Seed Starting for a Preservation Garden - Backyard Gardening

My Green Thumb is Bigger than My Garden

The beginning of each planting season is always an exciting time for me. That broad expanse of fresh dark earth, empty and waiting to be filled with green and delicious life, so full of promise. Over the years I have noticed that, just as the eyes can sometimes be "bigger than the stomach" in terms of how much a diner can eat, my green thumb is bigger than my garden.

How Much Can You Squeeze into Your Backyard Garden?

Every year, somehow, I end up with more plants than I can reasonably grow in the backyard garden. In a way, this is ok, as it has led me to develop more creative planting spaces; hay bale beds, pots of herbs and peppers on the porch when the garden beds are full. But I know myself well enough to understand that a little bit of planning is in order, too, to make sure I leave room for the things I know are the backbone of my preservation garden.

A Little Planning Goes a Long Way

So before I set out each season, I like to review what I find most rewarding to grow, and what kind of quantity I would like to grow it in.

In the summertime, I think most about tomatoes and peppers, cukes and basil; in terms of preservation, this means pickles and salsa, mostly. These are two of the most commonly made preserves, a staple of any pantry.


I like to grow a mix of old standbys, and throw in a few new varieties to experiment with. I like the meatier tomatoes, like the Roma, for sauce or roasted tomatoes, but for salsa I prefer any of the classic "red slicers"; Early Girl, Moscvich, and the like. These have a bright acidity to them that makes them the perfect complement to the fire in a well-crafted salsa.

They are also bountiful producers, starting early in the season and going strong well into the fall. A loose rule of thumb for me is that I can expect a gallon of tomatoes for preserving off of every plant, although often it is more. But, because they will ripen over the course of several months, I grow at least 6 plants, so that I have enough to make a big batch all at once, several times over. That's how I like to do it, making big double batches of salsa or pickles, rather than fewer small batches.

The opposite is true for some people, though, in that making more small batches allows for more experimentation, or the use of different recipes, so that you have a wider range of flavors to choose from.


If you love fresh cucumbers, grow Armenian or Lemon cukes. If you love pickles, though, grow a cucumber specifically bred for pickling. They tend to be smaller, firmer, better suited to the processes of water bath canning or lactic fermentation. There's nothing worse than a soggy pickle! (Well, ok, maybe there is. But the point is, we like our pickles crunchy!) Dill, a spice that isn't utilized much in everyday cooking, is the perfect complement to pickles, whether it's the beautiful flower head pressed against the glass of a pickle jar, or the dried leaves and seeds floating in the brine.

It's worth it to grow a plant or two--that's all you'll need for a summer of pickles, as you use just a small amount in every batch.

A Good Journal Makes Great Results, Season Over Season

How many pints of salsa did your family eat last year? More directly, is it important to you that you make every pint of salsa your family eats? Or is it enough to can up a few pints to open for a special occasion?

Here is where time and preferences need to be considered; before the garden goes in, how much time are you interested in spending in the kitchen? Another angle to consider is, how important is it to you that you grow every ingredient?

I generally grow scallions, but not big storage onions; in my smaller space, I weigh the satisfaction of ripe tomatoes over fresh dug onions, and tomatoes win out. So, I tuck scallions in here and there for fresh salsa, but buy a slicing onion or two for the big batches of canning salsa. Others may do the math differently, and that is as it should be.

The important thing is to consider the different factors before being surprised by them. Learn more about keeping a good journal in this article by staff expert Jess Tunis. Also, you can sign up for our monthly Journal and stay up to date on all the latest recipes and projects we've been working on at the store.

Grow, Harvest and Preserve the Food that You Like

It sounds simple, but I also advise folks to preserve what you love. I've stood in the pantry doorway, staring almost in bewilderment at several dozen half-pints of grape jam, as it slowly dawned on me: I don't really even like grape jam! But my friend had a vine, and I was so excited to harvest the year, perhaps raisins!

Or perhaps all those jars of grape jam could be traded to someone who has a glut of... cucumbers. Tomatoes. Anything! However, it's also worth experimenting with new recipes as the seasons change, because you never know what you might discover. A glut of zucchini one year led me to make zucchini relish; now I grow extra squash with intent to preserve at least a dozen pints of this cheerful, zesty garnish each year.

