Advice for new gardeners: the best seeds to plant in spring
Garden of Eatin', How-To, Seeds & Seedlings

Advice for New Gardeners: The Best Seeds to Plant in Spring

In my very first year of gardening, I did what any ambitious beginner would do in a brand-new garden: I bought a bunch of seeds that looked good, threw them in the ground, and hoped at least a few of them would come up.

Some seeds did come up, but many others either took their sweet time germinating (laying dormant for weeks until I’d forgotten about them) or never sprouted at all, becoming a free buffet for a passing bird or slug.

It took several seasons of trial and error before I mastered the tricks of seed starting, learned which varieties grew best in my climate, and figured out when to plant them for a productive harvest.

Ironically, it took much less time than that to realize that patience — a somewhat necessary trait for a gardener — was not one of my strong suits, and after a winter of minimal sun and slow-growing crops, I wanted near-instant gratification in the garden come spring. I didn’t want to wait alllll season long for my first harvest, I didn’t want to coddle seedlings or worry whether I was doing it “right.” Yet, I really loved growing my own food from seed.

In short, I just wanted it to be easy. Fun, fast, and easy.

Seeds for spring planting

What I’ve discovered is that many of my favorite food plants in the garden are those that come up quickly and can be harvested at any stage. It’s encouraging to see your seeds sprout in just a few short days, and oh-so-satisfying to pick your first crop in a matter of weeks.

The prime time to start your seeds in the garden is shortly after the last frost date in your region (this is a good site to check for your zip code). Once the soil temperature has warmed to at least 65°F to 70°F (typically two weeks after the last frost date; I use a soil thermometer like this one to gauge when my garden’s ready) and nighttime temps are consistently above 45°F, you can safely plant most vegetable seeds outside, directly in the soil, without the need for frost covers or other protection.

There are certain seeds (like peas and lettuce) that will germinate at much lower temperatures, but their growth will be slower in the beginning. I usually like to fill up a whole plot with seeds at the same time, so I prefer to wait until it’s a little warmer to give all my seedlings a strong start.

Below, I’ve rounded up the best seeds to plant in spring. These varieties are perfect for new gardeners, impatient gardeners (like me!), and kids who want to help, since many of them are larger seeds that are easier to handle.

Lettuce and salad greens

Lettuce

Fast-growing lettuce is a springtime staple, as the leafy greens thrive in cool weather. Varieties include iceberg (the sturdiest and longest-keeping lettuce, but also the blandest), romaine, butterhead, and leaf lettuce.

Butterhead lettuces are further categorized as Boston or Bibb types, and their soft, supple leaves are ideal for lettuce cup recipes. Leaf lettuces come in red, green, and oak types, and the tender leaves are often found in bagged baby salad greens (usually labeled as mesclun or spring mixes).

Lettuces mature a month after germination, but can be picked earlier in the baby stage. With the sheer variety of lettuces available, it can be overwhelming trying to choose what to grow. I like to buy packets of “salad mix” seeds that sometimes include mustards, arugula, kale, or cress for a complementary blend of colors, textures, and flavors.

Tiny, delicate lettuce seeds require light for germination, so they should be scattered lightly across the soil and watered in (with no soil covering them). Sometimes I rake them in with a hand cultivator (like this one) to make sure they’re embedded in the soil and won’t fly or wash away.

The best practice for growing lettuce — and maintaining a consistent harvest all season — is to sow a hefty pinch or two of lettuce seeds every other week. Because they grow so quickly and don’t mind a little shade, they’re great for filling in empty spots in your garden beds or interplanting between rows of slower-growing crops like carrots and peppers.

Favorite Varieties: Gourmet Baby Greens Mesclun lettuce, Market Day Mesclun lettuce, Chef’s Gourmet Spicy Mix Mesclun lettuce, Gentilina lettuce (a good heat-tolerant variety), Celtuce lettuce

Kale and other brassicas

Brassicas

This broad category of leafy greens (also known as cole crops or cruciferous vegetables) is one of the first crops to go in my garden every spring. They include common bitter greens like kale and collards (side note: here’s an interesting post I wrote about the “bitter genes” that some people lack), as well as my personal favorites, tatsoi and bok choy, which have a milder flavor.

I usually don’t recommend broccoli, cauliflower, or brussels sprouts for beginners, as it can be a little tricky getting heads or sprouts to form properly. (Sometimes, they form too loosely or never produce at all.)

But if you aren’t worried about that, go ahead and plant them — the leaves on their own are mildly earthy and delicious, giving you a “bonus” vegetable while you wait for the heads to form.

Brassicas are cut-and-come-again crops, meaning you can harvest a few leaves at a time from each plant, every couple of days, and it will continue to grow. This means you can also begin picking the plant before it’s fully mature (like baby kale for salads), giving you the first harvest within a month of sowing seeds.

The seeds are smooth, round, and tiny, and best sown with a dibber, or scattered lightly across the ground and covered with 1/4- to 1/2-inch of soil.

