Get Your Veggies On – Seeds vs. Starts

March 10, 2016 6:45am

Just like a first kiss, timing is everything in the veggie garden. Take tomatoes – the Holy Grail of the Northwest gardener – they prefer their beds pre-warmed and toasty. Sow a seed in the ground that’s not warm enough, you might as well buy it a casket. Tomatoes wait for the soil to be reliably 55° F to open one cellular eyelid.


When does that happen in Seattle? Usually May – which is why Seattle Tilth’s major vegetable sale is always the first weekend in May – and sometimes even that feels like it’s a stretch.   If you want “warm-season” crops, like tomatoes, peppers, corn melons and squash, you can either:

  1. Buy a grow-light system, ideally with heating mats, to grow seeds indoors. If you timed your sowing well, great. Take outside for a couple of hours each day for a week to acclimate before planting. Teach them some sun salutations if you like. If, however, spring stretched out too long the seedlings will be too spindly and all will be for nought. Or:
  2. Wait and buy “starts” – plants someone else already went through all that with.

What you plant now, as either seeds or starts, are “cool season” crops – peas, lettuces, beets, carrots, and spinach.

I just planted this heirloom shelling pea, which is not only purple, but has the best name ever: ‘Blauwschokker.’ Say it. You can’t stop, can you?


Here’s a handy chart showing the sweet spot soil temperatures for each of the most popular vegetables.

Research: University of California at Davis; Source:

To figure out your soil temperature, you can buy a soil or compost thermometer, or check this site for current soil temps (click drop-down menu at top for soil temps).

Here’s one of my favorite bonus plants that you can plant now- a flower that is also edible: nasturtium. You might see it for sale at the farmer’s market. It is so easy to grow from seed it is often recommended for children’s gardens. Nasturtium leaves and flowers have a peppery flavor verging on arugula and are beautifully decorative.

You can find varieties that stay compact and mounded, or that climb up to eight feet high to adorn an arbor. They are very attractive to aphids, so some gardeners plant sacrifices as decoys to trap aphids. (You can spray aphids off with the hose or treat plants with an organic insecticidal soap spray.) Nasturtiums love the cooler temps, and will decline in the heat of summer, so plan a second sowing in August for fall.