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7 easy plants to start from seed

By: Sherri Ribbey
Renee Sheperd of Renee’s Garden Seeds shares 7 easy plants to start from seed, and lets you in on a few secrets to growing these lovely organic flowers and vegetables well.

Garden tested by a pro

Renee Shepherd, owner of Renee’s Garden Seeds, knows a thing or two about gardening — she’s been growing plants for more than 30 years. With all the different cultivars of annuals and edibles available, she’s found the best way to narrow the field of organically produced seeds for her mail-order nursery is to grow lots and see which ones do best. So when you go to her website, you’ll know that the choices and information there and on the seed packets come from personal experience.

Why are these easy-to-grow seeds so great?

When Renee tests plants, she’s looking for interesting flower or foliage colors, a nice fragrance, good flavor or growth habit and other unique characteristics. If a plant has several of these things going for it, she’s ready to offer it to her customers. With trial gardens in California and Vermont, as well as some informal ones in Florida and Washington state, she can get agood idea of how plants will grow in a variety of conditions.

Here are a few of Renee’s favorite easy plants to start from seed that she wouldn’t dream of gardening without.

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‘Litt’l Bites’ cherry tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)

Tired of tomatoes that sprawl all over the garden? Try ‘Litt’l Bites’ cherry tomato. This pint-sized plant fits about anywhere and produces loads of tasty fruit just right for popping in your mouth as you walk by. Because of its draping habit you can even grow this tomato in a large hanging basket that’s 16 inches in diameter or larger. Just be sure plants get at least 6 hours of sunlight to keep them healthy and covered in fruit.

Growing tip

  • Start seeds 6 weeks before your last expected frost date and they should be ready to go outside when nighttime temperatures are consistently above 55 degrees F.

Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Yellow flowers that produce small red fruit from summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 12 to 15 in. tall, 20 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 11 to 12

‘Salad Leaf‘ basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Can you believe this is basil? Big 4-inch-wide, heavily textured leaves not only look good, but taste great! Renee calls it ‘Salad Leaf’ because its mild buttery flavor is perfect for salads (where the deeply grooved leaves hold dressing well) or as a replacement for a leaf of lettuce on your sandwich.

Growing tips

  • Start seeds inside at the same time as your tomatoes. Wait until the day and night temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees F to plant seeds in the garden.
  • Later, pinch the growing tips on young 6- to 8-inch-tall plants so they branch. Don’t let the flowers bloom or the plants will stop producing that aromatic and tasty foliage.

Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Pinch off white flowers in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 12 to 18 in. tall, 10 to 16 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

‘Green Fortune’ baby pak choi (Brassica rapa chinensis)

Get greens quickly with ‘Green Fortune’ pak choi, a member of the cabbage family, (you may also see this vegetable called “bok choi”). Renee has found that this cultivar can go from seed to table in a month. Smaller in size than other types, ‘Green Fortune’ is also more heat-tolerant than its larger relatives. That helps keep this cool-season crop from bolting, or starting to flower, so easily.

Growing tip

  • Cut a few or all of the sweet and crispy leaves just a few inches from the base for your stir fry or salad — more will grow to take their place.

Type Annual Blooms Remove yellow flowers in late spring Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 8 to 10 in. tall, 6 to 8 in. wide

‘Mignonette’ alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Here’s a compact ground cover with fruit you can nibble on through the whole growing season. ‘Mignonette’ alpine strawberry is a vigorous grower and germinates easily from seed. When plants have several sets of true leaves, they’re ready to be moved to the ground or a container. ‘Mignonette’ looked great trailing over the lip of several pots in our test garden, which made it easy to reach the small red fruit.

Growing tip

  • Keep plants watered regularly, especially during dry periods, to get the plumpest, most flavorful fruit.

Type Perennial Blooms White flowers and red fruit from spring to fall Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 6 to 12 in. tall, 9 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

‘Astia’ bush zucchini (Cucurbita pepo)

How would you like a zucchini that looks as good as its fruit tastes? ‘Astia’ zucchini has more of a mounding habit that won’t take over your garden and works well in containers, too. The deeply cut foliage has attractive silver streaks, making this veggie right at home in your perennial border. ‘Astia’ is powdery mildew-resistant, too.

Growing tips

  • Look for your harvest early in the growing season near the plants’ crown.
  • Renee suggests picking fruit when it’s 5 to 7 inches long for the best flavor. Plants keep producing all summer until a hard frost kills them.

