Seeds: The Whisper That Shapes A Song

“There is a way to see inside
By looking directly through
to seed or marrow

Within the bone vessel
a world is made
Red and milkweed
it flows between us like

Within the seed’s case
a secret is held
Its fertile whisper
shapes a song”
–   Joan Halifax, Marrow

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Theoretically, it’s time to start early seeds indoors here in northern New England. If you look at a seed starting app, e.g., the one Johnny’s Seeds offers, all you have to do is input the date of last frost in your area and voilà , you will be told when to start seeds inside to have them ready for transplanting outside at the appropriate time.  (You can find an estimate for the last frost date by zip code at Dave’s Garden.)

seeds, 20 May 2014 (few survived transplanting)
seeds, 20 May 2014 (about half survived transplanting)

In reality, it’s a bit of a crap shoot.

When I enter my zip code in the Dave’s Garden tool, I get this in response:

Each winter, on average, your risk of frost is from October 4 through May 11.
Almost certainly, however, you will receive frost from October 17 through April 28.
You are almost guaranteed that you will not get frost from May 25 through September 21.
Your frost-free growing season is around 146 days.

In other words, my last spring frost date is between 29 April and 25 May.

If I want to play it safe with regard to the frost, but perhaps not leave enough time for plants to fully mature and fruit, I’d plan to plant frost-sensitive seedlings out on 25 May or after. But many gardeners, especially here in northern New England, like to get a jump-start on the season, and so they start seeds earlier with the hope that the soil temperature will be warm enough (and the snow gone!) on, say, 10 May, so they can transplant the seedlings to their hospitable outside home. If conditions are such that the seedlings started early are not able to be planted out then, they could become spindly and/or may need retransplanting (if they have outgrown their tiny seedling containers) to another container before being transplanted yet again outside. And if they are planted out on a warm 10 May day, it will take only one frost after that to wipe them out or slow them considerably. Which is why some gardeners plan for both cases and start the same variety of seeds early and late, hedging their bets.

For the sake of example, I input 20 May as my last frost date into the Johnny’s app, which then immediately tells me when each vegetable and flower seed needs to be planted inside. I apparently should already have planted onions, leeks, the edible salad green mâche, parsley, peas (?), spinach, asclepias, delphinium (in January!), digitalis, verbena, viola, and other flowers.

One problem with this concept (that there is one date or short period to plant out each veggie) is that there are many varieties — including specifically labelled “early” season varieties — of each vegetable and many flowers, so knowing that “squash” seeds should be started from 6-13 May is really only a guideline, and for better estimating you need to know how many days it takes from planting (or planting out) to harvest.

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yellow squash seedlings (sown directly), 9 June 2014
yellow squash seedlings (sown directly), 9 June 2014

“The seed has no idea of being some particular plant, but it has its own form and is in perfect harmony with the ground, with its surroundings … and there is no trouble.  This is what we mean by naturalness.” —  Shrunyu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

I am actually not starting any seeds indoors this year. I have tried various seeds, structures, and strategies over the past 3 or 4 years and finally realise I just don’t have the light or warmth needed in my house in early spring to germinate seedlings and allow them to thrive. I could get grow lights, warming pads, etc., but I don’t have the interest in doing it, especially because we often travel between March and May, when watering and/or misting must be done every day or so.
side yard planted with seeds and seedlings, 29 May 2014
side yard planted with seeds and seedlings, 29 May 2014

Instead, I ordered seeds that can be planted out in May and June and still be harvestable where I live before September, and I will also buy transplants from the local farm stand for cherry tomatoes, bell peppers, and perhaps some others.

“Many things grow in the garden that were never sown there.” —  Thomas Fuller, Gnomologia, 1732

These are the seeds I’ve ordered or have so far; following are links to other gardeners’ 2015 seeds as well as links to others’ seed-starting experiences so far this year:

My Seeds for 2015 (to date)

Amaranth edible Red Leaf heirloom (Botanical Interests)
Arugula: Astro and an organic species (Fedco)
Beans: Provider and Scarlet Runner (Fedco)
Beets: Early Wonder organic heirloom (Botanical Interests)
Carrots: Red Cored Chantenay and Yaya (Fedco)
slicing Cucumber: Ministro and Marketmore (Fedco)
shelling Peas: Green Arrow (Botanical Interests)
Radish: French Breakfast (Fedco)
Summer Squash: Gentry and Early Summer Yellow Crookneck (Fedco)

