How to start seeds in the New England climate

By the time temperatures start rising again, many of us are eager to shake off the winter blues and get our hands into the garden. But in Vermont, as in much of northern New England, our last frost date doesn’t come until mid-late April. So while we’re waiting—and dreaming of long, warm days and a verdant landscape—it’s the perfect time to get some seeds started indoors.

In our northern climate, plants that require a longer growing season need a head-start so they’ll have a better chance at producing a bumper crop before the first frost hits in the fall. Tomatoes, onions, peppers, and certain herbs and flowers are just a few of the many plant varieties that should be started early (6-8 weeks ahead of transplanting) for best results.

The best time to start seeds indoors in our region is generally mid-March to mid-April, but it depends on the specific variety. Generally, seed starting guides will give you a timeline to start the seeds before the final frost date. That date varies, but according to Dave’s Garden frost calculator, the last frost in our region is very likely by April 28th).

Don’t let our northern climate fool you

While it can be tempting to get all of your seeds started at once, you’ll be much happier come transplant time if you’ve practiced patience and followed recommendations for our region.

Seedlings that are started too early become root-bound in their pots, and won’t do as well once they’ve been transplanted. It’s also important to not take chances by planting your little green fledglings outdoors too early.

A wonderfully warm week in April can make us believe that spring is here to stay. But Vermont winters don’t die easily. Warm weather can quickly be followed by a snappy frost, and bam—there goes all of your hard work!

How to start seeds

In this video, Dan you through everything you need to know to start seeds (whether you use our seed starter or not!):

If you prefer the written word, read on:

1. Choose good soil

You’ll get the best results with a high-quality seed starting mix that is specifically formulated with the conditions and nutrients seeds need to thrive.

Of course, we’re partial to our own Premium Seed Starter Mix, which is made from a base of our Premium Compost (so it’s approved for use on organic gardens) along with sphagnum peat moss and organic fertilizers like blood meal, alfalfa meal, Actino-Iron®, and more. We have some die-hard fans that swear by it.

2. Choose good seeds

You reap what you sow—so choose high-quality, “fresh” seeds. We sell High Mowing Organic Seeds exclusively, because they are local (they’re based in Wolcott, VT) and produce high quality seeds that grow well in our climate.

3. Follow recommended seed starting  for each seed type

If your seeds aren’t packaged with recommended starting instructions on the back (with specifics to the plant type and our regional climate), ask a gardener you trust. Seeds need to be planted at different depths, and some need to be scratched or scored before planting for best results.

For the right timing, try the seed starting calendar on Margaret Roach’s blog. We have found it to be accurate and very helpful.

4. Use a seed tray with individual cells

This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it may help save you from headaches down the line. Planting your seeds in an empty tray without cells will work, but planting seeds in cells will keep the roots from getting tangled, helps with labeling, and makes transplanting much easier once they’ve grown.

5. Provide water, but not too much

We recommend adding water to your seed starting mix before packing it into your seed trays, to ensure that the moisture in the soil is evenly distributed and accessible to the roots. Put your seed starting mix in a bucket with water, and stir them together until you can press the soil together into a ball, but it still crumbles apart easily. When it reaches this consistency, use it to fill your seed trays.

After planting the seeds, place a clear plastic hood over the tray, or cover it with plastic wrap. This prevents the soil from losing moisture and drying out your seeds. You can remove it once the little green tips of the seedlings begin to emerge.

6. Provide warmth

Seeds need warmth—between 65-80ºF to properly germinate and thrive.

A cold room or inconsistent temperatures can be problematic. If you keep your house at the colder end of the spectrum, try putting your seed tray on top of the fridge (which will warm them), or near the oven.

7. Provide light…maybe

Before they germinate, most seeds are actually quite indifferent to light. Cucumber and tomato seeds, for example, won’t germinate faster if they’re under light. Others, like geranium, dill, and lettuce seeds, need light to germinate.

Of course, once the seed sprouts, the seedling will require more constant light—14-15 hours per day—to continue strong growth. If we left that up to the sun in our northern climate, that could be a challenge. You may need to get a grow light to provide adequate light to your seedlings. But we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves!


 

By now you should have little seedling heads pushing up through the soil, reminding you that spring isn’t that far off! Stay tuned for the next article on caring for seedlings as they grow, and tips for successful transplanting to an outdoor garden or raised bed.

As always, give us a call if you have any questions! We love to help you get the most out of your soil.