Type Annual Blooms Yellow flowers and green fruit from summer to fall Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 12 to 15 in. tall, 30 to 36 in. wide

Chantilly butterfly snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)

Chantilly snapdragons are a beautiful mix of color and form. Their long stems with elegant open-faced flowers make this one of Renee’s go-to plants for cutting. The soft pastels coordinate well together and provide an instant bouquet. Cut off the center stem first; side stems will take off and continue the show.

Growing tip

  • Like most snapdragons, Chantilly can tolerate a light frost but doesn’t like the heat of summer much. If you notice that plants stop flowering, keep watering; when temperatures cool they’ll take off again.

Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Pink, apricot, salmon and yellow in spring and fall Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 40 in. tall, 9 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 10

‘Royal Flush’ sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

You’ll want long- blooming ‘Royal Flush’ sunflower in your garden and in the house. Multi-stemmed plants have a mix of solid and bicolor 4- to 6-inch flowers. Because the blooms don’t produce pollen there are no worries about staining a tablecloth or your clothes.

Growing tips

  • Direct sow seeds after the threat of frost is past and watch these sturdy plants grow.
  • Staking, is a good idea for windy areas so “plant” a stake at the same time as the seeds. Join the stem to the stake with a piece of twine wrapped in a figure-eight pattern to protect the stem from rubbing.

Type Annual Blooms Yellow and burgundy from summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 60 to 72 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide

Aloha mix nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Tone down the color intensity of traditional nasturtium blooms with the softer hues of Aloha mix. The peppery flavor of leaves or flowers are great on salads or sandwiches. If you’re using the whole flower, be sure to wash it well to get rid of any insects that might be hiding deep inside the bloom. Renee suggests keeping the plants well-watered to moderate the spiciness.

Growing tips

  • Direct sow seeds after your average last frost date and you’ll have good-looking plants in a few weeks.
  • Don’t worry about fertilizing. Soil rich in nitrogen will provide you with lots of foliage but not many flowers.

Type Annual Blooms Apricot, cream, soft yellow and rose from late spring to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 10 to 12 in. tall, 12 to 15 in. wide

‘Rose Bonbon’ cosmos (Cosmos hybrid)

Renee thinks everybody should grow ‘Rose Bonbon’ cosmos. Its intense color and fully double 3-inch blooms dress up the garden all season. This old-fashioned annual does well just about anywhere and doesn’t mind poor soil.

Growing tips

  • Sow seeds directly in the ground, and they’ll sprout in 7 to 10 days.
  • ‘Rose Bonbon’ is loaded with flowers so be sure to snip a few to take inside and enjoy yourself. Cutting some for a bouquet or deadheading encourages side branches to take off quickly for even more blooms to enjoy.

Type Annual Blooms Pink from summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide

‘Litt’l Bites’ cherry tomato (Solanum lycopersicum)

Tired of tomatoes that sprawl all over the garden? Try ‘Litt’l Bites’ cherry tomato. This pint-sized plant fits about anywhere and produces loads of tasty fruit just right for popping in your mouth as you walk by. Because of its draping habit you can even grow this tomato in a large hanging basket that’s 16 inches in diameter or larger. Just be sure plants get at least 6 hours of sunlight to keep them healthy and covered in fruit.

Growing tip

  • Start seeds 6 weeks before your last expected frost date and they should be ready to go outside when nighttime temperatures are consistently above 55 degrees F.

Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Yellow flowers that produce small red fruit from summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Moist, well-drained Size 12 to 15 in. tall, 20 to 24 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 11 to 12

Chantilly butterfly snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)

Chantilly snapdragons are a beautiful mix of color and form. Their long stems with elegant open-faced flowers make this one of Renee’s go-to plants for cutting. The soft pastels coordinate well together and provide an instant bouquet. Cut off the center stem first; side stems will take off and continue the show.

Growing tip

  • Like most snapdragons, Chantilly can tolerate a light frost but doesn’t like the heat of summer much. If you notice that plants stop flowering, keep watering; when temperatures cool they’ll take off again.

Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Pink, apricot, salmon and yellow in spring and fall Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 24 to 40 in. tall, 9 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 10

‘Salad Leaf‘ basil (Ocimum basilicum)

Can you believe this is basil? Big 4-inch-wide, heavily textured leaves not only look good, but taste great! Renee calls it ‘Salad Leaf’ because its mild buttery flavor is perfect for salads (where the deeply grooved leaves hold dressing well) or as a replacement for a leaf of lettuce on your sandwich.

