It has been a very cold and snowy winter here in Massachusetts. I have been busy planting seeds and potting up seedlings since the end of January. When the seed catalogs arrived in December, it was a treat to page through and decide what varieties of herbs, flowers and vegetables I would attempt this year. Sometimes my selection is based on tried and true plants – I would never miss planting Pruden’s Purple tomato, for example. Often, my choices are influenced by an article in an herb or gardening magazine attesting to the superior attributes of a specific variety that pique my interest. The fun of planting your own seeds is that your options are limited only by your available space or pocketbook – you are no longer restricted to what your neighborhood garden shop offers. You can really add some incredible plant variety to “spice up” your herb garden!
In this new year of hope and with an eye towards self-sufficiency and sustainability, I will be emphasizing how to get the most out of your garden, and how to properly site and care for your plants. You need not have a large area just for your herbs. Many can be easily tucked in amongst other plantings where their color, shape and scent will blend in with or enhance your landscape. Or you may decide to simply group a few pots of herbs on your patio. Whatever you decide, my wish is that you try a little greening of your world.
It is not too late to start some of your own seedlings. If you have never done this before, there are a few key things you will need to know, as well as a few purchases you will have to make.
It is important to realize that you will most likely need an additional light source. Windowsill gardening at this time of year does not produce the best results. If you’ve tried this, you may have noticed that your seedlings become very spindly, or leggy. They are reaching for the light source, which is the window, and will lean towards it. The best solution is to acquire some type of fluorescent light fixture. Shop lights can be found at many hardware stores for around $20. A four foot light will accommodate 2 flats of plants. Though you can spend the money for special grow lights if you wish, you can substitute one cool bulb and one warm bulb to achieve almost the same result. One important point is that the light source should be very close to the growing plant – almost touching it. Therefore, it should be noted that you should have some method of raising and lowering the light – a chain is sometimes supplied with the light. A bonus of growing under lights is that you can grow your plants anywhere you have space. I used to start all of my seeds in my basement, which kept the mess out of the living room. The only caution I would make is to watch out for mice – one year I had several flats of plants sheared off as though someone had taken a scissors to them! The final note is that the lights need to be on for about 14 hours per day – a timer makes this easier.
As most seeds germinate better with a little heat (some will not germinate at all unless the soil temperature is about 70-75) you need to figure out a way to provide bottom heat. I use grow mats, which are self-contained, water-resistant and pretty much fool-proof. You can also try starting seeds on top of your refrigerator, or near some other heat source. Just don’t make it too warm or you may cook your plants. The trays need to be removed from the heat source once they germinate, or you will be watering them several times a day. Trays that come with a clear plastic top are the best, too, since they keep in the moisture that germinating seeds need. Many plants do not need light to germinate (though some do – check the instructions on the seed packet) so you need not worry about providing them with light until they break through the soil.
Once last thing to note is that you should always use clean, sterilized pots and a growing mixture specific for starting seeds to ensure the health of your plants. This will prevent the dreaded “damping off” of your seedlings, which is caused by a fungus that can linger in the soil or dirty pots. The stem of the seedling will look pinched, and since nutrients will not be able to be drawn up from the soil, it will die. Most seed starting mixes contain a small amount of fertilizer, too. You will have to watch your seedlings carefully so that you give them neither too much nor too little water. As my plants grow, I usually water with a weak solution of fish emulsion every few days. This gives them a little boost and results in better plants.
For anyone first starting out planting from seed, I would suggest trying tomatoes and basil. These are very popular, and some of the easiest plants to get to grow. It’s also what most people want to grow in their gardens. Even discount stores are offering heirloom seeds, which are far superior to many of the plants offered at nurseries. This year, I’m trying Queenette, Serrata, Lime, Mrs. Burns’ Lemon, Aromato, Red Rubin, Cinnamon and Pistou basils. And then there are the twelve different tomato varieties. . !
Don’t wait too long to plant your seeds inside. Many seeds need 6-8 weeks of optimal growing time before they can be set out in the garden. Know your last frost date, and work backwards from that to discover when you should plant. And realize, too, that you will need to spend time re-potting those little seedlings as they grow, to encourage stronger roots and sturdier plants.
Spring will be here before you know it (whatever the groundhog said!) Good luck, and remember:
As the garden grows,
So does the gardener.
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