Summer Starts

Gardener’s Notebook


Photo courtesy of Carol Topalian

Now is the time to sprout your summer crops from seed. In April and May when you purchase a $4 tomato or $3 pepper start, that plant was started from seed way back in February. The nursery worker who started it was thinking ahead to the vegetable-growing season, and you can too! 

First, consider which crops you and your family will love to eat. Peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumber, squash, melon, and basil are always popular. These can be started now from seed so they have plenty of time to sprout and grow. 

I recommend sprouting seeds in a flat filled with coconut coir. This is a soft, nontoxic medium that’s safe to breathe and draws in moisture easily. As a general rule, plant each seed at a depth equal to twice its largest dimension. Thus, a broad bean is planted much deeper than a pepper or tomato seed, and a tomato is planted deeper than a lettuce seed. 

Where to put your starts? As a gardening professional, I have a greenhouse for my business, which allows me to propagate cuttings and sprout seeds early in the year. If you are not so lucky, simply place a piece of cardboard on a table or countertop near a not-too-hot window and put seed flats or pots on top of this cardboard. The cardboard helps insulate against cold coming up from below. 

Mist your sprouts twice a week. Use a 750 ml spray bottle. Start with plain water, but about a week after the sprouts rise up out of the coco fiber, they will need other nutrients. I recommend using kelp meal as an early plant feed. By spraying a light foliar spray of kelp meal, you can give the plants the nitrogen boost they want in order to shoot up and begin to leaf out.

Around a month after the sprouts have emerged, the seedlings will be ready to transplant into larger pots filled with a proper soil mix. For a pre-made mix, I like FoxFarm’s Ocean Forest, which is readily available.

At this point, you can start acclimating your baby plants to the elements by bringing them outside for a few hours each day to “harden off.” Over a couple of weeks, this will strengthen them to the wind and temperature fluctuations.  

Permaculture designer and educator Joshua Burman Thayer is a regular contributor to Edible East Bay. In his monthly Gardener’s Notebook feature in Edible East Bay’s free e-newsletter, he offers lots more advice on how to implement gardening ideas like this one. Sign up for the newsletter here. Josh has also written for Mother Earth News and Edible Silicon Valley. Find him and his work at, and follow him on Twitter at @nativesungarden.