The Garden Always Brings Surprises

Every year the garden surprises me somehow. So, try and plan as I might, something inevitable happens. Sometimes it's a boon, like that zucchini relish, or a bumper bean crop a few years back that left me scrambling to keep up. Long after the family was weary of green beans in every meal, they kept coming! So, that year in particular, I learned that I actually prefer pickled beans to cucumber pickles. They're firmer! Still, I made so many bean pickles that when planting season rolled around again next year, I planted far fewer beans.

I could go on and on, telling stories about the intersection of kitchen and garden, best laid-plans and the sudden surprises of every season. But I will save that for another post. There's so much to learn! And really, I think that's the best advice I could give to anyone; Pay attention, and be willing to learn. Experiment and make mistakes; it will make you a better gardener. And with any luck, you will wind up with a pantry full of homegrown goodness, that you will be proud to feed your friends and family from, all year long. Pass the grape jam!

Before You Start

Read your seed packet.

Determine Your average last frost date.
Most cool weather crops like broccoli, lettuce, kale, and peas can be started 2 to 4 weeks before this date. Truth is, around the coast, it's almost year round. Crops that prefer warmer weather like basil, tomatoes, peppers, squash and cucumbers should be started 1 to two weeks after average last frost date.

Check seed planting depth.
Some seeds need light to germinate (usually tiny seeds fall into this category: alpine strawberries, thyme, summer savory, sweet marjoram etc…) in which case they will remain on the soil surface to germinate.

Look at Days to Germination.
This will tell you how many days after you plant your seed you should expect to see a seedling emerge.

Prepare germinating medium

Buy a new bag of clean, disease and weed free soil or soil-less seedling mix from your local nursery. Place soil into a seed starting container from 1" to 4” deep. Container choices for starting seeds range from plastic 6 packs, propagation trays, molded paper pots or even home made containers such as hollowed out egg shells. Make sure your containers are new or clean and sanitize containers you are reusing.

Sow Your Seeds

The general rule of thumb is that seeds are sown 2 to 3 times their width… deep. So if the seed is small like lettuce or broccoli the planting hole is only about 1/8 inch deep. Large seeds like nasturtium or sunflowers, beans or peas should be planted about ½ inch deep. Your seed packet will tell you the sewing depth for your particular seeds.

Once you place the seed in the hole, cover it with more seed starting soil mix.

Water Your Seeds

Gently water your seeds with a watering can or even mist with a spray bottle, then wait a few minutes and water again. The idea is to get all of the soil in the container wet without creating a “flood like event”. If it “floods” and water puddles on top, the seed might float to the top and will no longer be at the proper planting depth.

Keep sown seeds wet but not soaked until germination.

Find a Warm Place for Seeds to Germinate

Almost all seeds will benefit for some added heat during germination. Heat quickens the process and increases the likelihood of proper germination and strong growth. Heat loving plants definitely need added heat at this stage to germinate a healthy plant; without added heat, results will be mediocre at best. Ex: tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.

Place them in bright direct sunlight for the whole day (sunny south facing window) and move them to a heat source at night. Heat can be provided by placing seedlings on a heat mat or any place warm in your house like above a pilot light on your stove or water heater.

Cold night time temps are the thing to avoid.

Once seeds germinate

If plants seem stretched (leggy ) or pale green,  they need more light. Either find a sunnier spot or place a fluorescent light 2 to 3 inches above them, maintaining heat at night.

After first true leaves form you can add a gentle liquid fertilizer like Sea Kelp when watering to help them get strong.

When the plant roots occupy 25 to 50% of the growing medium they are ready to plant outside. (Flip plant upside down and gently remove from container to check condition and quantity of roots.)

Seed Starting is an economical and rewarding way to get involved with your garden from the ground up! There’s little more rewarding than watching those first green shoots unfurl from the soil.

Over to You

It’s part of our mission here at Mountain Feed to help you make delicious, sustainable, homemade food more often. Stop by and say hello on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest. Or, as always, you can do it the old fashioned way and come by the store to speak with one of our in-house experts.

Keeping a great journal leads to delicious results! Get inspired by new recipes, expert articles and homemade food adventures in our Monthly Journal

Always make sure you are following all safety guidelines outlined by the USDA when canning or preserving anything.