I’VE BEEN PESTERING Lee Reich–who’s a master at making compost, growing common and unusual fruit, pruning and more–for any extra tricks of the trade about growing from seed, because it’s that time again. As if to dare us all to try new things, he says, “growing vegetables is easy,” and then shares his tips for successful celery, Brussels sprouts (staked!), nonstop lettuce and the best watermelons, along with homemade seed-starting and potting mix.
Lee is the author of so many books, including, “A Northeast Gardener’s Year,” “The Pruning Book,” “Weedless Gardening,” (enter to win a copy below) “Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden,” “Landscaping with Fruit,” and “Grow Fruit Naturally.” He is also an exceptional vegetable gardener, so I was pleased to get his advice to get started with some new crops, and with some new tricks with familiar crops. He also shared a helpful seed-starting video, which is partway through the transcript below.
Read along as you listen to the Feb. 8, 2016 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my seed-starting q&a with lee reich
Q. I guess I have to ask: Have you ordered all your seed?
A. I have, actually. I try to get them all ordered before the end of the year.
Q. You’re so good; you’re so good.
A. That’s so people can say that.
Q. You just do it for the praise; the pats on the back. Did you order anything that you’ve never tried before, or do you always order the same things? Tell me about your orders.
A. Mostly as far as seeds, I have to say—though I don’t want to sound provincial—as far as vegetables I’ve tried so many different things and had so many duds, that I stick with mostly tried-and-true.
I’m looking through the list, and most of them—or maybe all of them, except for one—are things I’ve grown before.
The only new thing, and it isn’t all that exciting, is ‘Walla Walla’ sweet Spanish onions.
Q. That’s funny’ I saw it on the rack the other day in the garden center. I think it was a High Mowing packet and I thought, “Can I really grow ‘Walla Walla’ onion?” It really confused me.
A. I thought the same thing. It’s supposed to grow OK.
Q. Did you start any onion seeds yet?
A. Of course.
Q. Oh, Lee, you always make me feel so substandard.
A. February first is my onion-sowing date. I’ve got to admit that I did it February 2.
Q. Well, I’m going to do it about the sixth.
A. It doesn’t really matter the exact date, because the amount of germination mine will make between the first and the sixth is not going to be significant at all.
Q. What are your standbys that you always have?
A. For beans, I always grow ‘Blue Lake’ beans, and usually ‘Kentucky Wonder’ or ‘Romano’ also.
Q. I love ‘Romano.’
A. Just the ones I think are the most worth growing.
I actually also started growing watermelons a few years ago, and I grow this one variety ‘Blacktail Mountain.’ It does pretty well in the North; I’ve had good crops from it. It has unbelievable flavor, and one of my favorite things: It’s seeded. In the supermarkets, and even in the farmers’ markets, everybody only sells seedless watermelons. I really like the seeded ones.
Q. Not because you save the seed but because you like that as a characteristic of eating watermelon—spitting out the seeds?
A. I eat the seeds, as I eat the watermelon. Also I think that perhaps when they breed something that’s specifically not flavor-related, maybe the flavor got bred out of seedless ones. But that might not be true; it might just be my imagination.
Q. You might be linking two things that aren’t linked. We can look into it.
A. But it is a great-tasting watermelon. Unbelievable.
Q. Do you have favorite tomatoes?
A. I have a lot of favorite tomatoes. People are always trying to give me tomato plants or tomato seeds. Last year I succumbed to it. I’ve had so many mediocre or even just good tomatoes, but there’s no reason to grow a good tomato when you can grow a great tomato.
Q. Name a couple of great ones.
A. ‘Sun Gold’ for cherry tomatoes.
Q. Me, too.
A. It’s definitely far and away the best.
The others are nothing new, the ones that most everyone grows: ‘Cherokee Purple,’ ‘Brandywine,’ ‘Belgian Giant.’ Actually one that people often grow for paste tomatoes is ‘Roma,’ because it’s synonymous with paste tomato.
