Sowing Seedlings … Home-Grown Goodness
By Jennie Blair, A New Day Farm
As the snow melts and winter comes to a close, we can all feel that spring fever start to trickle in. That buzz of longer days and those April showers that bring May flowers can be felt by us all in northern New England.
Folks with green thumbs may just be starting to think about getting their gardens prepped for spring planting. For many months already, local vegetable growers like myself have been working hard in their propagation houses, high tunnels, and greenhouses. There is still plenty of snow on the ground when we begin planting seeds and caretaking the early stages of the soon-to-come summer’s bounty.
In January, the seed catalogs arrived, waiting in our mailboxes, ready for an evening by the woodstove. I slowly turned the pages with sticky notes and steno pad in hand, excited to select my favorite zucchini, cucumber, and carrots, while drooling over the fun heirloom tomatoes, fancy peppers, and Asian greens. And don’t even get me started on the tool section! Like a kid in a candy store, the seed catalogs are a fun way to start planning and dreaming of the summer to come.
Planning a growing season takes a lot of thought about what varieties a grower wants to offer, timing on when they will be planted, mature, and ready to harvest, and the ever-so-unpredictable weather patterns and pests we see in the Northeast. Here, I offer a few things to think about if you’re planning to grow some of your own food this year.
Some Local Growing Tips
Here in New Hampshire, we are in a cool growing climate, which the Department of Agriculture designates as plant hardiness zone 5. This is considered suitable for plants that are hardy enough to withstand temperatures below freezing. It also means we have a shorter growing season, making it more challenging to grow longer, warmer-season crops. Starting plants such as tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers indoors in early spring will allow enough time for the plant to reach full maturity and bear fruit, whereas if we wait until outdoor conditions are right, we may never harvest a crop. Seeding indoors allows the grower a jump start and extends the growing season, widening our options of types of vegetables we can grow.
Given our chilly spring nights, we need to be careful in the early stages of the growing season. If planted out before Memorial Day without protected cover, frost-sensitive plants can easily die in a late spring frost. Tender crops started indoors at the end of March or early April—such as tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants—need to be protected from cold spring temperatures. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower are pretty hardy, but require more time for root growth, so they can be started indoors in early spring if you’re looking for getting a real head start on your garden plants. Cucumbers, squash, kale, lettuce, and many other greens can be started as transplants, or directly seeded, as they grow quickly, but can benefit from an earlier start indoors, giving you an earlier harvest window.
Not all seeds like to be started as transplants. Vegetables such as carrots and beets prefer to be directly seeded into the ground, as they don’t handle the disturbance from transplanting well. Radishes, peas, and greens (like arugula and mustards) are fast to grow, so planting them directly into the ground is recommended.
2022 MWV Farmers’ Markets
Bridgton Farmers’ Market
Every Sat 8-Noon, May-October
151 Main Street, Bridgton, ME
Gorham Farmers’ Market
Every Thurs 3-6pm, June 9-October 6
69 Main Street, Gorham, NH
(603) 466-2101 • www.gorhamnh.org
Lovell Farmers’ Market
Every Sat, 10am-3pm, year-round
993 Main Street in Center Lovell, ME
MWV Farmers’ Market
Every Tues 4-7pm, June 21-October 11
78 Norcross Circle, North Conway, NH
Tamworth Farmers’ Market
Every Sat 9am-Noon, May 14-October 29
30 Tamworth Road, Tamworth, NH
Wolfeboro Farmers’ Market
Every Thursday, 12:30-4:30pm, May-October
10 Trotting Track Rd, Route 28, Wolfeboro, NH
Did you know that there are more than 50 farms in the Mt. Washington Valley?
Check out this awesome interactive map by Mt Washington Valley Eaters & Growers … www.mwveg.com.
It offers a searchable database of farms and local food in the Mt. Washington Valley region. Thank you MWVEG!
Choosing Seeds or Starts
A garden can be fun and exciting to watch grow and develop, whether you’re growing plants from seed or you’re buying young plants called “seedlings,” “starts,” or “transplants.” Buying seedlings is much easier and more convenient than starting seeds yourself, but also limits you to varieties and availability from local growers. Planting from seeds indoors requires careful timing and proper care of young seedlings—details like appropriate watering and adequate light. Maybe you don’t have the space in your house to start your tomatoes and peppers or have enough lighting in the early months of spring to grow healthy strong seedlings. Getting your hands on high-quality seedlings is a surefire shortcut to a simple or extravagant garden.
If you have the indoor space and time to fuss, there are lots of options for shopping for seeds. For the best quality seeds, look for reputable seed companies such as Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Fedco Seeds, Fruition Seeds, and High Mowing Organic Seeds. These are some of the Northeast’s favorites, coming from Maine and Vermont. Others, Territorial Seed Company (Oregon) and Seed Savers Exchange (Iowa), for example, are also great companies that offer a wide variety of vegetable and flower seeds, perennials such as asparagus and berries, as well as fertilizers, tools, and other growing supplies.
If buying seedlings seems like the best option for you, we have lots of great options for local plant nurseries here in our Valley. For the healthiest and hardiest plants, head to stores such as Paris Farmer’s Union who sell seedlings from local growers, rather than big box stores and commercial chains. Even better, head to a farm or nursery that is growing their own plants. You’ll likely find a wider selection of varieties and many organic options. Our local nurseries and farms will often have knowledgeable horticulturists and be excited to offer growing tips and helpful information on the varieties they are growing.
Often, you’ll even get to meet the grower who will know the source of seeds, growing soils, fertilizers, and any pesticides used. Their plants haven’t traveled hundreds of miles in trucks to their destination before getting to your garden, which saves on fossil fuels, reduces the inflow of hitchhiking invasive species, and provides a less stressful transition to your garden. They are also specializing in plants that are appropriate and acclimatized for our region, which is very important with certain plant species that are not intended for the Northeast.
Your local grower also spends much care and time with the plant starts they’ve nurtured from a tiny seed, into a healthier, higher-quality seedling, which will, in turn, produce the best and more nutritious homegrown vegetables. Mount Washington Valley Eaters and Growers (MWVEG) has a great listing of farms offering seedlings for sale on their website, www.mwveg.com.
What to Look for When Shopping seedlings
When shopping for seedlings, there are some important factors to look for or avoid. Avoid the “leggy,’’ tall, and lanky ones, as well as ones that look too big for their pots, as these may be root bound and will not adjust easily after transplanting. Another thing to avoid are plants that already have fruit set—tomatoes, for example. This looks enticing, but what you really want is for your seedling, when transplanted into the ground, to develop good strong healthy roots. If it already has fruit set, the plant is putting a lot of energy into that fruit, instead of developing where it really needs to, under the ground in its roots. It’s even recommended to pinch off the flower and fruit before transplanting. So don’t get swept away by the biggest plants. Stick with the smaller, but healthiest looking ones with strong stems, unblemished leaves, and good overall color.
It’s fun to experiment with growing techniques if you’re short on space, like growing vertically with pallet gardens, in containers, or trellising. Or maybe you have a greenhouse or utilize cold frames to extend the growing season before or after frost. It’s truly amazing what you can do to combat the cold, allowing us to eat locally throughout the year here in New Hampshire. There are lots of ways to get creative to expand your home gardening experience.
Maybe gardening isn’t your thing, or you just don’t have the time or space to grow the things you like to eat. Get to know the farmers of the MWV. Head to a farmers’ market, swing into a farm stand, or support local agriculture and buy into a farm share CSA program for a season full of local eats. This is the healthiest food you can put on your table. The closer to home it grows, the better it tastes, and treats you!