Favorite Varieties: Nero Toscana kale, Red Russian kale, Tronchuda kale (fairly heat-tolerant), Georgia Southern collards, Romanesco broccoli (I love to grow this each year), Aubervilliers Savoy cabbage, One Kilo Slow Bolt napa cabbage, Rosette tatsoi, Toy Choy bok choy, Purple Lady bok choy

Spring radishes

Spring Radishes

Believe it or not, there are actually three different types of radishes (spring, summer, and winter) that determine their days to maturity, with winter types being the largest varieties and also taking the longest to grow.

Spring radishes are the babies of the group, and what we commonly know as salad radishes. They’re usually eaten raw and known for having a peppery kick, but they can also be roasted, braised, or sautéed, which mellows out their spiciness.

The roots, leaves, and seed pods are all edible, so not to worry if you left a few plants in the ground too long — you can harvest the pods and use them for salads or pickling. (There’s even a special cultivar of radish called Rat’s Tail radish that’s grown specifically for the seed pods, as it doesn’t produce an edible root.)

As one of my top picks for a foolproof beginner crop (and my favorite crop to interplant among slower-growing vegetables), spring radishes sprout within a couple of days and mature in as little as three weeks. They will turn spongy or woody if left in the ground too long, so it’s best to pull them as soon as they’re ready.

The seeds are small and round-ish, which make them easy to sow. Simply poke a pencil or chopstick (or similarly-sized dibber tool) into the ground about 1/4- to 1/2-inch deep, drop in a seed, and cover lightly with soil.

Favorite Varieties: French Breakfast radish, Purple Plum radish, White Hailstone radish (I grew it here), Crimson Giant radish, Easter Egg Blend radish

Swiss chard and beets

Chard and Beets

I put chard and beets in the same heading because while they are different varieties of plants, they come from the same plant family (Beta vulgaris) and share a similar flavor profile.

During growth, it’s also hard to discern one from the other as the leaves look very much alike (and overgrown chard root isn’t too far off from beet root).

Some people even sow beet seeds specifically for microgreens, so they never make it to full maturity. Baby beet greens and baby chard are delicious in salads, while baby beets can be peeled and sliced thin with a mandoline and eaten raw.

Chard and beet seeds are known as multigerm seeds; that is, they are clusters of flowers that end up producing clusters of seed balls. (You can read more about that here in my previous post.)

Each seed that you get in a seed packet is actually several seeds fused together, resulting in multiple seedlings sprouting from the same seed ball. Chard and beet seeds germinate in less than a week and the plants mature in 50 to 65 days, though either can be picked early.

To sow, make a trench in the soil about 1/2- to 1-inch deep and space the seeds 3 to 6 inches apart. Cover with soil. Once the seedlings are at least 4 inches tall, thin them to one plant every 6 to 12 inches (and save the thinnings for salads!).

Favorite Varieties: Five Color Silverbeet swiss chard, Apple Blossom Blend Baby Greens chard, Chioggia beet, Golden Boy beet, Albino beet, Cylindra beet, Gourmet Blend beets

Peas and other legumes

Legumes

This category of easy-grow beginner-friendly crops includes snap peas, snow peas, shelling peas, fava beans, bush beans, and pole beans, all of which are incredibly satisfying to plant because the large seeds are easy to handle. (A nice change from the teeny tiny seeds that like to stick all over your fingers and before you know it, you’ve gone through a whole packet without meaning to.)

Legume seeds germinate within a couple of days and the plants mature in 60 to 70 days. Maturation, in these cases, is the point at which the pods are ready for harvest.

However, you can harvest the young shoots and leaves from your pea and bean plants long before the pods appear, as they’re edible and make great salad greens. (Yes, you can eat bean leaves! Fava leaves, in particular, are a favorite of mine for how mild and tender they are.)

All peas, as well as fava beans, should be planted as soon as possible in spring to take advantage of the cool weather they prefer.

This is one variety where you can even start seeds before your last frost date, when the soil is at least 45°F — but I usually don’t recommend it, as excessive moisture from snowmelt or spring rains can cause your seeds to sit in soggy soil and rot before they have a chance to germinate. They also take a little longer to germinate in these colder temperatures.

Bush beans and pole beans are warm-weather crops that can be sown from spring into summer. I sometimes sow a new batch of bush bean seeds mid-season to ensure a steady harvest. Even if you choose to grow pole beans, it’s always worth planting a small row of bush beans because they mature a little quicker (in about 50 to 55 days).

Sow seeds about 1-inch deep and cover with soil. Peas and pole beans will need a trellis to climb, as the vines can reach over 6 feet long. Fava beans benefit from stakes or small cages to keep the plants from tipping over, while bush beans are compact plants that don’t need any support at all.

Favorite Varieties: Sugar Daddy snap pea, Wando shelling pea (a cold- and heat-tolerant variety), Golden Sweet snow pea (always a top producer in my garden), Oregon Sugar Pod II snow pea, Extra Precoce a Grand Violetto fava bean, Royal Burgundy bush bean (a summer staple for me), Beurre de Rocquencourt bush bean, Dragon Tongue bush bean (I grow these every year), Tongues of Fire bush bean, Gold Marie vining bean, Thai Purple Podded yardlong bean

Basil

Basil

Fragrant basil is one of the easiest herbs to start from seed (see my prior post about the challenges of germinating parsley seeds!) and, once planted, self-seeds freely if you let it.

