To do serious self-sufficient gardening, including starting early and growing late, you'll need to grow your own transplants. Commercial seedlings are usually not available except during the times of peak consumer demand. I set out cabbages, tomatoes, green peppers, and eggplant every year. It's cheaper to start your own sets from seed than to buy them from a local nursery. Try not to mail-order them.
Eggplants, green peppers, tomatoes, and cabbage have to be started in the house and then transplanted to the garden. I think head lettuce is better off raised from seed in the garden, although I've seen recommendations to start it indoors. But this depends on your climate. Start your plants for transplanting about 2 to 21⁄2 months before you plan to set them out. They will germinate easily indoors, where the
moderate temperatures that are comfortable for humans are generally perfect for seed germination too. Make your soil mixture in the fall, before the ground gets too wet: 1 part well-rotted compost and 2 parts dirt. Fill your containers to the top with dirt.
Start your seeds in the house or greenhouse rather than in a cloche or cold frame, because most seeds require much warmer soil to germinate than they need to grow. Inside you can give them ideal conditions in their tender early stages. They don't need much space. You can grow your transplants on a windowsill that's sunny at least part of the day. For more plants, make shelves across your window. Remove anything underneath that could be harmed by dripping water.Water
You'll want to water the plants every other day or whenever they look dry. Several light waterings beat one big flood, which has a tendency to go right through, leaving the plant still dry.
Milk Cartons. Mary Ann Shepherd, Del Mar, CA, wrote me, "I use milk cartons as collars to blanch celery, around my new lettuce seedlings to discourage cutworms, and to start all sorts of cuttings (both flowers and vegetables) and seeds. For collars, cut off tops and bottoms. For all else, cut off tops (or open up) and use a tri-cornered beverage opener ('church key') to cut a drain hole on all four sides at the bottom (not in the bottom itself). When I go to transplant I slit the sides and bottom and plant the whole thing - the carton eventually disintegrates and you don't disturb the roots that way. My pine seedlings take about a year to germinate and grow to about 4 inches tall, and they have lived happily in milk cartons for up to 2 years before I've transplanted them."Cardboard Boxes. I sometimes start the plants in "seed flats" (for me, that means a cardboard box with dirt in the bottom) and then transplant to tin cans. If I don't get them out of there pretty fast, the bottoms get too soggy.
Cans. Cans of any size are good. I like those big tins that canned hams come in, and gallon tins are great. You have to punch small holes in the bottom. Big containers of dirt are better than small ones. I use 1 plant to 1 soup can or peat pot once they are started in the seed flats, or about 6 to a ham can.Peat Pots. Plants in peat pots dry out fast and have to be watered every day. Set them out, pot and all, or you'll be breaking off roots that have grown right into the pot side. Tear off the part of the rim that's above ground to prevent it from acting as a wick and causing the plant to lose water. Other than that, and the fact you have to pay for them, peat pots are great.
NOTE: Be sure to label each flat with the variety of plant in it.
When to Transplant?The best time to set transplants out is the beginning of a cloudy, rainy spell. Cabbage sets are hardy and can go out in the garden when you plant your green onions. But in my garden, if I plant too early I
risk losing my plants to cutworms. A little later is perfect. Tomato sets can go to the garden when you're positive the frosts and near-frosts are over. Green pepper and eggplant sets should wait till the nights are not cold at all. Because plants I set out too early may be wiped out by cutworms or cold, I first set out a sampling and then wait a few days to see what happens before setting out the rest. Or you can harden off . . .
You can do this by setting your containers outside during the warmer hours of the day, longer each day, before actually transplanting them into the garden. Or you can do it by transplanting your tender young plants from the house or greenhouse into a cold frame, where they will stay 2 or 3 weeks, gradually getting used to cold air and chilly nights before they go out into the regular garden in yet another transplant. For hardening plants, leave the lid of the cold frame up a bit more each day - unless you need to protect the plants from a spell of cold weather.How to Transplant?
To set out plants with dirtless roots, make a mud bath to plant them in. It's cold, dirty work. If they have their own dirt - for instance, plants in a peat pot that you'll plant pot and all - give them a wet hole to sit in and plenty of good water for the next few weeks. A hot, dry spell, even in May, can wipe out new, unwatered sets because their root systems haven't yet had a chance to get normally established. To set them out from a can, dig a hole and shake the plants out of the can (it's easier if the soil is soaked ahead of time). Separate them, keeping as much dirt on the roots as you can, and try not to damage the roots. Set a plant in your hole, pack dirt in around it, and give it a good soaking. Give tomato plants plenty of room to spread. They get big.