It's slightly more complicated than your fourth-grade science project, but a whole lot more rewarding: starting your own garden plants from seed indoors.
"It's a lot of fun," says veteran gardener Tina Beneman of Owings Mills. "There's nothing more exciting than seeing the seeds sprout, especially when everything outside is dormant and gray."
For years, Beneman has been starting seeds for everything from vegetables to annuals and perennials. One reason is cost. "I love abundance, but the cost of a packet of seeds versus what you'd pay to buy the plants is incredible."
Starting your own seeds offers a much broader choice of varieties, too. Though garden centers are rapidly expanding their plant and seed varieties, few will offer things like fluted Costoluto Genovese Tomato, Bolivian Rainbow Pepper, or Ragged Robin "Jenny" (Lychniss flos-cuculi), a retrieved Elizabethan favorite whose blossoms are a scrim of tattered pink pompoms.
"When you get the seed and start plants yourself, you can get exactly the varieties that you want," says Mark Willis, vegetable-seed production manager at Harris Seeds in Rochester, N.Y.
Catalogs, whose jewel-like photos beckon with promises of gorgeous summer gardens and marvelous meals, offer a fantastic range of choices. In addition, many also offer recipes, generations-old garden wisdom, and mini-portraits of veggies, flowers, and herbs, including plant history, seed provenance, taste and hints on cultivation.
Yet the wealth of choices can be overwhelming. To winnow, think about what you really want in your garden and on your table.
"We can get a lot more variety through local farmers' markets now," says Ellen Ogden, owner of the Cook's Garden in Warminster, Pa. "So I choose what to plant [at home] based on what I like to cook and can't get at the local farmers' market [or supermarket]."
In addition to salad greens and annual herbs for daily harvest (Cook's Garden offers 16 kinds of basil), Ogden always plants Sungold Tomatoes, which are hard to find in garden centers, and Bright Lights Swiss Chard, which is beautiful, delicious and produces for months. Many catalogs offer herb or vegetable seed collections. For example, Seeds of Change in Santa Fe, N.M., offers the Garden Discovery Collection that includes Green Zebra Tomato, Oscarde Lettuce, Sweet Cal Wonder Orange Pepper and Cardinal Basil.
"You can also choose what to plant based on your garden size, location and soil type," says Erica Renaud, home gardener and research farmer at Seeds of Change. A north-facing garden will do better with spinach and salad greens than with sun-worshipers like eggplant, basil, tomatoes and squash.
"Soil type matters, too. Carrots grown in the clay soil I had when I lived in Ohio just didn't taste good," says Renaud.
"It's a good idea to check with your extension service to find out what varieties do best here and what ones not to plant," says Cindy King, horticulturist at Kingstown Farm Home and Garden Center in Chestertown.
"We're so lucky in Maryland. All the tomatoes grow well," says Jon Traunfeld of the Maryland Cooperative Extension Service. Even so, Traunfeld has some favorites: Amish Paste and San Remo Paste for sauce. Celebrity, a good all-round tomato whose plants grow a manageable 4 to 5 feet tall, Rutgers, Jetstar and Big Beef are good slicers. Among heirlooms, he recommends the early-fruiting Russians -- Black Krim and Black Tula.
Traunfeld says all eggplant varieties do equally well in Maryland, but recommends the Italian frying peppers over the bells, which take longer to ripen and don't produce as prolifically. The Italian frying peppers are also beautiful. "They come in different colors when ripe," he says. "And they have very thin skin, not like the thicker skin of the bells."
In choosing what to try starting from seed, consider production factors, too. If you have limited indoor growing space as well as limited garden space, you may want to forgo the Brassicas [broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts], which take lots of room and produce lots less food per plant than tomatoes and peppers, which keep coming and coming. And remember: Something old, something new works for the garden, too.
"I always try a little something new to keep experimenting both in the garden and in the kitchen," says Renaud.
Start pepper seeds, which are slow to germinate, 10 to 12 weeks before setting them out -- about mid-May.
"Start eggplant maybe 10 weeks before you put them out," says Traunfeld. "And tomatoes only need about six weeks."
"I've learned a lot about plants just by starting seed indoors and watching them grow," says Beneman. "You get an intuitive understanding about what they need. And you don't have to contend with rabbits and deer and other attackers -- at least until you put them in the ground!"
Way to grow: Seed-starting 101