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The Perils of Spring Fever

February 22, 2023

By Jessica Veter, Volunteer, Royal Botanical Gardens.

Last year, my grow op–which had started as three smallish trays of seedlings at the end of January–grew to two full shelves, six grow lights, and a timer set-up that made NASA look quaint.

I was convinced I’d be eating home-grown tomatoes in May.

My neighbour started her seeds in a sunny window over March Break. I felt quite smug until she handed me a bowl full of gorgeous cherry tomatoes at the beginning of July, actually BEFORE my first cherry toms were ready.

What went wrong?

It turns out that the information on seed packets is there for a reason.

Photo source: Lee Valley
Photo source: Lee Valley
back of a tomato seed package with growing instructions
Photo source: Lee Valley

If I had paid attention to the seed packet, I would have learned that my tomatoes want to be started 6-8 weeks before last frost. As the last frost date in my area is around April 20, I should not have started my plants before the end of February. In my excitement for spring, I had started way too early.

But doesn’t the early bird get the worm?

A few things can go wrong if you start seeds too soon:

  • Unhealthy plants: Unless you have a grow light, you have to depend on the natural light in a sunny window. The end of January is still pretty dark. Plants are dependent upon light hours in order to thrive. Low light levels result in leggy, spindly seedlings which will struggle to turn into happy, healthy plants. Their recovery time means they won’t produce any earlier than plants started at the right time.
  • The jungle: I have lights, so my plants were healthy, but healthy plants GROW. Quickly. They need to be transplanted into bigger pots, needing more soil, more feed, more watering, and more space. I also found (my grow op was in the basement) that I had issues with fungus as the plants were crowding one another.
  • Bolting: Your plants will mature inside and begin to flower, but plants in flower find transplanting more difficult. I found that the transplant shock knocked a lot of flowers off, so I was no further ahead than if I’d planted younger plants.

In my experience, the early bird doesn’t get the worm. What she gets is fungus gnats.

But I want to garden now!

You and me both, friend. May I suggest sprouting seeds? I keep two jars of sprouts rotating in my kitchen. With a daily fresh-water rinse, I get a new ‘crop’ every 5-7 days. A pot of bright daffodils blooming on the window sill is a pretty good indoor garden, too. Plant them out in May so you can enjoy them next year.

Not sure when to start your plants? Check out this handy seed-starting calculator: Seed-Starting Date Calculator | When to Start Seeds Indoors | Johnny’s Selected Seeds (

See you in the Gardens.

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