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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. http://www.chow.com/photos/378904 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: http://www.chow.com/photos/378918

              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.

                    2. We have a vegetable garden with raised beds in Woodside, across the bay from Berkeley. The climate up in the hills is a little cooler than where you're at. We've been sowing seeds directly into the beds for years, following the instructions on the seed packages. Every year, we've grown pretty much the usual: lettuce, chard, some Asian greens, beets, green beans, snap peas, fennel, corn with much success. The time to seed for us is usually beginning of April when the weather turn warm. For tomatoes and peppers, we've bought small plants for the beds. In the long ago past, we've tried some seeding indoor and it was a real a pain to transplant them to the beds; a waste of time and aggravation. Except for basil which I seed under the tomato plants, I don't waste my bed space for herbs which I grown in pots. In late October, we use the beds to plant some fall/early winter vegetables such as leeks, more beets, greens and a few root vegetables.

                      1 Reply
                      1. Hello Everyone! Many thanks for the rousing discussion and all of the great advice. We will build the hoops and do the deer proofing method per morwen's advice. I am probably in dreamland with the tomato seeds but the pics in the seed catalogs are so alluring. In a fit of optimism, I've been googling "home canning"... I ordered a packet of tomatillo seeds, too...
                        I'll pick up some little starts, too. Anyone tried to do potatoes with the tower method?
                        Some friends living in the "flats" of Berkeley grew loads of gorgeous tomatoes last year. Their secret? Only water twice!! I can't believe it but I'll do an experimental plant and report back.

                        11 Replies
                        1. re: kellylee

                          How hot are your summer days and when does summer begin? You need a pretty long season for tomatoes, peppers and I imagine tomatillos. Do you get enough in Berkeley? And you're in the hills? Do you get fog? But what's great is that you can fiddle around this year and begin to figure out what works and doesn't. The Bay Area has microclimates out the wazoo :)

                          1. re: c oliver

                            We only get a handful of days that get over 90 but these plants will be up against a white wall that the sun just beats down on. Fingers crossed! We get fog but it burns off pretty quickly. It will be a crazy experiment. Luckily, lots of great framer's markets to supplement if my veggie plot is a bust.

                            1. re: kellylee

                              Oh wow. I think that white wall is going to be your vegetables best friend. In addition to reflecting the sun, it's also going to hold the heat during the night. I hope you'll take pictures all through the process and report regularly. I'm jealous. We live at Lake Tahoe and vegetable gardening is an impossibility.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                Yeah, but Lake Tahoe? Beats gardening hands down! Must be lovely throughout the seasons. I'll take lots of pics!

                          2. re: kellylee

                            I'm not sure what the tower method for potatoes is but we use the "tire" method. Lay two old tires on the ground and fill with compost and/or soil. Plant your potato eyes in this. As the vines begin to grow up over the top of the second tire, add a third and fill with soil/compost but leave the top few leaves of the vine showing. As the vines grow add tires and soil/compost as needed, always allowing the top few leaves to show. At the end of the growing season when the potatoes are mature, tip the tires over and remove your potatoes. I like this method because it conserves space in the garden, puts old tires to a constructive use and is one less bed to dig. At the end of the season we till the soil from the potato tires into the garden beds. There are also potato bags on the market if you prefer to use them over tires. http://www.gardeners.com/Potato-Bin/G... For that matter, if you have the space, you can also grow potatoes under a thick bed of loose straw.

                            Take your friend's tomato success with a grain of salt. Tomatoes require a lot of water. Without it they can develop things like blossom end rot and cracks.

                            1. re: morwen

                              Great advice! The tower method is similar but uses a sort of wire cage layered with soil, potato eyes, compost, repeat. Pull away the cage at the appropriate time and the potatoes come tumbling out (ideally). I have extra wire from building a chicken coop so the cash outlay is minimal. We don't have any old tires but I do have some black plastic that I was thinking of repurposing to heat things up.

                              I'll sacrifice one plant-- maybe of in another corner of the yard -- to the water twice experiment. I'll let you know what happens!

                              1. re: morwen

                                What a totally cool idea! And you waste nothing. And I think potatoes are so fun to grow cause it's like magic. All that good food hidden and just waiting for us :) Silly me.

                                1. re: c oliver

                                  The nice thing about growing them in a bed of straw is you can carefully root around in there once in awhile and pull out baby potatoes for a new potato side dish without disturbing the rest of the potatoes. Unfortunately you can't do the same thing with the tire and bag methods.