Q. I don’t grow ‘Roma,’ I grow ‘Juliet,’ which is a sort of grape-clustered small paste.
A. I’ve grown that, yes. ‘Roma’ is one of the worst-tasting tomatoes.
Q. I really agree with you.
A. I make sauce out of all my tomatoes; I don’t separate them out. But ‘San Marzano’ really does make quite a unique one. That’s the one in cans in Italy; they specify that it’s ‘San Marzano.’
Two other tomatoes that I highly recommend for are ‘Anna Russian’ and ‘Amish Paste.’
Q. That’s a beauty, yes.
A. Most people agree on what the best-tasting tomatoes are, like ‘Brandywine’ and all those—and they are.
Q. You said you’d started your onions, but have you sown anything else? I should say we are both in the Northeast when we’re recording this, and it’s the first week of February.
A. I start celery this time of year, and celeriac. Last year it was a bust; it was in a place in the garden that didn’t get enough sun, and I think some mice got at it. This year I’m going to really give it better conditions.
The celery, interestingly, I grow some of it in the greenhouse for winter. Then it goes to seed starting in spring through summer and then I let a couple of plants just set seed, so I don’t have to start seedling any more, because I just have seedlings all over of various ages, sprouting up in the greenhouse. Basically I just weed out the extra, transplant what I want outside, and leave some in the greenhouse.
The variety I grow that I’ve been most successful with—in the past I was not successful, but I have grown this one for many years—is ‘Ventura.’
A. Yes, like Jesse Ventura. [Laughter.]
Q. I’m seeing celery lately at the farmers’ market, and at my local organic food coop—locally grown celery in season, much more than I did even five years ago. Some of them don’t seem to develop big stalks, but this one—‘Ventura’—is it a good one?
Q. For those of us who don’t have the advantage of self-sown seedlings in a greenhouse to enjoy and grow on, you would have started it around the time of your onions?
A. Yes, they germinate slowly, and start growing slowly. With celery it’s nice for them to have a smooth transition so that they’re just the right size when it’s time to plant them out.
Q. What is that? How big, or how many weeks—a 10-week plant? A 12-week plant?
A. Yes, 12 weeks.
Q. So it’s more like an onion-ish thing or a leek-ish thing, in terms of time from seed to transplant.
A. Yes—and oh, I’ve also sown leeks already. And I still have a bunch of them in my basement. I harvest them, and pack them in a wooden box and pack dirt around it and keep it moist. My basement is quite cool, and they keep really well.
Q. I have seen your vegetable garden, and it’s a no-till plot for many, many, many, many, many, many, many, many years—is that the right number of manys?
A. I think it’s one more. [Laughter.]
Q. It’s no-till, which means you are very careful when you remove last year’s plants not to make too much disruption and dislodge weed seeds and so forth. What stuff do you direct-sow always, or start inside? Are there some seeds you always direct-sow—like beans; I always direct-sow beans. What about things like your watermelon? Do you start those inside?
A. I start those inside, but just so I can have them earlier in the season. That is actually one of my pet peeves, because I think people don’t have faith in the seed. They think they have to tart them inside, or in a pot. If you go to a lot of garden centers now, they sell beans in a 6-pack. Beans, squash—you don’t have to sow squash inside, either; you can just plant it right outside. I do start a lot of things inside, but also direct-sow a lot of stuff.
You could direct-sow onions, too. In the onion black-dirt region south of here, they are all direct-sown.
Q. It’s probably not something I’ll do myself! [Laughter.] You and I have used, for many years, the APS propagating system. It’s like a Styrofoam cellpack unit that stands up on a platform, and there is a water reservoir and a wicking mat—like a felt mat.
A. A capillary mat.
Q. Yes, so it’s self-watering. You and I both loved that, but it doesn’t exist any more, though there is a new generation of it that we are both going to try. But to keep a steady supply of seedlings coming, you also sow some outside in other containers, don’t you, as we get a little later in the spring and beyond?
