The experiment – growing everything for a veggie patch from seed

This season (Autumn 2022) I made a bold decision: to grow everything in my veggie patch from seed. This meant brassicas, root veggies, leafy greens, all from seed.

I made this fateful decision for a couple of reasons. Firstly, funsies. Growing from seed is pretty fun. Some people like messing about in boats; I like messing about with dirt.

I also wanted to grow a few things that are not so easy to find in punnets from the Big Green Shed, or even from my favourite local nursery. I wanted to grow the standards (broccoli, caulis, cabbages, chard), but also some different plants, such as collard greens and orange cauliflowers. Of course, I could have found the broccoli and caulis at the nursery, but I could only find collards from one online seed supplier. I can’t even explain why I wanted to grown them. I get little side interests like this, and for some reason, collards was a thing I wanted to try.

I think the other reason I wanted to grow everything from seed is that it is an experiment in independence. Although I did buy most of the seeds online, some of the seeds I had saved from heirloom plants grown last year (cabbages, some lettuces, and coriander). While I’m not a prepper by any stretch, I do think about how we would manage if our supply chains are suddenly interrupted and we can no longer rely on the economic systems we currently have in place.

Oh, wait….

I’d like to think that I could manage to feed myself and my family – to an extent – by saving seeds and growing plants from seed, if the luxury of popping down to Bunno’s for a six pack of broccoli seedlings was taken away from me for some reason.

Like a worldwide pandemic.

Or if the country caught fire.

Or if large parts of our nation sank under metres and metres of water.

Oh, wait….

So, can I? Weellll…kinda. The answer is complicated.

Yes, I can grow everything from seed.

However, it takes a LOT of time. More time than I have, to be honest.

Not because I am so busy, although that is partly true. I only have time to be a part-time gardener.

I’m talking about the time I can’t control: seasonal time. I started sowing seeds for planting in Autumn in February, starting them inside using a heat mat. I planted out the second-last tray of seedling brassicas today (mid-May). That means that it has taken me 3.5 months to grow a full garden’s worth of veggies, using my tiny home setup. If I did not have the heat mat, it would have taken much longer.

The problem with this is that I have missed most of the warmer early Autumn weather, and I am planting baby brassicas into cold soil. The temperature today was about 20 degrees C. That doesn’t sound too bad, except the night temps are much cooler, and the soil temps are around 10 degrees C on the Adelaide Plains right now. As we live in a Southern hills area, the soil temps are likely to be about 2 degrees C cooler. My baby plants are likely to sulk in the cold soil, instead of taking off.

When gardening, temperatures are everything. Wait too long in Autumn, and you risk letting your seedlings slowly grow through Winter, until they suddenly bolt in the warmth of Springtime. This is likely to be my result for all my stubborn efforts. Even a week’s delay in planting can make all the difference.

If I had bought seedlings and planted everything at once in March, I’d probably be halfway to cauliflowers by now.

Lessons learned (but never learnings)

So what is my lesson – and what can you take from my bold/crazy experiment in seed-starting?

Firstly, the positives.

There are definitely some plants that are best to start from seed. Think zucchini, pumpkins, peas, beans, onions, any root veggies, and leafy greens. I always plant leafy greens from seed, as it is far cheaper and better to grow lettuces, spinach, bok chop, tatsoi, coriander, and chard from seed.

It’s also worth searching out seeds for heirloom or different veggies you may want to grow that you can’t find in commercial nurseries. I don’t want to just grow the things that big companies tell me to grow. Sometimes, seeds are just the only way to find and grow those plants. I’ll let you know if the collards were worth the effort!

I will also continue to save seeds, swap seeds, and plant seeds from veggies that I love or that do really well in my microclimate. For those plants, I will definitely grow from seed. Free seeds! Can’t beat that deal.

I do think that if I had a greenhouse, this whole experiment would have turned out very differently. Instead, I have a tiny heat mat in the corner of my sunroom. As I was planting out the seedlings this morning, I mused different ways I could afford a greenhouse. Then I realised that our annual September gales would probably throw someone’s roof shingles or backyard chairs through it. I could buy a LOT of seedlings for what that would cost me to fix.

There’s no point wasting precious seasonal growing time just to be stubborn. Right now, we still have the privilege of buying a punnet of seedlings for about $4, which is a pretty good deal. I know for a fact it’s a good deal, because it has taken me a lot of time and effort to grow all of these plants from seed.

And, FYI – growing from seed isn’t cheaper. Add in the cost of seed-raising mix, the little cardboard jiffy pots that I used to reduce the reliance on plastic, seeds, time, etc, and I would suggest that $4 for punnet of six seedlings is actually a spectacular bargain.

Therefore, I will start buying seedlings again for the old standards (ye olde broccoli, drumhead cabbages, white cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, and eggplants).

And the final lesson: no matter how you plant up your veggie patch, from seeds or seedlings, all your efforts will go to waste if you accidentally let the chooks out.

The unbearable optimism of planting seeds

I’m trying something unbelievably optimistic this season: I’m trying to plant my entire cool season garden from seeds. No seedlings or advanced plants.

Collard greens grown from seed

Seeds have some benefits over planting seedlings. There is a much wider range of plants to choose when you buy seeds. Instead of being held to the limited range of what is most commercially viable at the Big Green Shed, you can go to the many online seed companies and choose interesting varieties. For example, I love a lettuce called Marvel of Four Seasons (tbh, I think I just love the name). You can’t buy it in seedling form, but I can buy a packet of seeds for $3 from an online seed retailer. Or I can decide to trial a pumpkin I’ve never grown before, just for the heck of it, because it looked pretty in a catalogue or a podcaster told me it was good.

Growing from seed is also (mostly) fun. I spend at least a couple of hours a week fiddling around with seed-raising mix and seed trays and labels. I’m no scientician, but playing with seeds is as close as I get.

Growing from seed is immensely satisfying. When I see plants I grew from seed turn into delicious veggies and herbs, I feel extra proud – like a real gardener, not those fake ones I see on TV.

But – and of course you knew there was going to be a but – growing from seed is also bloody heart-breaking. It would be much cheaper and easier to just pick up a darn punnet of regular old caulis and cos lettuces from Bunnos and be done with it. I mean, lettuce is lettuce, right (even if it doesn’t have a cool name)? If I lose a couple to cabbage moth or pigeons, it would bug me a little, but I wouldn’t feel the gut punch I did when more than half my Green Viking Spinach seedlings disappeared overnight thanks to a hungry bird. I spend a lot of time growing my orange caulis and collard greens from seed. To lose them in such arbitrary fashion…argh!

Also, if I wasn’t growing from seed, I would have a garden almost fully planted up by now. Sowing from seed, even with a heat mat, takes a looooooong time. I started back in February, and it’s already April. After over two decades of parenting, my patience is quite well-honed, but still – I could be well on the way to broccoli and cauliflower by now.

Why have I not caved and bought a few backup punnets? I mean, does it really matter in the long run? I set myself this crazy challenge, after all.

Some dude once said, gardening is the triumph of hope over experience.

I guess that’s why.