Have courage, Litchfield County, we’re coming into the homestretch of winter. You can make it! Before you know it, the growing season will be upon us and we’ll be knee deep in the marathon of flowering the earth. But rather than holding your breath waiting for that to happen, now is the time to start taking action. Long before the snow melts and the ground unthaws, you need to plant seeds for the future.
Some gardeners just pick up 6-paks of whatever happens to be available at garden centers in spring. Sure, you can slip right into the fast lane with some greenhouse-grown tomato seedlings already studded with buds. But that’s only one small taste of the fun. Start now in winter, and you can get a jump on your garden, cure any latent case of cabin fever that might be simmering in your psyche, and get the garden of your dreams. Rather than depending on whatever happens to be available on the wholesale market, you can grow seeds of exactly the eggplant that you want to slap on the grill. You can custom-select an heirloom tomato with the taste that you want to savor for slicing its juicy, scrumptious goodness into your sandwiches. Want to grow okra but never can find starters locally? Order your own seeds and grow burgundy okras that add a colorful twist to a Southern favorite. Fond of the striped Armenian cucumbers from the old country? You can grow them for yourself if you order seeds. I could go on, but you’re probably drooling all over the newsprint here, and I think you’re getting the picture.
If you don’t receive a whole bundle of seed catalogs, you need to get into that mainstream, a simple phone call will put you on the mailing list for your favorite seedsmen. My preferred dream material comes from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Located in northern Maine, their crop is geared toward our chilly climate, plus they offer organic seed and superb, carefully trialed varieties. Flipping through their catalog will make your mouth water. Dreaming over the photos is almost as good as actually eating your own “Bel Fiore” speckled radicchio. In addition to Johnny’s, I also check out Territorial Seed Company. They’re located in Oregon, but they have a few lettuce varieties that I love, plus they offer some other veggies to round out the picture in my garden. On line, I go to Fruition Seeds (www.fruitionseeds.com). They are a young company located in the Finger Lake region of New York with some incredible short season vegetable offerings, plus I find that their germination rate is phenomenally good. Don’t want to order online? They always attend the Connecticut Flower Show, and they’re a wealth of information for vegetable recommendations. For flowers, I order from Select Seeds, located here in Connecticut, especially strong on heirloom varieties. I also order flowers from Renee’s Garden Seeds (www.reneesgarden.com) from California, they offer the best fragrant sweet peas bar none (and I also grow some of their pole beans). Not prone to planning ahead? Many local stores have Seeds of Change seed packets available, so you could impulse shop and get those seeds started tomorrow. These are just a few ideas, but feel free to follow your own drummer.
I start my seeds in a south-facing windowsill, no fancy equipment involved. I just use the incoming sunbeams shining on seed flats holding organic potting soil. McEnroe is a great locally produced potting soil, or another favorite is Coast of Maine. I begin in late February as the light levels increase, starting with leeks, parsley, and other long season favorites that need a head start. If I’m growing any perennials, I start them in early February, putting them in the freezer for a few weeks to trick them into thinking that they’ve gone through a winter. But the bulk of my seeds are started in March and April. Due to the late start, the seedlings remain compact rather than stretching when light levels aren’t high. For instructions, fear not — you won’t have to wing it. Each seed packet explains the best methods for optimal germination. Some seeds should be covered with a thin layer of soil, other seeds need light to germinate. Again, the seed packet will clue you in.
I put my seed trays as close as possible to a bright, south-facing window in a warm room—no heating pad or artificial light is necessary. When the soil begins to become dry (it’s a fine line between soggy and too dry — you don’t want to drench your soil, you want it just very slightly moist) I use a misting bottle to dampen the soil. By that method, none of the seedlings get washed out. When the seeds begin to germinate, I switch to keeping them lightly moist with a sprinkling nozzle on my watering can. Again, too wet and they’ll rot; too dry and they’ll become stressed.
Meanwhile, I’m having a blast. Sowing seeds is soothingly therapeutic. There’s something about getting those little bundles of promise started on their journey that feels so fulfilling. Seeds are fascinating little nuggets of potential fodder for your senses. They promise to fill your belly and please your soul. Plus, you did it yourself — which is infinitely gratifying.
I confess, my seedlings get the royal treatment. As soon as the temperatures rise into the mid-50s during the day, I bring them outside to a sunny spot during the daylight hours and then shuffle them back inside come evening. If it’s very sunny and they’ve come from a low-light situation, be sure to cover them with gauze or cheesecloth for the first couple of sunny days out, or wait for a cloudy day for the initial exodus outside. Granted, the ferrying back and forth takes a lot of energy, but it’s more fun than walking the track at the athletic field, plus they’re so adorable that nurturing comes naturally. When nighttime temperatures rise into the mid-40s, I let the members of the cabbage family and lettuces remain outdoors at night to toughen them up for eventual transplanting. As soon as temperatures are reliably above freezing and I’ve spread compost on the garden and readied their outdoor home for the new crop, they will go into the ground. That leaves me space in the windowsills for starting flowers and vegetables that prefer bright light and warm temperatures, like zinnias and eggplants. In other words, at any given moment I’m in mothering mode and watching my little seedlings sprout. What could be better?
The point is, you can enjoy this same euphoria. With an investment of approximately $4.20, you can bask in a whole season of lettuce. For about $5.20, you can luxuriate in all the peppers you can tuck into your tummy. Your food will be fresh, it will come from a trusted source, it will be grown up to your standards with your ethics applied, and you’ll have a blast making it happen. But first, you’ve got to plant the seed, and it’s high time to set that little miracle in motion. Henry David Thoreau knew the feeling. He once wrote, “Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Get going, Litchfield County. Time to get your little wonders started.