A. For instance I will sow lettuce very soon to eventually transplant outside, but then I’ll sow lettuce directly outside, too. And then through the gardening season, I’ll sow lettuce and use the APS or the new one, the Grow Ease, to have more seedlings. The advantage of this is it makes much more efficient use of space; you don’t have to take up space. I could put 24 seedlings in 2 square feet in this flat, and if I put the seeds out in the garden it would take a lot more space. When the space opens up out in the garden I can just pop these seedling in.
Q. So if some other crop comes out, you have these several-week-old lettuce seedlings (or other such seedlings) ready to plug into that space. I saw that you do this with small flats—what I would call a community pot, that is not very big—and you put a piece of glass over it and get it going.
A. This is actually to get even more efficient use of space, because my greenhouse isn’t that big, and I raise a lot of seedlings. So even that 2 square feet for 24 plants is a lot of space. So what I do is I germinate things in a small flat—say 4×6 inches—and I can put like four rows of seedlings in mini-furrows in there. It will take a week for the seedlings to come up, or maybe two weeks.
Once they’re big enough to transplant—once they have their first true leaves, I can just carefully lift them out and put them into the APS so each plant gets a separate cell. It just makes that much more space in the greenhouse, and you get more economical use of seed, because I am sowing a furrow 4 inches long, rather than out in the garden the same amount of seed might be for 10 feet.
Q. I think that’s one of the things that’s the trick with succession sowing. It’s not just succession sowing as in every two weeks, for instance, with lettuce to go outside and sow more lettuce. It’s having lettuce in various life stages ready to plug in so you always have lettuce.
A. Another example: I grow endive every fall—the kind of endive that makes a head, and is hardier and it has a different taste. It lasts a long time. I like to plant that out August 1, but if I was just going to sow the seed directly, I’d have to sow it say July 1 out in the garden—and maybe I don’t have space then.
Say I’m growing corn, and the first crop of corn is out of the garden August 1. But July 1, in flats or little seedling containers, I do the endive. So the endive is growing in the flats through the month of July; the corn is growing till the end of July. When the corn comes out, I put the endive right in—and I’ve already got a month’s jump so it will head up by October.
Q. You grow Brussels sprouts. I love to grow them—but last year was my first failure ever with them. We had a very dry year, and I think I just didn’t take good care of them in the face of it all, and was “throwing in the trowel,” as we say, most of the season mentally.
Do you start them earlier or later than some of your other Brassicas? Where do they fit in in the rest of your scheme?
A. March 1 is the time for my Brassicas. I didn’t grow Brussels sprouts for years because I thought I didn’t like them, and then two years ago I thought I’d make it a challenge to see if I could grow really good Brussels sprouts, and they were quite good.
Last year I decided to really make them good. You know the way they can sort of flop over and curl up, which ruins all the sprouts at the bottom?
A. This isn’t something you can do on a farm, but in a garden you can do it: Last year I decided to stake them [above]. They looked so cool. Everybody who came to my garden thought it was the most awesome-looking thing. By the end of the season they had sprouts from top to bottom, they were standing straight up like soldiers, and they were about 5 feet high.
Q. Like Brussels sprout trees. [Laughter.] And so you started them and had them indoors from about a March 1 date for your area, then mid-April you were putting them out in our cool early spring. Any other tactics?
A. I have drip irrigation, and I had put an inch of compost down.
Q. Do you disbud or top the plants?
A. I do, though I’m not sure if it really does anything. I pinched out the tip September 1. I’m going to do half of them this year and see if it really does something. When you pinch out the tip it releases side bids from being held back.
I pinched out the tip, and some of the sprouts that would have formed at the top and started to grow into stalks again; small stalks. I’m going to try both ways this year.
Q. It’s a research project!
A. Three plants one way and three plants the other way.
Q. If it’s real science do you have to have another plot elsewhere that’s the control?
A. The control will be the three plants I don’t do it. Though I could have a few plots randomized throughout so it’s not a spatial factor.