                                  1. re: morwen

                                    What types of potatoes have you had success with? How many weeks in do you scope out the baby potatoes?

                                    1. re: kellylee

                                      We've grown Kennebecs and Yukon Golds. This year we got some fingerlings from a friend but I have no idea what they are other than tasty.

                                      If you're raising potatoes in straw you can just reach into the pile and feel how big around they are. It won't hurt them. Since we grow in tire towers in soil we don't disturb them until they're mature.

                                  2. re: c oliver

                                    C. Oliver, if you're silly then I am too. I think that is one of the neatest thing about potatoes, the surprise under the ground - we planted them last weekend using the straw bed method in an otherwise unusable sunny patch, so are excited to see what happens. I had a neighbor in Alabama when I was little who grew peanuts in her backyard - I felt just the same about them. All those little goobers under the ground...who knew?
                                    I keep telling myself I do *not* need to grow peanuts. :)

                              2. I'm in San Diego inland which is Zone 10. I direct sow almost everything in my garden with the exception, generally, of tomatoes and peppers.

                                10 Replies
                                1. re: meadandale

                                  OP here. Everything but the tomatoes, cukes and peppers have been directly seeded. Two little carrots have sprouted. The basil and thyme has sent up little green leaflets. I planted 6 tomato seeds into transplant pots and they are warming in the kitchen window.
                                  I erected a potato tower today and loaded it with Cal White seed potatoes.

                                  I'm having fun, anyway! We'll see what happens.

                                  Our chickens are laying like crazy in this warm weather and creating lots of good compostable by-products. Optimism abounds!

                                  1. re: kellylee

                                    That's so exciting. I hope you'll keep us posted. How about a picture of the chickens? That's Chow-related, isn't it??? Your joy just shines through (so shoot me, I'm a sap)

                                    1. re: c oliver

                                      Thanks for your encouragement! Here's a look at the hens:

                                      1. re: kellylee

                                        They are gorgeous! Can they get out during the day? I'm jealous.

                                        1. re: c oliver

                                          Thanks! They stay in the coop (4 x 10) most of the time but get to run around in a flexible fence set up on the weekend for a few hour at a time. I swear I see the hawks circling when those chubby girls are out from under their protective coop.

                                    2. re: kellylee

                                      Note that thyme is a perennial in your zone. I have thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage and marjoram in the ground year round. I put them in as landscaping plants. You'll probably want to put it in a pot by itself or with a few like minded perennials (e.g. oregano).

                                      1. re: meadandale

                                        Right! I sprinkled some thyme seeds in some old pots around the yard and today when I checked tiny green dots are visible. I'll pick up some oregano seeds next time I'm out. The oregano I planted last year tasted off to me. I plunked it in near some wild mint--maybe that messed with the flavor?

                                        1. re: kellylee

                                          I can't say I've noticed that with mine. My oregano is probably 10 yards away from the mint. But both are members of the mint family and mint is notorious for being promiscuous with other mint. Which is why there are so darn many different kinds of mint. So it's a distinct possibility, although I would expect any off flavor to show up more in seeds from last year's oregano after cross pollination than in the original planting.

                                          1. re: morwen

                                            Kelleylee, I'm impressed that you started your herbs from seed. As c oliver noted, it's really cheap and easy to get plants, and they are much quicker.

                                            You'll be glad you didn't start all your tomato plants from seed. Berkeley's plant stores have a wonderful variety of tomato plants in April and May.

                                            I used to date someone who lived in Berkeley and their backyard was empty so I grew 14 tomato plants (wow, that was way too much), a lot of corn, herbs, and not much else. The tomato plants did wonderfully as did the corn. I started mine from seed and very early so I had to cover the young plants but it was worth it for tomatoes all summer long.

                                            1. re: choctastic

                                              Don't be too impressed yet! If the seed thing works, it will be a victory for the food budget. I'm heartened to hear that you grew 14 tomato plants in a Berkeley backyard! I have some hot spots along the side of the house-- I might put the tomato overage in some big pots and see how they do. 3 plants will go into the raised bed and get trellised. I realized that I forgot about kale so I have to remedy that oversight somewhere in the yard.
                                              The forecast calls for rain this weekend so I'll be doing some plant protection, too.