Growing tips

  • Start seeds inside at the same time as your tomatoes. Wait until the day and night temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees F to plant seeds in the garden.
  • Later, pinch the growing tips on young 6- to 8-inch-tall plants so they branch. Don’t let the flowers bloom or the plants will stop producing that aromatic and tasty foliage.

Type Tender perennial (Usually grown as an annual) Blooms Pinch off white flowers in summer Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 12 to 18 in. tall, 10 to 16 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

‘Royal Flush’ sunflower (Helianthus annuus)

You’ll want long- blooming ‘Royal Flush’ sunflower in your garden and in the house. Multi-stemmed plants have a mix of solid and bicolor 4- to 6-inch flowers. Because the blooms don’t produce pollen there are no worries about staining a tablecloth or your clothes.

Growing tips

  • Direct sow seeds after the threat of frost is past and watch these sturdy plants grow.
  • Staking, is a good idea for windy areas so “plant” a stake at the same time as the seeds. Join the stem to the stake with a piece of twine wrapped in a figure-eight pattern to protect the stem from rubbing.

Type Annual Blooms Yellow and burgundy from summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 60 to 72 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide

‘Green Fortune’ baby pak choi (Brassica rapa chinensis)

Get greens quickly with ‘Green Fortune’ pak choi, a member of the cabbage family, (you may also see this vegetable called “bok choi”). Renee has found that this cultivar can go from seed to table in a month. Smaller in size than other types, ‘Green Fortune’ is also more heat-tolerant than its larger relatives. That helps keep this cool-season crop from bolting, or starting to flower, so easily.

Growing tip

  • Cut a few or all of the sweet and crispy leaves just a few inches from the base for your stir fry or salad — more will grow to take their place.

Type Annual Blooms Remove yellow flowers in late spring Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 8 to 10 in. tall, 6 to 8 in. wide

Aloha mix nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)

Tone down the color intensity of traditional nasturtium blooms with the softer hues of Aloha mix. The peppery flavor of leaves or flowers are great on salads or sandwiches. If you’re using the whole flower, be sure to wash it well to get rid of any insects that might be hiding deep inside the bloom. Renee suggests keeping the plants well-watered to moderate the spiciness.

Growing tips

  • Direct sow seeds after your average last frost date and you’ll have good-looking plants in a few weeks.
  • Don’t worry about fertilizing. Soil rich in nitrogen will provide you with lots of foliage but not many flowers.

Type Annual Blooms Apricot, cream, soft yellow and rose from late spring to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 10 to 12 in. tall, 12 to 15 in. wide

‘Mignonette’ alpine strawberry (Fragaria vesca)

Here’s a compact ground cover with fruit you can nibble on through the whole growing season. ‘Mignonette’ alpine strawberry is a vigorous grower and germinates easily from seed. When plants have several sets of true leaves, they’re ready to be moved to the ground or a container. ‘Mignonette’ looked great trailing over the lip of several pots in our test garden, which made it easy to reach the small red fruit.

Growing tip

  • Keep plants watered regularly, especially during dry periods, to get the plumpest, most flavorful fruit.

Type Perennial Blooms White flowers and red fruit from spring to fall Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 6 to 12 in. tall, 9 to 12 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

‘Rose Bonbon’ cosmos (Cosmos hybrid)

Renee thinks everybody should grow ‘Rose Bonbon’ cosmos. Its intense color and fully double 3-inch blooms dress up the garden all season. This old-fashioned annual does well just about anywhere and doesn’t mind poor soil.

Growing tips

  • Sow seeds directly in the ground, and they’ll sprout in 7 to 10 days.
  • ‘Rose Bonbon’ is loaded with flowers so be sure to snip a few to take inside and enjoy yourself. Cutting some for a bouquet or deadheading encourages side branches to take off quickly for even more blooms to enjoy.

Type Annual Blooms Pink from summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide

‘Astia’ bush zucchini (Cucurbita pepo)

How would you like a zucchini that looks as good as its fruit tastes? ‘Astia’ zucchini has more of a mounding habit that won’t take over your garden and works well in containers, too. The deeply cut foliage has attractive silver streaks, making this veggie right at home in your perennial border. ‘Astia’ is powdery mildew-resistant, too.

Growing tips

  • Look for your harvest early in the growing season near the plants’ crown.
  • Renee suggests picking fruit when it’s 5 to 7 inches long for the best flavor. Plants keep producing all summer until a hard frost kills them.

Type Annual Blooms Yellow flowers and green fruit from summer to fall Light Full sun Soil Well-drained Size 12 to 15 in. tall, 30 to 36 in. wide

Published: Feb. 6, 2020
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