Amaranth: Autumn Palette (Botanical Interests)
Chervil (Botanical Interests Beneficial Insects mix)
Cilantro (Botanical Interests Beneficial Insects mix)
Dill (Botanical Interests Beneficial Insects mix)
Lavender ‘English Tall’ (Botanical Interests Beneficial Insects mix)
Lavender (Fedco)


Bring Home the Butterflies mix (Botanical Interests), with about 25 perennial, annual, and biennial flowers and herbs. I used it last year and found that the Mexican lupine, Mexican sunflower, cosmos, crimson clover, balsam camellia, borage, and sunset flower were predominant.
Agstache ‘Sunset Hyssop’ A. rupestris (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Alyssum ‘Compacta’ Aurina saxatilis (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Bee Balm ‘Lambada’ Monarda hybrida (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Bishops Flower ‘White Lace’ Ammi majus (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Cardinal Climber Ipomoea x multifida (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Cleome ‘Fountain Blend’ C. hasslerna (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Columbine ‘McKenna Giants’ Aquilegia hybrida (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Cypress Vine ‘Funny Valentine Blend’ Ipompea quamoclit (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Marigold – Lemon and Tangerine Gems Tagetes tenuifolia (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Penstemon ‘Firecracker’ P. eatonii (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Zinnia ‘Thumbelina’ Z. elegans (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)
Zinnia ‘Fireball Blend’ Z. elegans (Botanical Interests Hummingbird Nectar mix)

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cucumber seedlings (sown directly), 12 June 2014
cucumber seedlings (sown directly), 12 June 2014

The only actual PLANTS I have ordered this year are (all from Fedco):

1 Black pussy willow Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’
1 Dwarf Korean Lilac  Syringa meyeri ‘Palabin’ (to replace a different lilac that died)
3 Sweet Cicely Myrrhis odorata

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scarlet runner bean seedlings (sown directly), 26 June 2013
scarlet runner bean seedlings (sown directly), 26 June 2013

Other Gardeners’ Lists of Seeds Bought So Far:

Red Dirt Ramblings (Oklahoma, zone 6a-7b), organised by seed company and then by cold-season veggies, warm-season veggies, and flowers.

Growing with Plants (Boston area, zone 6a), including lots of tomatoes, zinnias, and primulas, from a variety of sources, including Johnny’s, Chiltern (UK), The Cook’s Garden, Stokes, and Swallowtail Garden Seeds.

Skippy’s Vegetable Garden (near Boston, zone 6a) lists hers by planting date and for the most part doesn’t include sources.

Daphne’s Dandelions (outside Boston, zone 6a) lists her seed orders by source, including Dixondale, Fedco, Pinetree, Renee’s. (update 3/17) She’s posted an update on her seeding: her parsley, celery, and celeriac seeds have sprouted, and she’s now also planted “a couple of different kinds of black-eyed-susans, some gaillardia, and some edibles – lettuce and baby Asian greens.” Next week: major set of brassica seedlings. She’s concerned with timing, if the season is late starting.

Pam’s English Cottage Garden (in Pennsylvania’s Poconos, zone 6) has ordered seeds from Annie’s Heirloom Seeds and Burpee for her kitchen garden, and also won seeds from Baker’s Seeds, including some new ones for her:  eggplant ‘Ping Tung,’ pepper ‘Quadrato D’Asti Giallo,’ cabbage ‘Red Express,’ beet ‘Chioggia,’ and three heirloom tomatoes, ‘Kellog’s Breakfast,’ ‘Pink Accordion,’ and ‘Minibel.’

Hillbillies in Training (north-central WV, zone 5b-6a) ordered mainly from Seed Savers Exchange, plus a few (asparagus, parsley, peanuts, and rhubarb) from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.

(3/10 update) Donna at Gardens Eye View, who lives near near Oneida NY (zone 5b), posts photos of her seed-starting area, schematics of her planned veggie planting, and a list of seeds she has already started, including pansy/viola (late January), snapdragons, petunias, 5 varieties of eggplants, 10 varieties of peppers (2 types of green chiles, 3 sweet pepper, 5 hot pepper), started celery.  She says that basil and tomatoes will be started in mid-April.

