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Nine beginner-friendly plants to start from seed for a fun and funky variety of edibles and blooms

Nine beginner-friendly plants to start from seed for a fun and funky variety of edibles and blooms
January 2021

Plus trusted sources for shopping and a citizen-science seed project

Monarda punctata, or spotted bee balm, from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

For many gardeners, January’s greatest joy is a pile of colorful seed catalogs, rife with opportunity. “Growing from seed allows you to raise plants that aren’t sold locally: edibles and ornamentals in colors, sizes, and forms you’ve never even seen,” says Charleston garden editor Joan McDonald. “It’s a great way to add personal flair to your garden and excitement to the kitchen.” 

Most seeds can be planted in the ground according to the dates on the packet. But you often can get a jump on the season by starting them indoors; plenty varieties are ready to go this month. “The key is to use a grow light for 16 to 18 hours a day,” says McDonald. “And maintain temps of at least 70 degrees, using a heat mat if needed.” 

(Left) ‘Thai Double Blue’ butterfly pea from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds; (Right) ‘Red Noodle’ yard-long bean from Kitazawa Seed Company

Here, McDonald points to nine edibles, perennials, and annuals that make it easy to grow a sensational garden.


  • Parisian gherkin: Toss these tiny cukes in salads, or pickle them for charcuterie board cornichons. The plants are perfect for small gardens. 
  • Tromboncino squash: Also known as zucchetta, these giant fruits (reaching three feet long) have few problems with squash vine borers and can be eaten green or cured. They demand a lot of real estate; grow vertically to save space. 
  • Yard-long beans: For vibrance in the landscape and on the plate, select the gorgeous red or purple varieties of these beans that can stretch some 20 inches long and keep their color when cooke


  • Bee balm: Flowering even in light shade, this whimsical native comes in multi-colored mixes and stunning forms, such as the pagoda-esque Monarda punctata
  • Coreopsis: There’s so much more to this prolific bloomer than plain yellow. Try fluffy double blossoms, dwarf varieties, and sunset hues.
  • Echinacea: If you’ve yet to venture beyond the beloved purple coneflower, you’ll go wild when you see this butterfly- and hummingbird-attracting favorite in a multitude of colors and almost-bizarre forms.


  • Love lies bleeding: Fuzzy panicles in crimson or lime green grow up to two feet long, cascading down the large, upright plants in other-worldly waterfalls. Dry the flowers for long-lasting arrangements or the seeds for cooking.
  • Butterfly pea: Blue is one of the rarest colors for blooms, and the cobalt of this vine’s edible, dye-producing blossoms will transform an arbor or trellis into a brilliant focal point.
  • Celosia: From feathered spikes to giant, coral-like seed heads, bright magenta to autumn gold, celosia flowers dazzle in the garden and keep their color when dried. 

To find a more extensive seed shopping list, click here. 

For specialty seeds, check out these trusted companies: 

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, A fascinating array of seeds dating to the 19th century is presented in the most swoon-worthy catalogs: a free one, as well as the $13 Whole Seed version. 

Botanical Interests, You may find these seeds sold in higher-end nurseries. Each packet showcases a painting by a botanical artist and shares a wealth of information, from storage advice to culinary tips.

GeoSeed, While this South Carolina enterprise is geared toward pros, it’s a great resource for gardeners desiring large quantities of seed—say to plant a swath of flowers or ornamental grasses.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Johnny’s is a standout for ornamentals and edibles alike, but the herb offerings are particularly spectacular.

Kitazawa Seed Co., In business since 1917, Kitazawa is the source for Asian veggies and herbs, including carrots in every hue, pak choi, and yard-long beans. 

Totally Tomatoes, Whether you’re after heirloom varieties, hanging- basket growers, or gorgeous bicolor fruits, Totally Tomatoes has them, plus peppers and veggies.


Turn seed shopping into a citizen-science project with an innovative start-up called SeedLinked ( Gardeners who purchase a collection—like “A Slice in Time” from North Carolina-based Craig LeHoullier of The Dwarf Tomato Project—can use the app to track their growing and harvesting progress and get advice via live chats with the expert “curators,” while comparing notes with fellow growers on the social feed.