Why I Grow Vegetables From Seed

Chard destined for failure

On the last day of a vegetable gardening class that Kelly and I just finished teaching at the Huntington, we needed to demonstrate how to transplant seedlings. The problem was that we didn’t have any seedlings at home ready to transplant, so I had to make a trip to a garden center.

That sorry errand reminded me why I grow from seed.

All of the seedlings at the nursery were uninteresting varieties and root-bound–way too big for their pots. And someone tell me what’s up with the trend I’ve noticed recently of selling mature tomato plants in small pots? I suppose novice gardeners probably think they’re getting a better value with a large plant, so the nursery has an incentive to sell root-bound stock.

In fact, every last vegetable seedling at the nursery had root systems as congested as the 405 freeway on a Friday afternoon. When roots hit the bottom of a pot you get what John Jeavons calls “premature senility,” resulting in stunted growth and plants that go rapidly to seed.

On occasion I’ll buy seedlings, as when I failed to get my tomato seeds to germinate last year. In that case, Craig from Winnetka Farms had some on hand. And there’s a guy at one of the local farmers’ markets that has decent seedlings.

But nothing matches the variety, cost savings and quality of DIY seed propagation.

Newsflash: Thift shop where rich people live

Some newsflash, huh? Los Angeles has plenty of rich people, but many more poor people, and legions of dedicated thrifters. I’ve pretty much given up hope of finding bargains here. Your chances of happening on a really good find in this city is equivalent to being struck by lightning. But I’m learning that it pays to take little jaunts out of town now and then, to find better hunting grounds.

Case in point, I visited the idyllic town of Ojai with a friend recently. While we admired their copious public parks, clean public bathrooms, and shops filled with a vast selection of sensible shoes and flowing linen outfits for well-heeled ladies of a certain age, we also checked out their thrift stores. In one, I found a baking dish. I needed a new baking dish because I destroyed our Pyrex dish doing experiments for Making It. Yep, I warped a Pyrex. Didn’t think it was possible, did you?

This dish I spotted was oval–not ideal, but workable. It also turned out to be a Le Cruset pan. “Le Cruset?” I said to myself. “That there’s one of them classy brands I done seen down at the Sur le Table.” So I bought it for a few bucks and brought it home. Once home, I looked it up online. It’s actually an enameled cast iron “au gratin” dish. Who knew you needed a dedicated pan for cheesy potatoes? Market value? $150. 

Sure, I’d never pay so much for such a pan, and that’s a crazy price for a baking pan under any circumstances, so it’s sort of a hollow triumph–but still. I got me one helluva fancy pants pan.

Still need something to bake brownies in, though.

Spigarello: Nature’s way of saying that broccoli is so over

Spiga-what-the-who-now? The wavy leaved stuff is the spigarello. The flowers are arugula.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Spigarello, more properly called Cavolo Broccolo a Getti di Napoli, is a leafy green that tastes a lot like broccoli. But unlike broccoli, you eat the leaves instead of the flowers.

Unlike many of the “exotic” Italian greens we grow, this one is not bitter, and probably will pass muster with those who are fussy about vegetables. To me, it tastes like broccoli, but better. A little like broccoli sprouts. Or a cross between broccoli and kale. Let’s just put it this way–I fell in love with it the first time I took a bite of it a Winnetka Farms. The texture of the leaves is sturdy but tender.

It’s very easy to grow. If you don’t give in to temptation and eat it prematurely, each seedling will grow into a big, sturdy plant. I think of them as broccoli trees. You harvest the leaves as you need them, leaving the plant intact to generate more leaves. Eventually it produces tiny white flowers the bees love.

We’ve never had any luck growing regular broccoli–I really resent fighting off aphids and cabbage worms for months, all for the privilege of harvesting one lousy head somewhere down the line. For that reason, we’ve always grown broccoli rabe instead, and I like that too, but rabe has a more aggressive flavor than either broccoli or spigarello, while spigarello has that true broccoli mildness.

We’ve been growing this as a winter crop in our southern California climate (I believe we planted the seeds back in November, and it’s still going strong).  Fundamentally, Spigarello is a cool season vegetable that can take some frost. That means it’s suited to be a spring or fall crop in 4-season climates. All in, in deciding how and when and where to plant it, I’d just pretend it was kale.

Our source for seeds was our friends at Winnetka Farms who sell heirloom Italian vegetable seeds at gardenedibles.com. They are out of stock right now, but will have more in the fall.

Update 4/2/13: Our friends no longer sell this, but you can get Cavolo Broccolo Spigariello Foglio Liscia at Seeds from Italy (growitalian.com).


  • Interesting side note from Mr. Homegrown:  Sources I’ve come across cite spigarello as a kind of primitive ancestor vegetable of either broccoli or broccoli rabe.
  • Translation request: Do any Italian-speaking readers want to help us with the translation of the full Italian name? We’re thinking it might be something like “Jetting Cabbage Broccoli from Naples”–but we could be very wrong about the getti.


Our new book comes out just about a month–April 26th–and today two super-advance copies came to us by mail. Believe me, it’s awfully strange to see something that has existed only as computer files suddenly materialize on your porch!
We realize we haven’t given our new book a formal introduction yet, so here goes. 

Making It: Radical Home-Ec for a Post Consumer World is our follow up to The Urban Homestead.

The way we see it, The Urban Homestead was less a how-to book and more a “why should I?” Its purpose was to get people excited about this homesteadish stuff, and see that they could work toward self-reliance, no matter where they lived. Making It is a pure how-to book: Project #1 – #70.  There’s no chit-chat or opinionating. Its focus is on making the home an engine of production rather than consumption.
The book is a little eccentric (like us) because it covers a wide range of subjects, everything from lotion to compost bins to beekeeping. So it’s not the ultimate resource on any one subject, but it is an excellent place to get started on a wide range of self-reliant activities. Since it’s about so many different things, we arranged the projects by difficulty, as well as by how often they must be done, rather than subject matter. This means the fast and easy projects are in the front, and the more complicated, infrastructure-type projects in back.
This book was designed by the very talented Roman Jaster, and illustrated by the amazing Teira Johnson. As a result, it’s fresh and modern and easy to use. Our publisher is the esteemed House of Rodale. The whole team did a great job. It’s really pretty. And though it’s a paperback, it feels solid. Like you’re getting something for your money.
Here’s a couple of page spreads (excuse the layout marks) to give you an idea of what it looks like inside:
Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have it available for pre-order. I was shocked to see that though the cover price is $19.99, they’re both selling it for $12.14. I’m not sure if this is a pre-order special, or if that’s where they’ll keep it, but it’s a wicked good deal. Not that we don’t support indie bookstores!!! Including big ones, like Powells.