Muscles may be sore from all the shoveling we’ve had to do the past couple of weeks — I know mine are.

But that hasn’t stopped me from starting the gardening season by finding and dusting off our grow lights and seed-starter rack.

Welcome to the Magical Earth: 2014 Edition.

If you’re at all like me, you want to stop your dreaming and start your planting. You’re champing at the bit to get your hands dirty with potting soil, using some of those seeds that arrived in the mail a few weeks ago and sorting the vegetable varieties that will benefit from starting the season by planting them inside.

My chief goal for this year is to grow as many tomatoes as possible, enough to can 100 jars of plain tomatoes, two dozen or so jars of salsa and dozens of jars of tomato juice. To reach this goal, I have to defeat the early and late blights that have plagued my crops for several years.

Last year I had a better crop than in recent years because I planted a dozen or so tomato plants in each of several different places around our farm. This year, I’m going one step further.

After doing a bunch of research, I learned that several tomato varieties are particularly resistant to early and late blight, wilt and a multitude of diseases that afflict tomato plants. I bought several of these varieties and am planting them inside. I hope to give them a good, sturdy start so they can ward off whatever destructive spores are out there.

All the seeds came from Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow. In case you want to follow along, they are: Monica F1, Mountain Merit F1, Defiant PHR F1 and Plum Regal F1. As the season progresses, I will update readers with the progress of these varieties.

I also learned that tomatoes have a particular fondness for phosphorous. So instead of piling on the pigeon and goose poop, I’ll cut back there and add bone meal and other fertilizers that have a hefty amount of phosphorous.

Instead of mulching around the plants as soon as I put them in the soil, I learned that I shouldn’t mulch for several weeks so that stronger roots can form, and to water them only from the bottom, and not a spray from the top.

So I’ve pulled out as many tools as possible. Of course, I can’t control the weather, so if we have lots of rain, the wilt, blight and fungus may appear anyway, despite my best efforts. But at least I’ll give these gloriously delicious tomatoes as strong a start as possible.

But there are many other plants that should be given a head start on the season. Among them are pumpkins and other winter squash that require a 100-day or longer growing season, including cabbages, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Broccoli also can use an early beginning.

Some people like to begin lettuce inside so they’ll have fresh green salads really early.

The seed varieties that can be started inside are almost limitless. And for me, and I suspect lots of other people, we can’t wait to have our own, fresh food.

Starting seeds

Seed-starting racks can be purchased, but they can also be made at home for a fraction of the cost. My husband made me a perfectly useful rack with wooden slats and chains to hang the lights, allowing space above for the grow lights to be adjusted to the proper height as the seedlings grow.

We placed it near a double window, but the natural sunshine isn’t what we were looking for. That’s where the outlets are for the grow lights. A dark closet, out of the way, would work, too, as long as the grow lights are on.

For those who don’t have a rack, seedlings can be started on a window sill. However, the gardener must be very vigilant and turn the small pots every day so that all sides will receive an equal amount of sun.

When seedlings, whether on the sill or on a grow rack, have a couple of true leaves, carefully pull out or cut all plants except the strongest. When planting seeds, allow two per pot. If neither germinates, there should be enough time to try again. Provide light at least 12 hours a day, more if possible.

Create a natural greenhouse by thoroughly watering, then tightly covering the containers with plastic wrap until germination is seen.

Once a little green is visible, remove the plastic wrap and place containers on the grow light rack. When a seedling is a couple of inches high, give it a spray of light fertilizer.

Keep a close watch on what’s growing. Move grow lights up, about three or four inches above the top of the plants, as they grow.

Starting seeds can begin at any time between mid-March and mid-April, contingent on when they are to be put in the ground. A minimum of six weeks is usually recommended.

If the seedlings become too large for their pots, carefully transplant to a slightly larger container. Peat pots are perfect because the pot and the plant can go directly into the garden soil or larger container.

Seeds may be started in specially prepared seed-starting soil, regular soil, vermiculite mixes and with peat pellets or “coins” as I like to call them. With the peat pellets, the seedlings generally have to be transplanted to a larger pot. But with pellets, the whole thing – pellet and seedling – can be moved all at once and very easily.

When close to the time of planting in the garden, harden off the seedlings for several days or a week by placing the seedling containers outside during the day, then bringing them back in at night. They are very tender and can be killed easily if the temperature drops to freezing.

Keep them damp, but not waterlogged.

Plant the seedlings in a well-tilled garden with compost and the proper fertilizer for the plant variety, when no danger of frost is apparent.

Seed packets generally provide specific directions for the number of weeks the seeds should be started inside.

Once planted, step back and watch them grow, being sure to side dress (add fertilizer to the soil), if necessary, and remove weeds that will compete for the soil’s nutrients.

But for now, get those seeds started. A little effort this month is more than likely to produce a more abundant harvest in late summer and early autumn in your magical garden.

Eileen Adams has been growing vegetables for decades. She’s always trying something new and continues to be amazed that a tiny seed can grow into spectacular vegetables. She may be reached at [email protected]dmaine.com


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