March in the Garden
Homegrown produce is on the horizon, but don't wait too long to start your seed!
March 11, 2021
Every year, spring sneaks up on me. February plunks along at a snail's pace, we get a few feet of snow, and I think there is plenty of time yet before spring. Then the snow melts off, and the yellow crocus are in full bloom less than a week later, and I realize I'm already behind. Every year never fails.
Word to the wise; if you're planning on growing some of your veggies from seed this year, you better purchase those seeds quickly. A somewhat positive trend from the pandemic is a huge surge in home gardening. The drawback is that many of the most popular varieties sell out quickly (my grand plans for several unique onion varieties have been dashed for 2021). If you're hoping to grow tomatoes or peppers from seed, you're very nearly late.
For those of you who are new to gardening or growing veggies from seed, it's pretty easy. I have a few recommendations to help navigate common mistakes. A few items that I strongly recommend for successful starts are a seed germination mat, and a basic plant grow light. Both are relatively affordable and greatly improve seed germination. Seed-starting soil mix is also key. Do not confuse it with regular potting soil or soil from your yard: It's much lighter and is sterile to ensure soil-borne diseases won't dash your seed-starting dreams too early.
A final trick is to use some sort of humidity dome to ensure the germinating seeds stay nice and humid. Seedlings are very fragile and keeping humidity high has improved my seed germination rates a lot. Once your seeds have sprouted, be sure to take the humidity dome off to allow good airflow.
My next tip is to read up on the veggies you plan to grow and understand the recommended methods for growing them from seed. This includes knowing which plants do better starting indoors versus being direct-sown into the garden. Like tomatoes and peppers, heat-loving plants need to be started indoors, but fast-growers like squash, melons, and corn should all be direct-sown in the garden once it's consistently warm. Root crops (carrots, radishes, parsnips, etc.), leafy greens, beans, and peas also do best being direct-sown.
Each year I print out a blank calendar and fill out the dates I should be starting each vegetable type to help keep everything straight. You can also list anticipated transplant dates and average last and first frost dates to frame out your growing season.
A final tip: Always, always, always harden off your seedlings before transplanting them into the garden. If you don't heed this advice, the first sunny day could end with your fresh seedlings getting a potentially lethal case of sunscald. Kind of like if your pale winter self, took off to Hawaii and hung out on the beach all day, sans sunscreen. Major regrets that all the aloe vera in the world couldn't cure.
Hardening off seedlings is a slow process. Start by setting your seedlings outside in a sheltered place for no more than 15-20 minutes the first day. Increase the time a little bit each day until it's been at least a week, and the plants are able to handle full sun for about 6 hours a day. After that, it should be safe to plant outside as long as there is no frost in the forecast. If you can, plant on a cloudy day or in the evening, so the plants have an easier transition.
If you don't want to deep dive into the world of seed-starting yet, that's totally fine. You can pick up some high-quality starts at any of our local garden centers; Nancy's Dream and Blue Mountain Station are where I get most of mine. While I'm certainly not the one to talk about impulse control when buying plants, it's best to plan your garden out BEFORE you shop. That way, you know how much space you have and how many plants you need.
The one seemingly obvious tip is only to grow what you and your family LIKE to eat. Again, something I'm terrible at. Every year for the past four years, I've planted cucumbers, even though I, personally, hate them, and I've never gotten around to turning them into the infinitely more desirable pickle. My other tip for choosing starts is to focus on growing the "expensive" veggies. Vine-ripened tomatoes and peppers are rather pricey in the store and have dramatically less flavor than the home-grown version.
Whether you're starting your vegetables from seed or letting the garden centers do that work for you, the results are more than worth it. John Denver summed it up best: "There are only two things money can't buy, and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes."