Crocus are popping, tulips are peaking their leaves, and the backyard is requisitely muddy. Yes! Spring is almost here!
What does that mean to the food geek? Among other things, it signals the times for seed starting! I try to curb my enthusiasm, and refrain from buying every pouch of seeds at the supermarket, as there is a certain art to seed starting.
I consulted with our resident farmer and produce expert, Jim Matarazzo, of Matarazzo Farm in North Caldwell. According to Jim, seed starting is a "tricky proposition," and recommends supplemental lighting, in addition to commercial growing kits that act as mini-greenhouses. If you don't want to spend the money on a growing kit, Jim also recommends lightly wetting the seeds and the soil after sowing, and then covering them with clear plastic wrap to prevent the seeds from drying out.
Here’s what he had to say (he types in CAPS):
MOST SEEDS HAVE DIFFERENT REQUIREMENTS FOR GERMINATION. IT IS USUALLY LISTED ON THE SEED PACKET. TEMPERATURE, MOISTURE, AND LIGHTING ARE ALL KEY ELEMENTS. ALSO IF YOU ARE GOING TO SEED INDOORS USE A PEATLITE POTTING MIX . THERE ARE PLENTY OF MIXES AVAILABLE AT ANY GARDEN CENTER. TOPSOIL IS NOT RECOMMENDED AS IT IS TOO HEAVY AND DOES NOT ALLOW FOR PROPER DRAINAGE.
SOME SEEDS NEED TO BE EXPOSED TO LIGHT IN ORDER TO GERMINATE, OTHERS WILL ONLY GERMINATE IF THEY ARE BURIED IN THE SOIL. THE USUAL RULE OF THUMB IS BURY TWICE THE THE DIAMETER OF THE SEED. COLD CROPS LIKE CABBAGE, KALE, BEETS, CARROTS, AND LETTUCE FALL INTO THAT CATEGORY. I SEED BASIL DIRECTLY ON THE SURFACE.
IF SEEDING IN YOUR HOME I RECOMMEND SUPPLEMENTAL LIGHTING SUCH AS A FLUORESCENT LIGHTING FIXTURE WITH 2 OR 4 BULBS PLACED ABOUT 15" ABOVE THE SEEDING MIX. THIS TIME OF YEAR THE DAY LENGTH IS TOO SHORT AND THE SUN IS NOT STRONG ENOUGH TO GERMINATE MOST SEEDS. WITH THE SUPPLEMENTAL LIGHTING YOU INCREASE GERMINATING AND GROWTH. WINDOW LIGHTING MAY ALLOW SOME GERMINATION BUT THE GROWTH WILL BE WEAK AND SPINDLY AND WILL USUALLY LEAN TOWARDS THE WINDOW.
YOU NOT ONLY WANT TO GERMINATE YOUR SEEDS BUT YOU ALSO WANT THEM TO GROW INTO STRONG TRANSPLANTS. WHEN SEEDLINGS GET ABOUT 1" TO 2 " HIGH THEY CAN BE TRANSPLANTED INTO POTS OR PLANTERS. GIVE THEM AS MUCH POSSIBLE LIGHT AS YOU CAN AFTER TRANSPLANTING. KEEP SOIL MIX MOIST BUT NOT SATURATED. IF YOU HAVE A WAY TO EXPOSING THEM TO AIR THAT WILL LEAD TO STRONG HEALTHY GROWTH. A LOT OF GARDENERS PUT THEIR SEEDLINGS OR TRANSPLANTS OUTSIDE ON MILD DAYS AND BRING THEM IN AT NIGHT. THE KEY IS TO REMEMBER TO BRING THEM IN AT NIGHT AND ON ANY COLDSPELL, OTHERWISE THEY MAY FREEZE. AS YOU SEE ITS A LOT OF WORK.
GROWERS HAVE THE ADVANTAGE OF GREENHOUSES AND EVEN MOST GARDEN CENTERS OPT TO BUY PLUGS FROM COMMERCIAL SEED TO PLUG GROWERS WHO HAVE THE SEED SCIENCE DOWN TO PERFECTION IN CONTROLLED CHAMBERS WHERE EVERY THING IS OPTIMUM. HOWEVER AS A HOME GARDENER NOTHING IS MORE THRILLING THEN GROWING YOUR OWN FLOWERS OR VEGETABLES FROM SEED.
ONE LAST TIP: DO NOT SEED TOO THICKLY THAT IS A COMMON MISTAKE AND LEADS TO DISASTER. 2 OR 3 SEED PER PEAT PLUG MAX.
WHEN TO SEED? OUR AVERAGE LAST FROST IN OUR AREA IS AROUND THE 15 OF MAY. SO IF THE PLANTS YOU ARE TRYING TO GROW ARE NOT FROST HARDY YOU SHOULDN'T START TOO EARLY BECAUSE YOU WILL HAVE NO PLACE TO GO WITH YOUR PLANTS. THE SHORTER TIME THEY ARE IN YOUR HOME THE BETTER THE CHANCE FOR SURVIVAL. COOL CROPS CAN BE SEEDED NOW OR EARLY MARCH BECAUSE THEY ARE COOL TOLERANT. TENDER ANNUALS LIKE BASIL PROBABLY NOT TILL EARLY APRIL.
WE HAVE HAD A RELATIVELY MILD WINTER BUT THAT DOESN'T MEAN WE WILL NECESSARILY GET A WARM SPRING. MOTHER NATURE HAS A WAY OF EVENING THE WEATHER OUT OVER THE YEAR. IF YOU ARE GOING TO SEED DIRECTLY IN THE GROUND WAIT UNTIL MID APRIL. RADISHES ,BEETS, CARROTS, SWISS CHARD, SPINACH, ARUGULA ARE TYPES OF SEED THAT ARE BEST SEEDED OUTDOORS. JUST FOLLOW THE DIRECTIONS ON THE PACKAGE. ALSO MOST SEEDS ONLY HAVE A VIABILITY OF 1 OR 2 YEARS. SO FORGET THOSE SEED PACKAGES THAT HAVE BEEN SITTING AROUND FOR 3 OR 4 YEARS. YOUR GERMINATION RATE WILL BE REALLY POOR. ALSO BE CAREFUL BUYING SEED PACKAGES. THEY SHOULD HAVE A 2012 DATE ON PACKET AND NOT SAY REPACKED FOR 2012.
This year, Matarazzo farm stand, at 216 Mountain Avenue, in North Caldwell, expects to open by the third or fourth week of March, and will be offering eastern US produce and plants like pansies and bulb plants. Matarazzo Farm will also begin their market season in June at the Montclair, Ramsey, Pompton Lakes, and three Newark Markets.