Build up your veggie-growing skills: Besides the flavor, you'll love the economics.
In many parts of the country, seeds have been flying off the shelves. And why not? Even if you've never relished the idea of growing your own vegetables, you might be swayed by the economics of it. Consider this: A $3 packet of seeds can yield 5 pounds of lettuce, 8 pounds of green beans, 20 pounds of carrots or 120 summer squash.
Depending on the variety and the care it receives, one tomato plant can yield more than 10 pounds of fruit, and in a packet of seeds, there are some 30 potential little tomato plants — plenty enough to swap with other gardeners. Or, the 24 or so little transplants you can't use could be sold at spring plant sales given by garden clubs. Either way, the math looks good.
Starting your garden from seed beats paying $2 or more per transplant at the garden center. Plus, you can get much more variety (transplants are usually limited to a few varieties of a very few vegetables).
Growing from seed was a principle my mother clung to. For decades, she managed a half-acre garden plot that was replete with the usual corn, beans, peas, greens and tomatoes, but also Brussels sprouts, rhubarb, cranberry beans and a full range of other veggies. She was thrilled when she found she could grow celeriac, an oddball-looking but delicious root crop and, at 112-days-and-counting from seed, a pretty long-season veggie. She rarely bought a transplant.
What you can do now
These are some of the first things you can start or, if it's too early in your area, think about preparing the bed and purchasing the seed to be ready to plant. Check your local extension office for the recommended varieties for your area and the best planting dates.
What about warm-weather crops? If you're anxious to grow peppers and tomatoes, which aren't frost hardy, and your climate isn't cooperating, you can start them indoors two to three weeks before your last frost-free date. Your local extension service can provide that date.
Tips for success
If you're planting in a bed you've already prepared, so much the better; you would already have been adding liberal amounts of organic matter to the soil. If you're scratching the soil for the first time, remove the sod and weeds, dig or till the area until it's reasonably fluffy. You may need to buy a few bags of compost or dried manure to improve the soil. After you've planted, cover the walkways with any kind of organic mulch that you can scrounge or buy — leftover leaves from fall, fresh grass clippings, unfinished compost, bagged mulch. The mulch will eventually break down and enrich the soil.
Chances are, a few successes in the beginning will encourage you to keep going. If you get into the swing of growing your veggies, you can plant second and third crops, and in late summer, plant a garden for fall.
Aside from the many gifts veggie gardeners receive — like fresh, wholesome bounty picked at the peak of ripeness and the welcome exercise — there are often other rewards. Every year, because I compost next to the garden, I get a few tomato plant volunteers that wind up being very productive. And last year, I was rewarded with three volunteer butternut squash plants that appeared in my compost pile. I let them keep growing, and at the end of the season, I harvested about 18 large squashes. They required zero effort on my part, except for the job of lugging them to the house. How can you argue with free food?