A reader writes, “when is a good time to start my seeds for this area”.
This area is northern NY State off the eastern end of Lake Ontario and while zone can vary between 4 and 5 b we usually consider it a zone 4. To answer the question we first must decided when to plant. Generally we use Memorial day as a rule of thumb. Memorial day this year is the 26th of may or the last Monday in the month of May. It could warm up a little early but we can still get frost that late.
We have a military base, Fort Drum, near by and that means there are new families moving into the area on a regular basis and they come from all over the country. Those from the southern states are not familiar with our winter weather and late springs. To add to the problem are the big box stores who sell plants that are definitely not suited to our climate. Some of the workers try to be helpful but apparently the training is lax and the help cycles in and out so they are not dependable.
In years past we were at the mercy of the weather and advance forecasting was even less accurate than it is today. We keep a stock of old sheets and other materials that can be used as a cover in-case a late frost hits. As a matter of fact last year we were surprised by an un forecasted frost that hit our German Ivy and regal geraniums.
So if we consider the planting date to be the last week in May we can work backwards to determine the best time to start seeds. For most tomato and peppers we like to start about mid March. Other garden vegetables like squash and cucumbers are started a week or two later. Usually seeds packets will have the plant by information on the back. For example plant 6 to 8 weeks before date of last frost.
Many other seeds are started much earlier such as Viola and Pansies. These plants can be but out early as they are somewhat cold hearty. The impatiens and begonias take for ever to start and so they are started in February.
What ever the date the key to starting seeds early is sufficient light. A sunny window will work but the difference between starting seeds in a bright window and using a greenhouse are remarkable.
Years ago we used south facing windows that were fitted with shelves for starting plants and we thought they were acceptable. After we began growing in a greenhouse we were surprised at the difference. The plants are less leggy and stronger when grown in their greenhouse, especially if it is a bright sunny spring. If the weather is gloomy the plants suffer, even in the greenhouse.
Lights can help when good sunlight is not available. The choice of lights is a broad subject and could take many pages to address but for most practical purposes plain old fluorescent bulbs will work. More expensive broad spectrum light are available but plain old day light spectrum will work fine. The key is to keep the lights just above the tops of the plants. If the lights are not very near the plants they will be leggy and not very strong. A good way to make an adjustable light is to hang the fixtures from eye hooks using light weight chain. This way when the plants grow the lights can be moved up a few links.
In closing it is best to ask some of the local gardeners how soon they start seeds and how soon the garden can be planted. By using sage experience you will help avoid being disappointed. Try with the locally owned greenhouses or ask if there are gardeners in the neighbourhood who will share their experience. They will most likely be happy to share their knowledge with a new comer, the biggest problem may be getting them to stop.
Starts on the bench. We sometimes use cling wrap to keep newly planted seeds moist and protect them from drying out. Just be sure that the flats do not become too warm in the sun.