Encouragement (for Life as well as the Garden) seed starting Seedlings - General health transplanting seedlings

Seed Starting – When to Begin – Adapting to Change

Readers write to me from time to time and ask me to recommend a seed starting chart. I think most are under the impression that the charts contain the exact dates you need to plant or start seed. They don’t.

Although you can use seed starting charts as a beginning point for making your plans, you won’t necessarily be successful if you rely totally on the dates they show. Too many variables. And every chart – like the situation in your garden – is a bit different than the next.

If you still think you want to “play around” with a seed starting chart here are two nice ones.  Just don’t think they furnish 100% accurate and complete information, because they don’t.

http://www.johnnyseeds.com/e-pdgseedstart.aspx  Enter your last average frost date at the top where indicated.
http://www.almanac.com/gardening/planting-dates/zipcode/22511 (My zip code is 22511. Put your zip code at the end instead of mine.)

What It Takes To Be Successful

Regular readers of TMG already know that to be successful in gardening you have to work with nature by doing things like keeping the ground covered and replenishing what the soil uses every season. But another important step to success is working with what nature dishes out in the form of weather.

Attitude Can Make a Big Difference

I think attitude can be critical to your success. I know from experience a good attitude can make a big difference in how much we enjoy life’s journey and the duties involved in tending our gardens. If we accept ahead of time that there is ALWAYS the possibility that things will not go exactly according to plan, it relieves a lot of stress when things vary from what we desire.

If you’ve lived any length of time you know there are endless possibilities for success in one form or the other in the worst of situations. Just because one thing (a vegetable for example) is not successful in “off” weather, doesn’t mean another vegetable won’t do its best ever in that same weather.

It’s always helpful to know the “whys” of what caused a failure so we can benefit from that knowledge at a later date. But even if we don’t have enough information to determine the cause, it’s important to look to the future and not get caught up in one or several less-than-successful attempts at growing something.

Dates Can Vary with the Weather

Your seed starting dates and dates for planting may vary from year to year because the weather varies. If it’s a warmer spring you get started earlier; if it’s a cold spring you start later. (If you have an indoor set up for seed-growing this may not apply in some cases.)

No need to be alarmed by this. Nothing we can do about the weather. If it’s a cold spring and you have to wait until later than you want to be getting things started and transplanted into the garden, be encouraged by this fact: when conditions are right, plants grow very quickly and 99% of the time can easily make up for the time you think you lost.

Adapting to Change

We can learn to adapt to various changes in the weather. It may be inconvenient, but we can do it. The way I learned to start seed without a greenhouse, without indoor lights, and everything else “conventional” wisdom dictated, was because I didn’t have all those things, couldn’t get them, and had to find a way if I was to grow my own.

I tried a lot of things before I was successful. And I’m still fine-tuning my “methods.”

Finding your First/Last Average Frost Dates

If you live in Virginia, here’s a link to one of the best first/last frost date charts I’ve seen for Virginia. It separates the state into 3 areas rather than giving one general date for all of Virginia.
If you live in another state and want to find your first/last frost date, go to this link for Victory Seeds and click on the state in which you live: http://www.victoryseeds.com/frost/home.asp

Things I find Helpful in Determining When I Want to Plant

I enjoy looking at the Farmer’s Almanac Weather forecast. http://www.farmersalmanac.com/long-range-weather-forecast/northeast-us/ (To get the forecast for your area, select your zone in the box indicated.)

It’s amazing how many times they’re right on target.  Last year they seemed to hit it right to the day; this year they’ve gotten the weather “event” correct, but have been off a day or so.  Still, I’ve found you can get some idea of what might  happen.

My interpretation of their forecast for my area for this spring is that we’ll have a roller coaster of cold and hot weather.  Around the 24 or 27th of April, it could be that my tomato seedlings (which by that time will be transplanting size), will need more protection for a day or two than my cold frame can provide. I am forewarned and as things develop I will be prepared to bring them inside for a day or two, rather than have them set back by unseasonably cold temperatures.

This will influence the dates I transplant to the garden as well. I’ll wait to see the May forecast when it’s put up before making a final decision about the date. My thought right now is to wait until mid- May or the end of May before I transplant tomatoes, peppers , and eggplant to the garden.

Remaining seedlings. All grow with a variation of the winter sown method.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplants started inside in March and moved outdoors under protection after germination. Picture was taken at end of April.