Q. Well you’re the PhD, not me. [Laughter.] Do you grow any flowers? As I visualize the vegetable garden I can’t recall whether inside there are flowers.
A. There are two flowers—again, not to sound provincial—that I always have been planting inside the vegetable garden. One is my favorite of all flowers: ‘Lemon Gem’ marigold. It’s a Signet marigold with ferny foliage and little yellow flowers that are dotted like stars on the foliage. They make these green mounds that are really nice for edging. I make an edging along the main path [above].
The other flower I do, near the gates, was inspired by Monet’s garden. I plant nasturtiums to soften up any over-rigidity my garden might have.
Q. Do you add them to salads or use the flowers?
A. Yes, all the time. They grow so much there is plenty to use.
Q. Do you use the leaves?
A. I use the flowers because they look nice, too.
Q. What do you think is your vegetable you’re the best at growing—you’re a champion (fill in the blank) grower? I think of you as the unusual fruit guy, but what’s your vegetable super-strength?
A. That’s a tough one.
Q. I think I’m a great bean grower; I’ve always grown beans. I’m crazy about putting up teepees or tripods of 10-foot bamboos, and having things growing up them and lots of productivity. I love that. I couldn’t have a garden without beans.
A. A lot of people would take issue with this—maybe you. I consider fruits to be hard to grow, generally; it’s different. Vegetables I think are so easy that it’s possible to grow everything really well. I am trying to think of what I don’t grow well.
Q. Maybe the celery was the example—it’s something you figure out, but most people don’t grow it.
A. It wasn’t so much figuring it out. They just like the rich soil, consistent moisture, starting at the right time. I guess the thing with vegetables is that there are always some failures, so it doesn’t really matter because you grow a lot of different ones. Another benefit of home gardening.
Q. One of the things I forgot to ask you about: your potting medium. You mix your own, don’t you?
A. You mean my secret mixture? [Laughter.]
Q. OK, I won’t ask you then.
A. It’s funny, because before I came up with it many years ago I did research so intensively. I looked up every possible mixture and every possible reason for putting anything into a mixture. And then I came up with this mixture that’s really pretty straight-forward.
It’s basically equal parts garden soil, compost, peat moss and perlite sifted together, and then for extra good measure I’ll often add a little kelp. And I also add a source of extra Nitrogen, like I’ll put soybean meal or alfalfa meal in it.
And I use that when I grow a lot of fruits in pots, like tropical and sub-tropical. I basically use this same mix for everything, except if I’m growing cacti I’ll add extra perlite, and that’s it.
Q. So that’s your seed-starting mix and potting mix?
A. I have trees in it, shrubs in it, figs in it, everything.
Q. You know, that doesn’t sound that hard to make, Lee. How come I never did it?
A. It’s not. But you never asked!
Q. Good that I called across the river again, to Lee’s House of Botanical Knowledge. [Laughter.] Thank you.
more advice from lee reich
- Visit Lee’s blog
- Making compost and a no-till garden
- Growing blueberries with Lee
- Native paw-paws and persimmons
- Raspberries, gooseberries and more
- How to grow a fig
win lee’s ‘weedless gardening’ book
I’VE BOUGHT an extra copy of “Weedless Gardening” by Lee Reich to share with you. All you have to do to enter to win is answer this question, entering your reply into the comment box at the very bottom of the page, scrolling down beneath the last reader comment:
Are you trying anything “new” from seed this year (like Lee trying ‘Walla Walla’ onions for a change). And what are the seeds you wouldn’t be without–the way Lee and I always grow ‘Romano’ beans and ‘Sun Gold’ cherry tomatoes? Tell us where you garden, too, for perspective on your choices.
Feeling shy, or have nothing to share? Just say “count me in” and I will include your entry–again, put it in the box-like form at the bottom of the page! Good luck to all. I’ll choose a winner at random after entries close at midnight Sunday, February 14, 2016.
prefer the podcast version of the show?
MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Feb. 8, 2016 show right here. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).