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Start Smart

There’s nothing like a recession to send vegetable seed sales soaring--in these hard times, stalks seem like a safer investment than stocks. Roger Doiron, the founder of Kitchen Gardeners International and an inspiration to home gardeners everywhere, calculated that his vegetable garden last year yielded a return of 862%, based on an investment of $282 in seeds and compost that yielded an estimated $2431 in fresh fruits and vegetables. No wonder we’ve got more faith in Fedco Seeds than the Federal Reserve.

Even if you opt to splurge on seedlings instead of growing your own plants from seed, you’ll still come out ahead--as long as you don’t go the “$64 tomato” route à la William Alexander and lavish a small fortune on landscaping follies. Seedlings are a great shortcut for novice gardeners and those who haven’t got the time, space, or inclination to coddle a bunch of sprouts.

But if you're game to give some seeds a try, you’ll have the opportunity to grow rare and unusual edibles that you can’t find even at the farmers market, like the heirlooms from the Hudson Valley Seed Library. You'll also have a much wider range of compact vegetable varieties that let you make the most of whatever space you’ve got. One of our favorite seed catalogs for home gardeners, Pinetree Garden Seeds, has a section specifically for vegetable varieties that do well in containers.

Johnny's Select Seeds offers exotic Asian greens that you've never even heard of, like mizspoona--a cross between mizuna and tatsoi. And you can spice up your salad patch--whether it consists entirely of one window box or your whole front yard--with splashy two-tone varieties like Osaka purple mustard greens or the deep burgundy heirloom bull's blood beets, whose leaves and roots are equally tasty.

There are plenty of seeds that do best if you simply sow them directly where you want to grow them once the soil's warmed up in spring, but others benefit from getting a head start indoors. Here are a few tips for ensuring a higher success rate:

~ Some seeds are slower to germinate than others; you can speed up the process with these slower sprouters by nicking their hard coats with a knife and soaking them overnight. Put them in a thermos full of warm water if you really want to soften that tough outer shell and get them to open up to you in short order.

~ Once you've planted them, keep your seeds evenly moist--and the easiest way to achieve that is with a foolproof self-watering seed starting system such as this one or this one from Gardeners Supply, or this one from Park Seed. You can also create your own self-watering system by lining the bottom of a tray with capillary matting and setting your seeds on top of it in cowpots--the eco-friendly alternative to non-renewable peat--or egg cartons, or any containers you care to adapt for this purpose; just make a whole in the bottom to allow for the soil to wick moisture up from the matting. The ultimate low-budget, low-impact solution is the homemade newspaper seedling pot, which is totally free and biodegradable--maybe a little too biodegradable for seedlings that aren't going to get transplanted right away. Stick with Cowpots or some other more durable alternative in that case.

~ Keep your seedlings in a warm place till they germinate, and once they've sprouted, make sure they get plenty of light. If you've got a window that gets good sun all day, you're in luck; otherwise, your best bet is a standard fluorescent shop light with an adjustable chain so that you can raise the fixture as the seedlings grow. The ideal seedling is short and stocky; if your sprouts get insufficient sunlight, they'll grow tall and spindly and may flop over altogether before you can even get them in the ground.

~ When your seedlings are large enough to transplant, you can help them make the transition by hardening them off, which entails gradually exposing them to the elements. A little pampering at this stage will be rewarded later by seedlings that settle in and start growing right away; if you take the tough love approach and simply plop them in the ground, they may sulk and refuse to grow at all till they get over being relocated so brusquely. Send your little darlings outside for some fresh air during the day and then bring them back in at night, gradually extending the time you leave them outdoors till they've had a chance to adapt.

~ Once you're ready to transplant, do it on an overcast day or wait till late in the afternoon so that your seedlings aren't exposed to too much sun before they've had sufficient time to get acclimated. Once they're in the ground, keep them well-watered till their roots are established. It's best to water more deeply but less often--constant shallow watering only encourages the roots to remain near the surface. Let your seedlings dig deeper; they'll be more resilient to the elements.

~ Finally, some seeds will do better than others. Learn how to save these superstars so you can bring them back for an encore next season. The folks at the Hudson Valley Seed Library will be happy to show you how.