This post is inspired by a reader in Italy, who wrote to say that she had pepper and pumpkin seedlings sprouting in her compost. And by a friend here in town who, a few years ago, was excited that she had thousands of tomatoes growing in her compost – she was trying to give them away to her friends.
Vegetable seedlings growing in your compost might seem like a good thing, right? Free plants!
Well, sorry for being the bearer of bad news – but, as tempting as it may seem to use these “free” seedlings, for the most part you just need to let them go. Stir the compost and dig the poor little guys under. (And yes, I do feel bad when I do it).
Why is that? Well, the main reason is that most of these seedlings are just too behind to ever provide you with much of a harvest. By the time it’s late enough in the spring for the soil (or your compost pile) to be warm enough that peppers or tomatoes start sprout, it’s too late: you should have either started your seeds six weeks ago, or you should go out and buy some advanced seedlings now.
Here’s an example: these beautiful little tomato seedlings coming up out of my compost! (Squint – they are on the left).
But look at their size, in comparison to the tomato plant that I started from seed indoors. They’re way behind.
Sure, they will grow – but I will never get many tomatoes out of them.
Don’t get me wrong, you can do it. Especially if the seedlings are not growing too thickly with their roots all intertwined. If you can dig them out of the compost without damaging their roots, you can probably transplant them and grow them.
And if you have a big field devoted to seedling-rescue, that’s great. But if you are limited on space, and you’re trying to get the biggest and most luscious vegetable harvest possible from a small garden, then your seedlings need to have been treated well: right from the beginning. Part of that means starting them on time.
The other reason not to grow veggies from your compost is that you don’t know exactly what they are. Sure, they are tomatoes – but what kind? If the seeds in your compost are from store-bought tomatoes, or if you grew more than one variety of tomato, the seedlings are likely hybrids. They probably won’t yield as much fruit as varieties you buy as seeds or seedlings, and you won’t know whether to plant them in small hanging baskets or whether they need an 8’ stake in the garden.
This is not a hard and fast rule – but in general, rescuing pepper or tomato seedlings from your compost just ends up being a waste of your time and your limited space. If you want to give it a go (and you have the space), you can try the pumpkin or squash seedlings from your compost – at least they end up naturally sprouting closer to the time you should to be transplanting squashes. Chances are you’ll get some weird hybrid, like a zucchini/spaghetti squash blend (I’ve been there done that!). But a few years back, when I unexpectedly found myself with a bit of extra garden space, I took the risk and transplanted some squash seedlings from the compost. I ended up with a harvest of beautiful kabocha squashes: I am still growing their descendants today!
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