The Starter Garden

We spent Christmas Eve with extended family and I discovered that my brother-in-law is a new gardening enthusiast. Whoa! I really hope everyone else enjoyed listening to us talk about gardening for hours, because we took over the conversation, which ranged from composting to seed starting and more.

While Scott’s already excellent at composting (he even monitors composting temperatures–that’s how good his compost is), he hasn’t started much vegetable growing yet. I told him, you’re talking to the right gal and said that I’d set him up with seeds and instructions to get started.

I was about to write him a long letter about what seeds I’m sending him, why and what to do with them when I thought, Why not share this with everyone who’s starting a garden or newish to vegetable gardening? So here’s what I’d write to a new gardener re: what to grow and how to grow, in this case addressed to Scott.

Dear Scott,

It was so good to see you, Lisa and Hannah! You have a beautiful family and I would love to see Logan soon too. I’m so excited that you’re getting into gardening. As you can tell, I’m obsessed with it. I’m sending you a bunch of seeds, and I’ll do my best to explain why, when to grow each and how to grow them (from seed starting to later on).

From my notes, I see that you’re looking to grow tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, carrots, green onions, maybe some mixed greens. Looks like you’re not so interested in beets, so I’ll leave those out. Here’s what I’m including in your starter garden care package:

Starter Garden Seeds

  • Tomato: I’m including Citrine, Purple Cherokee and Lucid Gem. Citrine won our cherry tomato taste test last year–a lot of people compared them to crack–and Lucid Gem won our large tomato taste test. Purple Cherokee did well too and it’s a classic. For some tips on growing tomatoes, check out this post.
  • Pepper: As Todd mentioned, Cornito Rosso peppers taste amazing and they’re hardy and easy to grow. I will also include some Padron pepper seeds. That was a new discovery for us in 2021 and they taste amazing simply pan-fried/sauteed.
  • Zucchini: This has got to be Dunja, which is perhaps one of the most perfect vegetables ever. This plant is easy to grow; the plant is compact/short spined (doesn’t sprawl as much as other zucchinis); and its zucchini fruits are a beautiful deep green. I’d recommend not planting more than two of these. If you get all the seeds to sprout that I send you, maybe pot them up and share them with others (though not the competitive neighbor with the huge terraced garden). Pick the zucchini when they are 6 to 8 inches long. If they get longer, they’re not as tender and tasty.
  • I also included some Sunburst patty pan summer squash. This is my first year trying these guys. Let me know how it goes.
  • Pumpkin: Speaking of squash, I included some Blaze pumpkin seeds too. I don’t know if you have the room, but I’m thinking you may have some room for at least one pumpkin vine. I like to grow pumpkins and winter squash (butternut, kabocha, etc.) over cattle panel arches. That saves room and looks pretty. I know you didn’t ask for pumpkin seeds but I thought I’d include a few. This variety is gorgeous, amazing and easy to grow and they’re out of stock until April, so you’ll definitely have a unique and beautiful crop.
  • Carrots: I’m sending two types of carrots: Scarlet Nantes and Atlas. The Scarlet Nantes are supposedly recommended for beginning gardeners. I find all carrot growing difficult. But this is a good video resource on growing carrots. Atlas are round ball carrots and I like their flavor.
  • Cucumbers: While I’ve tried a bunch of cucumbers from Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which is one of my favorite seed sources, I seem to have better luck with cucumbers from San Diego Seed Company, whose varieties are well-adapted to zones 9 and 10. I’m in zone 10a. I see that Palmdale spans zones 8b, 9a and 9b, so San Diego Seed Company seeds should do well for you. I’ve included Mark It 8 Dude and Tendergreen cucumbers.
  • Green Onions: I included a packet of Tokyo White Onion seeds from San Diego Seed Company. A good thing to keep in mind about onions–for bulbing onions rather than green onions: In Southern California, you need to grow short-day onions (vs. medium- or long-day onions). Many varieties are medium- and long-day onions. I’ve gone into gardening shops where they have huge beautiful displays of Botanical Interests seeds with a bunch of onions, only to find varieties displayed that don’t even grow here in our latitude. Boo. Just something to keep in mind for when in the future you choose to grow big bulbing (red and white and yellow) onions–make sure they are “short day.”
  • Mixed Greens: I’ve included Allstar Gourmet Lettuce Mix. It doesn’t get much easier than this. You basically just sprinkle these on top of the soil and then cover with a light dusting of seed-starting mix or other light soil. Since lettuce seeds are so tiny (same for onions), you don’t want to bury them under heavy soil, pebbles, etc. as they’ll never make it to the top of the soil to germinate. You can grow lettuces/greens like this in containers. Lettuce roots are pretty shallow so you don’t need big containers to grow mixed greens.
This is the Cornito Rosso pepper. I took this photo mid-December as the plant is still going strong.
Here’s a Blaze pumpkin. These started producing mature pumpkins in June(!) and continued through December. Note that when you buy pumpkin varieties from Johnny’s Selected Seeds (which are grown in Maine), you can expect the pumpkins you grow from those seeds to be 20% smaller in Southern California. I don’t know why but I attended a Johnny’s pumpkin seminar and that’s what I learned.

Speaking of starting seeds, check out these two blogs on seed-starting.

I love products from Bootstrap Farmer for starting seeds. I use a 50-cell tray with an under-tray (called a 1020 tray) and water from the bottom. The only problem with Bootstrap Farmer is their prices have gone way up and they still sell out a lot. Whatever you do, try and find something that is pretty strong. My trays have lasted for years and are reused repeatedly.

For seed-starting mix, I use Sungro Propagation Mix. They sell them in pretty huge bales. Around here they cost around $50 and last me a long time, even though I plant a LOT of seeds and do seedling sales.

As I mentioned, once the second set of leaves (the true leaves vs. the seed leaves) pop up, it’s time to add diluted fish emulsion to the water. You want something that is high in nitrogen for that initial growth stage. You’ll see this product is 5-1-1, where “5” is the nitrogen component. When it’s time for the plant to start blooming and producing fruit, you’ll want high “Y” in X-Y-Z mixtures like in some of my faves, like Dr. Earth Vegetable & Herb fertilizer (which is 4-6-3) or Garden & Bloome Tomato, Vegetable & Herb fertilizer (which is also 4-6-3). In other words, you’ll want lower nitrogen (and green growth) and more phosphorous for producing fruit. Just about everything you’re growing, except carrots, lettuce and onions, will appreciate a lot of feeding and will thrive on your compost.

I think that’s it for now. You’ve got my number–just let me know when you have questions!