Margaret at Homegrown Adventures (southern Ontario, USDA zone 5) lists hers from Aspragus to Turnips, with sources that include William Dam (local to her), Pinetree Seeds, Baker Creek, Renee’s Seeds.

Simplify, Live, Love (eastern Iowa, zone 4b-5a) lists hers, about 30 varieties, all from Pinetree Seeds this year. They include the same Red Cored Chantenay carrot I ordered!, as well as green Oaxacan corn, penguin gourd, pineapple tomatillo, May Queen lettuce, sugar sprint pea, several kinds of pumpkins, Easter egg radish, Aunt Ruby’s German green tomato.

Sue’s Garden Journal (northern Michigan, zone 4) ordered all her seeds from Fedco, including bush blue lake green bean, Ambrosia sweet corn, Mokum carrot, Easter egg radish, Revolution bell pepper, several lettuces, etc.

(3/10 update) Kathy at Violet Fern, who lies in zone 4 in upstate NY, has a great schematic of her veggie garden and a list of the many veggies she will be planting there when it’s time, including on a rustic obelisk, cherry tomatoes (Sun Gold from Johnny’s and Black Cherry from Bakers) and squash (Zephyr from Johnny’s and Ronde di Nice Zucchini from Renee’s).


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carrot seedlings (sown directly), 17 July 2014
carrot seedlings (sown directly), 17 July 2014

Other Gardeners’ Seed-Starting So Far:

Skippy’s (near Boston, zone 6a) has started Botanical Gardens mixes, onions, leeks, broccoli, cabbage, eggplant, and radicchio.

Chiot’s Run (Liberty, Maine, zone 5a) has started eight types of gardens, two cold tolerant tomatoes, celery and a flat of cold tolerant lettuces and endives.

For something a little different, The Alchemist’s Garden has started a flat of wolfsbane (Aconitum anthora), among other seeds.

Bonus: A quick, useful primer on indoor seed-starting indoors and direct sowing seeds from Mountain Rose Herbs. (3/10) This just in: how to start seeds: 18 confidence-building tips from A Way to Garden. One tip is to use a germinating mat or other underneath heating source.

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“Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn! You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into an oak! Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay.”  —   George Bernard Shaw




  1. I loved your post! I struggle with all of the very reasons you listed for not starting seeds, plus I’m just super great at killing the poor little seedlings too. I’ve decided to give it a try one my year… 😉 I am just sooooo tempted by the seed catalogs and I have a hard time finding the plant varieties I want if I don’t start the seeds myself. Thank you for including my post in your list!

  2. I’m excited your wrote about the quandary of seed starting and timing. It’s hard here too. I need to start my tomatoes , peppers and eggplant today. The spring weather is so unsettled this year. You just cross your fingers and grow. Thanks for the link. Happy spring!~~Dee

    1. I agree! I love seeing what types of vegetables and what varieties people are growing, and from which seed companies.

  3. Thanks so much for the mention! I will be planting seeds as soon as I get home – I probably should have planted some earlier. I read that you plant onions so early because they respond to the change in light. I try to restrain from planting things like kale, chard, spinach because I like to plant those directly in the garden as soon as I can. I’ll plant my peas as soon as I arrive home because they like it cold! I have checked out the planting tool from Dave’s – it is a great tool – but I find the best way to learn is the hard way – experience. And don’t forget your local cooperative extension! I believe Cornell’s even allows users to rate seeds and their successes – interesting reading! What a great post – I look forward to seeing how your seeds grow.

    1. Thanks, Kathy! I agree that experience is good way to learn. Everything seems to change so much from year to year. We still have several feet of snow on the ground, all over, and more coming this weekend, so peas won’t go into the ground (direct sown) until mid-April at least around here. (Patriot’s Day, 19 April, commemorating the Battle of Lexington and Concord in the Revolutionary War!, is the usual pea planting date in this area.) This year, I am planting almost everything directly into the ground, but most folks in my local permaculture group are starting seeds inside and we are recording what we start, and when, and when they sprout, when they are transplanted, how they do, etc. That will give us a little local data, anyway 🙂

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