arbors" to protect our berry bushes. It's several years later and the netting from the first beds is still holding up well. The added bonus is that we add plastic to extend the growing season in spring and fall.

                Trellises can be cheaply built from metal conduit and elbows and held erect with 4' rebar and some staking:

              2. re: c oliver

                Oh for heaven's sake c oliver, just because you don't enjoy starting vegetables from seed doesn't automatically mean it's devil spawn - lol!!!

                Regardless of how fabulous your local farmers' market is (& I have a WONDERFUL one here), they will still never offer the varieties of tomatoes/peppers/eggplants/greens/herbs that I want to use in my kitchen. Thus, starting them myself gives me a veritable window on the world as far as variety. And even though you "wouldn't dream of doing it", starting a few seeds indoors isn't difficult or needs a lot of pricey equipment. A chimp could do it.

                1. re: Breezychow

                  Well, I thought I was pretty clear that *I* wouldn't do it. Let me tell you a little story however. In 1992 we moved from SF to SW Oregon. From a backyard that was 15x75 FEET to 6 acres. From fog to four seasons. I was happy as a pig in doodoo. I got my Territorial Seed catalog and made lists and more lists. All sorts of heirloom varieties. When our growers market got going in the early spring, I went and - surprise, surprise - they were selling transplants of every single thing on my list. And I could buy onsies and twosies. So in MY case, Breezychow, I actually COULD buy all the varieties that I wanted. Everyone has a different experience, I'm sure. For heaven's sake indeed :)

                  1. re: c oliver

                    But think of the cost. I have seed packets of tomatoes (& all other vegetables/flowers/herbs for that matter) that are over 10 years old that still give me 80% or higher germination. So for the buck or two that I paid for those seed packets years ago that contained a bare minimum of 30 seeds apiece, I've been set for years. It's wonderful, saves time, $$$$, & I end up with produce that isn't always available at the "markets" - farmers or otherwise. I shudder to think what you paid for those individual annual transplants. You might as well have just bought the finished tomatoes at the market.

                    1. re: Breezychow

                      I definitely agree. As in my earlier post, due to our climate we must plant out tomato transplants - I start them by seed in January (for planting out end of May). You can plant as many seeds as you want for less than the price of one transplant. Bonus - they are also fun to watch grow! However, sadly, there is no way I can do this with herbs - there just is not enough time as they don't start well in the house for me...

                      1. re: chefathome

                        Good lord, starting tomatoes in January? I start some slow growing peppers in early January, or even late December, but tomatoes grow so fast I can't imagine starting them 5 months before putting them outside. I start them at the end of March and by May they're already 8 inches tall.

                      2. re: Breezychow

                        "I shudder to think what you paid for those individual annual transplants. You might as well have just bought the finished tomatoes at the market."

                        Shudder not :) We moved from there five years ago (to an area where vegetable gardening is all but impossible). I'm guessing I paid under $2 each for the transplants. So for tomatoes and (hot) peppers and a crookneck squash, certainly under $20. And that gave us more than we could eat.

                  2. re: c oliver

                    I disagree completely, I wouldn't ever buy all my tomato and pepper seedlings. The pepper and to a lesser extent tomato selection in nurseries and farmer's market is usually pretty limited and boring. I probably start on average about 40 varieties of peppers a year from late December through January depending on species, and probably less than 20% of those are available at those places. Many of the varieties I grow are very long season too (~120 days from transplant), so being in Zone 6A it's important that I get a good head start with these varieties. Most of my pepper plants are already 10 inches tall and bushy by the time the nurseries start selling 4 inch tall pepper plants, so they produce a couple months earlier and are a lot more productive over the year. It's also much cheaper, since I save seeds. My only costs are a few dollars in potting mix and electricity (and I won't have to run much light at all when I get a greenhouse).

                    Last year I bought 4 pepper plants from a local nursery, 2 of them didn't even grow true to the cultivar.

                    Here's a tray of peppers from a few days ago before they got potted up from the 3.25" pots. They had been majorly rootbound and overcrowded for a couple weeks since I've been busy. Nurseries haven't even started selling peppers here yet.

                  3. growing tomatoes from seed is an art! i recommend you read everything you get your hands on... basically, you're going to have to replant them at least three times or so before they go into the ground- digging them deeper in each time... it's a lot of work, so for someone who sounded like they didn't want to 'fuss' with indoor seeding, you easily picked the most difficult plant to work with:)
                    also, leeks really like being 'tussled.' i know it sounds silly, but touch them a lot and if/when you transplant, snip the tops off.. it makes them go crazy!
                    also, in your climate, it seems like summer squash or zukes would be really happy where you are?
                    good luck! gardening is so rewarding...

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: orangefleabait

                      In my experience it is not difficult to grow tomatoes from seed. They need heat - 80-85F to germinate. And have to be kept damp - usually with a plastic cover to keep in humidity. As soon as they germinate the cover must be taken off so they don't get "damping off" disease which will quickly rot the small stems.

                      They should be grown under a bright light of the right color temperature. A $10.00 florescent shop light with 2, 40 watt 6500K bulbs placed an inch above the plants works fine.

                      The shouldn't be planted more than 8 weeks before setting out, and should be hardened off by placing them in the shade outside for a few days before they get the full sun. A little fan that gently blows on them while growing indoors will strengthen them. You do not want to plant big tomatoes - they will do less well than 8 week old plants. If they have any blooms on them, pinch them off before planting them out.

                      They should not have to be replanted at all before setting out if started in a 3 inch pot. When planting in the garden plant them right up to the first true leaves - they will grow roots out of their stems. Make sure the soil temps are warm - tomatoes are tropical plants.

                      Don't fertilize them at all for the first 10 days after they germinate, then fertilize at half the recommended strength if your growing in a sterile potting soil or seed starter mix.