Snow may still be on the ground but spring is here. And that means it’s time to get ready for planting the vegetable garden. Whether you have just a few planters on a sunny porch, or raised beds in the backyard, nothing beats the satisfaction of growing your own food.
I love having the ability to walk out into my yard, grab a bunch of herbs and a few vegetables, then walk back into the kitchen and get cooking. It’s like having my own personal produce department with all my favorite foods.
As anyone who has ever grown zucchini or even just a couple of tomato plants will tell you, you don’t need an acre of farmland to find yourself with an abundance of food. Yet, to manage what you grow effectively, now is the time to do a little thinking. Consider what vegetables you like and which you do not. Do not bother growing the ones you do not like or eat much of, unless you simply enjoy the growing process and want to give away the fruits of your labor. There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, and our local food shelves will happily accept your fresh produce.
One way I’ve thought about approaching my garden this year is by looking back on what I ate over the winter months. I thought about what I ran out of from last year’s garden, and what I found myself buying often that I could potentially grow. I know that I used up all my jars of crushed tomatoes more than a month ago, so I know I want to grow more tomatoes for canning this year. I also bought many jars of salsa, so perhaps I want to try canning my own late in the summer with fresh tomatoes and peppers. I also realize I barely put a dent into all those cubes of basil I froze, and I should plant a little less this year or be more diligent in giving some away to friends. For a new project, I decided I want to try making my own kimchi, and am planning to grow more cabbage than usual.
As we get into full-blown spring and eventually summer, I often enjoy purchasing plant starts from our local farmers. This year, however, I opted to start most of my herbs and vegetables from seed. It’s an easy enough task and keeps me occupied until it’s warm enough to plant outside.
You can start seeds in just about anything from egg cartons to your own homemade newspaper pots. Even miscellaneous recycled containers will do. Just fill them up with a seed-starting mix found at any of our garden centers. I like to use expandable peat pellets for most of my vegetables. The pellets expand into their own self-contained vessels that are wrapped in mesh fabric. It’s less mess, and makes it easy both for you and the plant to transfer it into the garden. You can also find these for sale near the seeds at any garden center. Last time I checked, they ran about three dollars per 36-pack.
It’s always best to use a high-quality seed. How you define high-quality may include whether the seed is organic, non-GMO and its reliability for sprouting — all of which will be noted on the package. But I’ll leave what brand to choose up to you to decide. While seeds will last for a few years when stored in a cool, dry location, why not consider splitting packets of seeds with a friend to cut your costs even further? This is an especially good idea if you’re trying out something you’ve never grown before and you’re not sure you’ll like it.
Over the past couple of springs, I’ve covered the topics of how to build a raised bed and when to start your garden planting. You can find those past articles on rutlandreader.com. This year, I wanted to leave you with a few tips for starting your seeds indoors. Starting seeds inside is fun and gives you even more appreciation for what comes out of your garden. Even if it doesn’t go well the first time around, you can always start over, if time permits, or grab starter plants form a local farm or garden center.
1) Don’t overwater. I’ve made this mistake in the past and soon found mold growing all over the surface of the soil. Instead, let the plants dry out just slightly between watering. If you can water from below (possible in seed starting flats that sit in a larger container), this will help reduce chances of mold and encourage the plants’ roots to grow to reach the water.
2) Provide plenty of light. The biggest challenge with starting seeds indoors is providing enough light so that the seedlings don’t grow too tall and fall over. A south-facing window with plenty of light may do the job, but if you really want to ensure good growth, it is worth investing in a shop light. The light and bulb will run you about 20 dollars, but will be good for years to come. Although there are special bulbs, I’ve found that any will do the job. I just hang mine about four inches above the seedlings and raise it as they grow. You can hang the light from a shelf or even the ceiling.
3) Don’t start too early — or late. Plants don’t all grow at the same rate. Some herbs, for instance, can take a few weeks before they even sprout. Some plants can be transferred out when the weather is still cool. Others need the soil plenty warm. Read the back of the seed packets or search around online to determine when you should start a certain seed, and count back from your last frost date. The last frost date is never exact, but I typically estimate it to be during the last week of May here in Rutland. That means we’re currently about eight weeks away from the last frost.