Question: I am planning my vegetable garden and need some advice on getting started. What varieties are best and when should I start planting?

Answer: The proper time to start your seeds depends on when the plant is able to be moved outdoors safely. This period can range from four to 12 weeks depending on the rate of germination and cultural conditions. Starting your plants too early can result in spindly weak plants which normally do poorly when planted in the garden.

To determine when to start your seeds indoors, you must know when your average last frost date is as well as the last frost date in your area. Here in South Jersey we use April 15 as the average last frost and May 15 as the last frost. Plants that can tolerate mildly cold weather such as spinach and lettuce can be set out around April 15. Other vegetables such as tomato and peppers do not tolerate cold weather and these should not be placed outdoors until all chances of frost are gone, around May 15.

Each package of seeds contains some important information such as days to germination and number of weeks before transplanting. For instance, if a package of seeds says sow in pots four to six weeks before transplanting, count back that number of weeks from April 15 for cool season plants and May 15 for warm season plants. It is a good idea to sow a few over several weeks as this provides continuing harvests for a longer period as opposed to everything being harvested at the same time.

Starting your own seeds indoors is a rewarding experience and enables you to grow varieties of vegetables not commonly found in local garden centers. Healthy plants started in-doors will flower sooner and produce vegetables sooner. Your plants will need adequate light as they grow. Insufficient light will cause your plants to be spindly and weak. Supplemental lighting such as fluorescent lights can be set up with a timer to give your plants the necessary 16 to 18 hours of light.

It also is important to start with good quality seeds from reliable sources. Choose varieties that are known to grow well in your area. For a list of varieties that grow well in New Jersey contact your local Extension office at 609-625-0056. If you have seed left over from last year a germination test with a few seeds should be done so time is not wasted. If 50 percent of the seeds germinate then it is assumed they will perform well in the garden and the seed can be used.

Mona Bawgus is a certified master gardener and consumer horticulturist with Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Atlantic County. Write to her c/o Rutgers Cooperative Extension, 6260 Old Harding Highway, Mays Landing, NJ 08330. Email: