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With spring around the corner, the seeds of a new garden are in your hands

  • Tevis Robertson-Goldberg checks  seedlings he started recently at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.<br/><br/>
  • Hudson Valley seed packets sold at Cedar Chest in Northamtpon.
  • Hudson Valley seed packets sold at Cedar Chest in Northamtpon.<br/>
  • Hudson Valley seed packets sold at Cedar Chest in Northamtpon.<br/>
  • Hudson Valley seed packets sold at Cedar Chest in Northamtpon.<br/>
  • Hudson Valley seed packets sold at Cedar Chest in Northamtpon.<br/>
  • Tevis Robertson-Goldberg waters seedlings he started recently at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.<br/><br/>
  • Herb and flower seedlings  started recently at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.<br/><br/>
  • Tevis Robertson-Goldberg waters seedlings he started recently at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.<br/><br/>
  • Tevis Robertson-Goldberg waters seedlings he started recently at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.<br/><br/>
  • Spinach  seedlings  recently started at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.<br/><br/>
  • Tevis Robertson-Goldberg waters seedlings he started recently at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.<br/><br/>
  • Spinach  seedlings  recently started at Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield.<br/><br/>

Why start your own seeds for your garden?

“To start a plant, watch its growth process, watch it sprout, and then be able to harvest the plant is a rewarding process,” said Jessica Groleau, seed buyer for Annie’s Garden and Gift Center in Amherst.

Groleau went on to say that starting your own plants allows for “total control over the environment,” which allows for preferences on how organic you want your plants to be as well as providing greater diversity of variety over just buying pre-grown “starts.”

Both Groleau and Tevis Robertson-Goldberg, owner of Crabapple Farm in Chesterfield, offered sound tips for seed starting no matter your level of experience. Robertson-Goldberg also participates in the Northampton an1d Williamsburg farmers markets.

Seeds

“The very first step is to think about what it is you want to grow,” Groleau said. While that may seem obvious, each type of plant has varying needs. It will help you enjoy the process more if you have clear ideas about what will work for you time- and space-wise. “Every seed packet has all of the information you need to start your seeds. The packets list germination time, space, and whether it is better to start your seeds indoors or sow them directly into your garden,” Groleau said. She added that the next step is to set up a timetable based on what you have learned from your seed packets.

Robertson-Goldberg said one of the measures of timing from seeding to planting in the ground is the size of the seed. Generally, he said, the smaller the seed, the longer it takes to germinate. Larger seeds such as squash and melon, for example, sprout much more quickly than say, parsley he said. So, generally, smaller seeds are started earlier and larger seeds later so that your plants aren’t too overgrown by the time you can plant outdoors safely, he said. He added that seeds most commonly sown directly into the soil are root crops such as beets and carrots.

Soil

“You want a light mix with plenty of vermiculite in it to improve drainage,” Robertson-Goldberg said.

He added that you want to keep your potting soil neither too wet nor too dry when preparing flats or pots for seeding.

“If you squeeze a handful (of potting soil), you only want to be able to squeeze a drop or two of water out of it,” he said.

Groleau also recommends a light potting soil mix.

“You want the material to stick to the seed, which allows the soil direct contact with the seed for nourishment and water,” she said.

Watering

At first, until the seed has sprouted, Groleau said you want to water lightly and evenly using a spray bottle so that you don’t overly saturate the soil or wash out the seed. She also suggested resting the flat or pots on a moist towel so that water can be wicked up through the soil column.

“They need to be watered as needed, that’s the trick. You don’t want your seeds to be too dry or too moist,” Robertson-Goldberg said.

Once the seeds have sprouted, Groleau said, you want to be especially sure your soil is not too moist, because that will lead to rot and plant diseases.

“You want a humid environment while the seed is sprouting, but once it’s up, you want to reduce humidity to lessen the chance of rot,” she said.

For example, if you have plastic covers on your seed trays, be sure to remove them once the seedlings are up.

Light and heat

“Lighting is more important than temperature to get good seedlings,” Robertson-Goldberg said.

If you are starting seeds mainly on windowsills, he said, to be sure to turn the flats and pots daily so that they receive light evenly for better growth.

“Once they are germinated, be sure to have them (trays and pots) in bright light. A south-facing window is ideal. You want to have at least six hours of light a day,” Groleau said.

She said that if you don’t have a window that gets much light, you can use grow lights or “any fluorescent bulb” to provide enough light for your seedlings.

In terms of warmth, Groleau said that you want to keep in mind that seeds germinate best in warm soil. She recommends placing trays on a hot water heater or the top of your refrigerator to help speed along germination. You can also purchase warming pads for your trays and pots.

Pot size and transplanting

Robertson-Goldberg said the bigger the pot you plant the seed in, the more room it will have to grow and you will have less thinning and transplanting to do.

“If the cell (or pot) is twice as big as (what) you might ordinarily start the seed in, the plant will be twice as big when it comes time to place them outside,” he said.

Plants such as peppers and tomatoes that require warmer weather before planting especially benefit from this, he said. If your seedlings are getting too crowded in their cell or pot, pluck a few carefully so that you can end up with larger, healthier plants.

Planting outdoors

“You want to start hardening off your plants before putting them into the ground,” Groleau said. Since the last possible frost date for the Pioneer Valley is May 20, she recommends starting to leave flats outside for a few hours a day in a shady area for a couple of weeks before that. Your seed packets will also tell you when it is safe to plant seeds or seedlings outdoors. Some seeds such as snap peas or salad greens can be started in the garden earlier as they tolerate and grow better in cooler temperatures, Robertson-Goldberg said.

Groleau said that an additional benefit to starting your own seeds is being able to save your favorite varieties from year to year. She suggests freezing seeds in a well-sealed freezer bag.

“They can be stored up to three years that way, though their germination rate will go down a bit each year,” she said.

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