This week I’m diving into questions that have cropped up in the grocery store line and email inbox.
Q: I got a late start, so I will be purchasing my vegetable and flower seedlings. What do you look for when buying seedlings?
A. First of all, the season has barely started. You have plenty of time to get one, two, even three plantings in by direct sowing crops like kale, lettuce, mixed salad greens, turnips and radishes. Think succession growing: Before a crop is done, have another set of seedlings ready to go.
Succession planting takes a little planning, but it’s the best way to make good use of a short season. You can double, even triple, the amount that comes out of your garden and onto your plates or into your canning jars or freezer.
As for what to look for when choosing a plant (after you get over the initial “kid in a candy store” exuberance), select plants that are bushy and full. Avoid plants that are spindly and sparse. Don’t mistake young plants for spindly — just mature plants that dwarfed by poor growing conditions.
First, check to see if roots are growing out the pots drainage holes. If none are showing, gently — and I mean GENTLY since you haven’t bought the plant yet — slip the plant and root ball from the pot.
If the roots are growing in a circular pattern or matted up in a wad at the bottom of the pot, these are signs that the plant has been confined too long. It may or may not survive, even after transplanting. And for veggie seedlings like Chinese cabbage, cramped roots may cause the plant to bolt — that is, call it quits by sending up a flower stalk in spite of your best motherly efforts.
If you decide to buy the plant anyway, massage the roots to loosen them up and transplant it as soon as possible. Follow with a good soaking.
If you’re looking for a flowering plant, make sure you get the correct plant (labels do get switched) and select one that has the color you want and features plenty of buds but is not necessarily blooming. Why’s that?
A plant with buds, but not yet showing color, can direct more energy toward establishing a healthy root system, which means the bloom period will be longer and more prolific.
Two more things to look for when buying seedlings:
1. Color: Select a plant with healthy, lush leaves. With the exception of naturally variegated leaves, leaf color can tell you a lot about plants. Yellow or light green, for example, usually indicates a nitrogen deficiency, too much or too little water (sorry, I know that can be confusing) or insufficient light. Silver or purple leaves (common in early spring) indicate the plant was cold-damaged somewhere in its life.
You’ll see this color shift in lobelia or marigolds that are subjected to cool temperatures, usually caused by over-anxious gardeners setting their plants out too soon. Plants usually recover and send out new, green growth with improved growing conditions (and warmer temps).
2. Pests: Always, always inspect plants for pests. Look along the stems, on and under leaves, and on the surface of the soil.
Q: I’ve sowed rows of carrot, turnip and radish seeds. Now they’re all sprouting at once. Trouble is, I can’t bring myself to thin them out. Is there an easy way?
A: When it comes to thinning seedlings, some gardeners struggle, almost to the point of needing therapy. Thing is, all plants need space to grow, just like kids need larger shoes as they age. Plants started in pots are usually not a problem; you can separate them when it’s time to transplant outdoors. Plants that are sown directly in the ground, especially root vegetables, are another matter. These plants need to be thinned out.
On the practical side, thinning seedlings produces healthier plants and better yields by:
1. Allowing room for proper growth.
2. Reducing competition for water and nutrients.
3. Allowing for good air circulation (fewer pest problems).
Flowers and leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach can be thinned by gently pulling the unwanted plants. Seeds that you scattered in rows or patches for a quick crop of cut-and-come-again salad greens don’t need to be thinned.
On the other hand, carrots and other root vegetables, including onions and turnips, are more sensitive to thinning because overly disturbing young roots can cause deformation, as in twisted roots. If you’ve ever tried to transplant carrot seedlings, you often end up with forked carrots, which can be amusing.
Here are some spacing guidelines for thinning:
Beets: 3 to 6 inches
Carrots: 2 to 3 inches
Lettuce: 12 to 18 inches
Onions (bulbing): 3 to 5 inches
Onions (green, spring): 1 to 3 inches
Radishes: 2 to 3 inches
Rutabagas: 6 to 8 inches
Turnips: 2 to 4 inches
One more thing: While thinning seedlings, don’t agonize over every one you pull. Relax and focus on the task at hand, knowing that it’s all for the best.