It's not too early to think spring: 4 steps to start seedlings

The weather outside may be frightful, but starting your vegetable garden inside is a delightful way to get a jump on the 2017 outdoor growing season in the Berkshires and Southern Vermont.

Whether you're a seasoned green thumb or all thumbs when it comes to cultivating home-grown tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and other edibles, producing plants from seeds indoors is a great way to see the early fruits of your labor before the seedlings are transplanted in May, say local gardening experts.

"It's great for the psyche ... as most seeds germinate in about seven days," said Greg Ward, of Ward's Nursery and Garden Center in Great Barrington, Mass.

"Growing your own is an investment in fresh food that can save you money at the market," said Jack Walker Manix, of Walker Farm in Dummerston, Vt.

If you've got children at home, get their hands dirty putting the starter soil in the seedling containers, planting the seeds and watering them and watching them grow — showing the sprouts that food comes from the ground up, not the supermarket.

"Growing your own adds to an appreciation of food and food production and also gets the kids away from the thumb-numbing activities in which they are too often entranced," said Ron Kujawski, a Great Barrington gardener and former landscape and nursery specialist for University of Massachusetts Cooperative Extension, who also writes a weekly gardening column in the warmer months.

Early February is a bit early to start the young plants, our experts say, but a good time to start planning what to grow and how best to sow the seeds of success.

Decide what to grow

In the Northeast, the gardening season typically begins around Memorial Day weekend, so start most seedlings six to eight weeks prior to planting, or as instructed on the seed packets.

"If you're putting out tomatoes in mid-May, start them in early April," said Walker Manix.

When deciding which veggies to grow from scratch, pick ones you have the time to care for and ones that won't go to waste.

"No sense in growing Brussels sprouts if no one likes them," Kujawski said.

If new to the gardening game, pick quick germinating plants, such as cabbage and broccoli, for more immediate success and grow a small number of plants to ensure you have the time and patience to care for them.

However, grow a few more seedlings than you'll need should a few of the transplanted seedlings not take to the outdoors due to insects, rabbits, other critters and the weather.

Feed the seeds

Organize the seed packets according to length of growing time, those that require the longest germination period will be planted first in fiber pots, plastic pots, trays, cell packs or recycled egg cartons.

Choose a germination material conducive to growing seedlings.

"Seed starter soil has the ability to drain well and won't harbor any fungus," Ward said. "For longer germination, use a water-soluble fertilizer."

Just don't over fertilize the young plants.

"If you put too much fertilizer, it's like giving a baby a steak — they'll choke on it," Walker Manix said.

The heat is on

Indoors or outdoors, plants need warmth and sunshine. Make sure you're able to provide both for your seedlings.

"Locate nice southerly exposure and have nice fluorescent light," Ward said.

The lights are necessary to supplement the lack of daylight this time of year. Kujawski suggests using cool white bulbs suspended about four inches above the seedlings. He adds, locate the growing containers near and above a heating source as bottom heat works the best.

Ensure you have the room to grow your seedlings.

"Don't grow too many in a small space, do less than more," Ward said.

Think spring

Before you know it, the frost is gone and you're ready to bring the seedlings outdoors.

Some plants may develop true leaves, unlike the rounded or elongated "seed leaves" and should be transplanted to larger containers until they are ready for the garden.

"When transplanting, handle the seedlings by the leaves rather than the stem; a precaution to prevent transfer of microbes, which may cause disease and collapse the stems," Kujawski said.

For established gardens, Ward strongly suggests rotating the crops, planting them in a different part of the plot to maintain a disease and pest-free environment.

If space is at a premium or you're new to gardening, try growing your garden above the ground.

"Raised garden beds are well-defined, easier to work with for both adults and children," Ward said.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233.


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