Gardeners grow from seed for a variety of reasons. It's cheaper and more predictable, especially if you are using seed saved from that tangy Roma tomato that did so well last year.
And for lettuces, Asian greens and carrots, things that are quick to harvest, repeated successive sowing around the growing plants with seed means there's always something to eat in the garden.
Growing from seed also opens up your palate to plants rarely found as six-pack seedlings at the local nursery: bitter gourds, French Charantais melons, fiery ghost peppers, Komatsuna turnip greens, Kyoto green onions, super-sweet synergistic corn, Italian pepperoncini pickling peppers and literally thousands of tomato possibilities, from Chocolate Sprinkles to the husky Big Brandy to Momotaro, the bestselling Japanese hybrid.
That's why gardeners look forward to this time of year, when seed catalogs arrive.
It's part fantasy travelogue, part menu planning.
Eggplant, peppers and tomatoes all take a long time to get to harvest, so the earlier they get in the ground the better. Plan on starting seeds in March for planting out in May.
Ordering the seed is the easy part. Here are some more tips for getting it right:
Use the right tools. If you're growing seedlings, you'll need a seed spouting medium, a mister, trays and maybe a heating pad.
Choose the right containers. The initial containers should be at least two inches deep, have small holes in the bottom, and can be made out of cardboard, rolled newspaper, paper cups, or reused (and sterilized with a bleach solution) plastic six-packs. Recycled egg cartons as seed starters is a nice idea but they are not deep enough.
Start a seed journal. Label containers with start date and plant identity for later reference. This is essential.
Use a commercial seeding mixture. You want your soil to be sterile so you won't grow weeds along with those tomatoes. If you are the DIY type, you can make your own seed-starting mixture: Combine four parts finely sifted compost, baked in an 180-degree oven for 20 minutes, with a little peat moss or coconut coir fiber. You could also microwave for 90 seconds at full power. Top with a sprinkle of vermiculite, which helps with drainage and aeration and is available at well-stocked nurseries.
Preparation is everything. Soak the planting medium, squeeze out excess water, fill the containers and compress lightly to get out air bubbles. Plant the seeds according to the package instructions. Put no more than three smaller seeds or only one larger seed per container. Place the containers on a tray that will trap water, cover them lightly with plastic wrap or a plastic dome and wait for them to germinate.
Let there be light. Once the first green shoots pop up, remove the plastic wrap and give the seedlings lots of light. If you have fluorescent lights, hang them low over the seedling trays. The seedlings should have temperatures in the 70s.
Out with the weak. After the first batch of true leaves appear — not the initial starter leaves — thin out the weaker shoots, and get ready to transplant the remainder to larger four-inch containers in a few weeks.
Transplant. Remember to sterilize the new containers, and splash some rubbing alcohol on your own hands. Using a fork or chopsticks, tease out the seedlings, grip them by their leaves, not the stem, and shake off the dirt around the root ball. Plant them gently in their new pots filled with potting mixture and return them to their former growing place under the same light. Plan on providing a weak fertilizing solution during this growth cycle.
Be careful not to overwater. Seedlings like it moist, not soggy, and too much water can lead to fungal problems and the dreaded "damping off" syndrome when seemingly healthy shoots suddenly collapse and die.
If this all sounds like too much effort, consider the Park Seed Bio Dome. Based on a Dutch design, it includes plant food, planting medium, tray and seedling containers. $29.95 for a 60-cell seed starter kit at parkseed.com
Sunset Nursery in Silver Lake has a massive collection of seeds including Sero Biodynamic Seed, noted for their excellent germination rates.
The best deal in town is a $10 membership to the Seed Library of Los Angeles at the Learning Garden on the Venice High campus,13000 Venice Blvd., 90291. See SLOLA.org