A NEW YEAR AND A PACKET OF SEEDS: both are full of promise. This is what I think as I navigate around the four huge boxes of unsold seeds a large retailer gifted our Master Gardener group and which now sit in my office. Seeds of vegetables from A to Z and flowers of every color give a gardener the starry eyes of a Christmas morning kid with ribbons to untie and boxes to unwrap. And just about anyone can share in the magic of seeds. Author Sue Stuart-Smith writes, “Gardening is more accessible than other creative endeavors, such as painting and music, because you are halfway there before you start; the seed has all its potential within it—the gardener simply helps unlock it.”
Some of these donated seeds are easy to grow, while others demand more coaxing. Seed packet verbiage gives clues how to begin. Something like “sow after all danger of frost has passed” means being patient until a dry, warm day in May, then heading outdoors with a shovel. Instructions will hopefully also reveal how deep to plant the seed and how far apart from its neighbor it should go. If planting in a row, some gardeners use two stakes and string to make a straight trench.
Directions for planting squash and their kin call for planting on a “hill,” which is just a slightly raised mound where you can install some seeds in a circular formation. Mel Bartholomew, who introduced the world to his “square foot gardening” method, encouraged growing vegetables in a grid pattern, and his books are well worth reading, especially if you grow in raised beds. Seed spacing is more important than your overall pattern, since seeds sown too closely will become overcrowded seedlings if the germination rate is high. While you can always thin them, by plucking out the extras and leaving a chosen few, doing your best to space properly reduces wastage and that guilty feeling of uprooting innocent creatures.
By walking outside and sticking a seed in the soil, you are participating in the “direct sowing” method. A wide variety of plants, from pumpkins and carrots to marigolds and zinnias, can be started this way. Most will desire full sun but will tolerate some shady times of the day. Most will prefer soil which drains well but still retains some moisture—something between beach sand and pottery clay. Checking the pH, adding compost and giving the soil some fertilizer are all things, as a professional horticulturist, I am supposed to direct you to do, with good reason, as generally the plants grow better. But sometimes professional advice can turn into obstacles, and I would much rather see people plant a garden and experience their results than get overwhelmed and stuck by too many rules at square one. You can always contact us at Extension if things go wonky.
If you work with a school or community group and need vegetable and flower seeds, email me at and maybe we can help.
David Chinery is the horticulture educator for Cornell Cooperative Extension of Rensselaer County.