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The Winter Garden

Talk about laying on a guilt trip 
on home gardeners. The fall Brussels sprouts are barely harvested when the new mail-order seed catalogs start arriving, implying that before even the withered squash vines are gathered, you had better begin plotting the spring garden. I am a certified master gardener and have a small vegetable stand—literally a nonprofit operation—but I refuse to even crack those catalogs until well after the Christmas tree goes on the brush pile.
 Be that as it may, if you still haven’t peeked inside the catalog covers at those inconceivably flawless tomatoes and the impossibly lush lettuce, you can do so without rushing the season. It is time to start figuring out which vegetables you will grow—or, in my case, try to grow—and how you will start them.

It is the rare vegetable gardener who 
has not pondered the question of whether 
or not to start at least some vegetables
 indoors from seed rather than buy transplants from the garden shop, nursery or, for a
few varieties, mail-order houses. Before even
 discussing the subject, a word of warning. If you 
are ordering seeds from a catalog, make sure you check
 for descriptive information that ensures the varieties you select are suited to growing conditions in Coastal Connecticut. If a catalog does not provide this sort of information, toss it into your round file.

Advice on how to grow transplants indoors is available galore on the Internet, in magazines and books and, often, in the catalogs. You can find all the information you need, and more, in the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station’s Planting Your Garden website.

Most sites tout the advantages of raising your veggies from the get-go without mentioning the drawbacks. Pluses of starting your own plants abound, but so do the cons. On the pro side,
it is generally cheaper, say, to grow your own seedling tomatoes instead of buying transplants. It is especially true if you put in more than a six-pack or two. The savings can dwindle quickly, however, if you opt for a bunch of high-powered accessories such as small greenhouses, heated germination mats, fancy growing mediums, state-of-the-art growing lights, and seed treatment preparations.

If you opt for a pocket greenhouse of quality,
figure on spending at least a couple of hundred bucks. Artificial lighting can be costly, too. As I write this, I am looking at a seed company catalog in which the cheapest lighting equipment is in the $70 range, with more opulent models several times that amount. Rather than spend that kind of cash, I use old home aquarium reflectors with the same full-spectrum bulbs I have on my fish tanks. Lacking such, a sunny window provides free lighting that is natural but difficult to control. Unless plant containers are turned about so that sunlight comes in at a variety of angles, and switched between direct and indirect sunlight on a regular basis, the new plants can become leggy and bent.

Heat mats provide warmth for seeds such as tomatoes and peppers that need considerable warmth to promote germination. You can get one for about $30, but it is only about 9 by 20 inches, only about enough space to plant one typical seed packet. Mats about double that size approach $100 in cost. I use one small seed mat inherited from my late neighbor. To heat other seed trays, I put them near my oil furnace or wood stove. It seems to work.

Websites such as that cited above note that starting your own seeds helps avoid harmful insects and diseases that sometimes are unwanted extras on store-bought transplants. I avoid buying them at big box stores at which
 quality of plants is suspect. True
enough, but your homegrown 
seedlings are not disease-free. Contaminated home growing medium and excess 
humidity can cause a common condition called 
damping-off, which fosters the growth of fungi that kill seeds and seedlings. To prevent it, make sure the medium dries after watering. Circulating air discourages damping-off, too. Although some people disagree, I subject seedlings to an indirect air current from a small electric fan, which also toughens them to wind exposure once in the garden.

A few other points to ponder:

—If you have dogs or cats, place your seed trays out of their reach. Cats, particularly, may look upon a seed tray as a litter box.

—Seeds and seedlings need daily attention.

—Transplants must be hardened to the outdoors by leaving them outside for an increasing amount of time over a week or so.

Admittedly, growing your own vegetable seedlings requires some effort. However, there is an advantage that, in my opinion, makes the trouble worth it. You can grow vegetable varieties not available as transplants or even as produce on the green grocer shelves. I order seeds from Italian companies that enable me to grow tomatoes and greens unavailable in markets this side of Calabria, or at least here in Coastal Connecticut.

Image Credits: Photo courtesy Shutterstock

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