How That Influences My Start Date

If I count back 8 to 10 weeks from mid-May, that gives me a possible start date for my tomatoes, peppers, eggplants as early as March 1st if you go by a lot of the charts.  I don’t.  I never start those plants until at least March 15th. (Remember, after they germinate I have to put all seedlings outside to get enough light.)

Since it’s suppose to be cold off and on through March and April, I’ll have to “tend” stuff more than usual.  That involves bringing them in and right now, I wonder where in the world I’ll find room for them!

I plan to start a few tomatoes, peppers and eggplants in mid-March.  I’ll start the rest as late as the first week in April.  Cuke and squash I’ll start the end of April or the first of May.

Bottom Line

Like everything, there are many approaches to seed starting.  If you’re new to it, jump in and start swimming anyway!  If you have some set backs or if things go wrong – start again.

Take everything into consideration.  The weather, the forecast, what your set up for seed starting is, how much time you’ll have to plant, how much you can tend the plants, etc.

Just remember that with everything you do, you’ll learn.  If you know in advance that everything may not turn out 100% the way you wanted it to, you’ll still have many more successes than failures.

Good luck with everything!  It’s going to be an exciting growing season.


Related reading:

Frost Free Date – Deciding When to Start Seed – When to Set Out Seedlings

Seed Starting – Another Variation of Wintersown

Seed Starting – Two Main Reasons Seedling Fail

Warm Weather Crops and the Winter Sown Method

Wintersown – Answers to Questions about Seeds and Transplanting

Seed Starting-It’s Easy Even with Less Than Perfect Conditions

Hardening Off Your Seedlings

Tomatoes – Starting Your Own is Easy


Organic gardening is easy, effective, efficient – and it’s a lot healthier.


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  • Good morning, Theresa,
    My farmer friends here in SC said they are already behind about a month. I am taking my time this year because I found the plants really do catch up on their own and I have waited to start seeds. Little happens without that warmth! My winter sown jugs are looking great, btw!

  • Theresa – I am slow to learn these things, and tend to want to operate on a schedule. It doesn’t work that way, and I’m learning this bit by bit. This is part of the art of gardening – that sensitivity to nature and its variations from year to year. I think that is why I find getting a Fall garden going, to be so difficult too – because I want a firm ‘date’ to start things – an it’s never firm. There’s always something to learn with gardening.

  • Well, I took a gamble this year. I planted snow and sugar snap peas in the ground last weekend, right before the ice storm hit. I have always planted peas too late, and I just decided to go ahead this year and plant early. We shall see, right?

  • Sandra,
    That’s been hard for me too over the years. Operating on a schedule is so much more convenient, but as you said, it doesn’t work that way.
    I think a fall gardening is much more difficult for everyone who lives in a state that is humid and hot well into September. But fortunately, there are some tricks to help us as I’ve mentioned in prior posts.

    As you already know it’s possible for peas to rot in cold ground, but then again you could have great success. It will depend on your weather from this day on.

    Might help to keep a check on soil temperatures just for future reference.

    You can get a fair germination percentage (about 89%) at soil temps of 41 degrees F, but it takes about 36 days for the seed to germinate.
    At 50 degrees F soil temperature – 94%% germination and takes about 2 weeks to germinate.
    At 59 to 77% degrees F soil temps – 93% to 94% germination taking about 8 or 9 days to germinate.
    They’ll also germinate well at higher temperatures of course, but I think you have an excellent chance for success at 50 to 77 degrees F soil temps.

    You might want to pull heavy mulch back (leave a light covering) so the soil can warm a bit after the snow melts.

    This makes me want to get out there and get my peas going!

  • It was a wonderful article you wrote on “Seed starting – when to begin”. It should be especially helpful to newcomers and less experienced gardners. I bought a special thermometer and take readings on my soil temperature at various locations every day at this time of year. Today I decided to sow a row of early peas. It may be too early, but the meteorologists have forecast gradually warmer, but very dry weather over the next few weeks. You on the East Coast appear to be having the cold spring we had in Europe 2013. My hoop tunnels are ready, however, in case we get cooler weather in April and early May.

  • Theresa,

    I am starting my Cole crops in milk jugs. I’ve looked over your many posts on wintersown-so I’m sorry if you covered this. I did read how to cut the milk jugs, but I wondered if over the years you have determined the best way to cut the jugs, I.e., the best spot for the hinge spot, etc, or some other consideration, or do you just cut away?

    Zone 8 Dallas

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