It’s also super easy to take cuttings and regrow from the stems, so you can divide a single plant into multiple plants without having to start more seeds.

When left to flower, basil is highly attractive to pollinators, making it an excellent choice as a companion crop among cucumbers, squash, and fruit trees. I usually keep one of each type of basil plant in my kitchen garden (sweet, spicy, citrusy, and maybe a specialty variety like cinnamon), and scatter a few more around the yard in my ornamental beds, just for their flowers.

Basil planted in walkways will release an intoxicating aroma when you brush against them. (This same aroma also helps to repel flies, gnats, and mosquitoes, so plant some basil near your windows too.)

For all these reasons, this multi-use herb makes an appearance in my garden every year as a staple crop. If you’re stuck on which variety to grow, try a “basil blend” packet that includes a mix of seed cultivars and foliage colors.

To sow, scatter the seeds and cover lightly with soil. In my experience, they take 5 to 10 days to germinate (the warmer the soil, the faster they’ll germinate). Maturity is reached in 60 to 80 days, and while basil seedlings develop slowly and steadily in cooler spring weather, they really go bonkers once daytime temperatures soar into the 80s°F.

Favorite Varieties: Siam Queen Thai basil, Lettuce Leaf basil, Lemon basil, Lime basil, Purple Petra basil, Custom Blend basil

Summer squash

Summer Squash

Squash is jokingly known in gardening circles as the crop that keeps on giving. A single plant often leaves you with more squash than you know what to do with!

Summer squash is also not the notorious space hog that winter squash is. With the exception of certain varieties that can be left on the vines longer to store as winter squash, summer squash are non-vining, compact bush varieties that stay upright and only take up a 3-foot-by-3-foot area.

Summer squash average 60 days to harvest, though baby squash can be harvested as soon as a week after flowering. (For some fun facts about squash flowers and pollination, check out my post on the sex life of squash!)

All squash have a stage at which they’re the most tender, moist, and prime for picking, but if you let yours go a little too long and that zucchini has suddenly grown into a foot-long monster, all is not lost. I find larger squash ideal for pureeing into creamy soups, grating into baked goods, or spiralizing into noodles.

Sow the seeds about 1-inch deep and lightly cover with soil. As a warm-weather crop, summer squash germinates best when the soil is nice and toasty. You’ll get decent germination in our target seed starting range of 65°F to 70°F, but the quickest (and close to 100 percent) germination at soil temperatures of 80°F or above, with seeds sprouting in just a few days at that point.

Favorite Varieties: Jaune et Verte Patty Pan summer squash, Patisson Strie Melange summer squash (I grew it here), Round Zucchini summer squash, Gray Zucchini summer squash, Lemon summer squash, Sunstripe summer squash, Costata Romanesco summer squash, Zucchino Rampicante squash (this fun-to-grow heirloom squash — and quite a prolific vining variety — can be picked early as summer squash or left to cure as winter squash)

Cucumbers

Cucumbers

Last on the list, but certainly not least, is one of my absolute favorite summer crops, cucumbers. I love them so much that I try to sow seeds as soon as my soil is ready, because I like to snack on them all summer long and save a few harvests for pickling as well.

Most people are familiar with the common vining cucumbers that need climbing support, but compact bush types are also available for gardeners short on space.

Most people also think of long and slender green fruits when they picture cucumbers, but this crisp, refreshing crop actually comes in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and colors when you’re looking at heirloom seeds. (Some of my favorite and more unconventional picks are below.)

Cucumbers are in the same family as squash, so their growing needs are similar. They grow best when it’s warm, but the seeds will germinate in our magic range of 65°F to 70°F. Sow the seeds 1-inch deep and cover with soil. In less than a week, the first seedlings will emerge.

With the exception of Mexican Sour Gherkins (which are often grouped with cucumbers because of their cucumber-like flavor, but in fact belong to a different genus altogether, Melothria), cucumbers (Cucumis) are large plants. Their final spacing in the garden should be 18 to 24 inches apart for a prolific harvest.

Favorite Varieties: Armenian cucumber (I grew a similar variety here), Dragon’s Egg cucumber (I grew them in this post), Lemon cucumber, Richmond Green Apple cucumber, Beit Alpha cucumber, Parisian Gherkin cucumber, Sikkim cucumber, Gagon cucumber, Suyo Long cucumber, Mexican Sour Gherkin cucumber (read more about them here)

Seed Starting Resources

SmartChoice Stainless Steel Soil Thermometer | DeWit 5-Tine Cultivator with Short Handle | Esschert Design Dibber/Bulb Planter | Esschert Design Secrets du Potager Wooden Plant Dibber  | DeWit Forged Hand Trowel | Gardman Galvanized Steel Watering Can
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