After a long Wisconsin winter, we start to look everywhere for signs of spring — the first robin or an afternoon where the light lingers a little longer.
For gardeners, a welcome harbinger is the sight of tiny green leaves bursting through the soil and reaching for the sun. Growing your own plants from seed, as opposed to buying seedlings (young plants started by someone else) can be challenging, but also gratifying.
Megan Cain turns her entire yard into a mini-farm and writes about it on her popular blog, Creative Vegetable Gardener. Cain says there are several advantages to planting from seed, including saving money. A packet of seeds costs about three dollars, the same as just one seedling at a farmers’ market or store.
Another advantage is the large variety of plants and plant varieties to choose from — anyone who’s seen a seed catalog can attest to this.
Cain likes to grow onions from seed: “I grow between 300 and 500 and store them all winter,” she says.
If you are thinking of planting from seed, be sure to consult a planting calendar and listen to the advice of others about what’s worked well for them. Here are some tips from local gardeners to get you started.
If you’re looking for instant gratification, what about radishes? Martha Stryker, a home gardener on the east side of Madison, says she’s had great success growing radishes from seed. Radishes can be planted early (in Madison you can put seeds directly in the ground in late April), and they grow quickly and easily wherever you sow them. Stryker also offers a trick: “Radishes can be a nice way to mark your rows while you wait for slower seeds to germinate.”
Keeping the neighborhood rabbits from eating the bounty of his hard work has been Bryan Bingham’s main goal when planting from seed. Bingham, another east-side gardener, says he’s had luck with mustard greens. Apparently rabbits don’t like the peppery flavor.
Plant something that reminds you of home — that’s what Nhabee Her, a home gardener who lives in Sun Prairie, does. Her says one of his most successful seeds is jicama, a plant that grows year-round in his native country of Laos. Her likes to snack on the crunchy root vegetable.
Some plants, like cilantro, get a bad rap, but Michael Harris, a home gardener on Madison’s west side, says he has had luck planting this polarizing herb (You love it! You hate it!). But Harris says you do need to constantly harvest it or it will feather out and go to seed. And be careful about where you plant it: “I thought it would work putting it near tomatoes, because, you know, tomatoes and cilantro, but it was too sunny, so I put it in a pot on my porch,” Harris says.
Being able to reap the benefits of your work is especially important when gardening with children. Jen Greenwald, a teacher at Muir Elementary on Madison’s west side, says she likes to plant pumpkin seeds with students in their school garden. “Each kid can plant something, and they all get to pick a pumpkin in the fall,” Greenwald says.
Kids aren’t the only ones who enjoy seeing the fruits of their labor, as Lauren Rudersdorf will tell you. Rudersdorf, who founded Raleigh’s Hillside Farm with her husband, Kyle, is proud of their crop of onions, leeks, scallions and shallots, all grown from seed at their farm near Evansville. Rudersdorf says growing over 750 pounds of onions from a few ounces of tiny seeds feels “absolutely monumental.”
Mandie Poetzl, who helps maintain the garden behind Grampa’s Pizzeria on Williamson Street (one of the few restaurants in Madison with a garden on site), says she’s had success growing a variety of greens and edible flowers, like nasturtiums, from seed. Occasionally the market salad on Grampa’s menu will feature greens and veggies exclusively from their garden, which Poetzl thinks is “pretty damn cool.”
If, like state Sen. Fred Risser, you buy your vegetables at the Dane County Farmers’ Market, maybe you want to grow flowers. Risser, a garden enthusiast, and his wife, Nancy, have a downtown garden with over 50 kinds of flowers. Risser says their favorite ones to grow from seed are zinnias; they produce well all summer and are a beautiful cut flower.
And it’s possible that a gardening hobby could one day turn into a paying gig. Donna Dean-Slaton remembers when she was in college at UW-Madison and lived in an apartment near Midvale Boulevard. She planted blue fescue grasses and yellow marigolds from seed in containers outside of her door, and soon her neighbors started stopping by to look and compliment her display. Before long the apartment manager asked if she would like a job planting flowers for the apartment building.
Planting from seeds may seem daunting if you have never done it, but you’ll soon get the hang of it. Happy growing season.