Pictured above: Starting tomatoes indoors.

It’s a shame to see that so few people are taking advantage of the fully stocked vegetable shelves in our local grocery stores in this time of mass food-buying panic. While those shelves are fully stocked now, new federal immigration restrictions put in place to stop the spread of Covid-19 could soon impact American farmers looking for a work force to plant their crops this spring, and we could find ourselves missing some of that fresh produce come the summer.

This spring’s panic has lead many people to nurture a natural instinct to plant some vegetable seeds, as a hedge against anxiety, economic uncertainty, and worry about food shortages.

Mail-order seed companies have gotten the message, loud and clear.

“We’re here for you. Stock up on staples,” says the home page of Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ website. Harris Seeds in Rochester, NY warns about a delay in shipping due to high demand, and pledges to remain open to serve “home gardeners and homesteaders alike.”

Picking out seeds to plant

Like many home gardeners, we here at The Beacon have learned through trial and error what makes for a successful seed starting experience. More than once, we’ve caught the seed starting bug too early and ended up with a kitchen filled with leggy tomato seedlings in early April, with more than a month left before they were safe to plant outdoors. We’ve left our seedlings alone for a couple days in moisture-wicking peat pots only to come home to find them shriveled and bone dry. We’ve checked the weather when hardening off our seedlings, thinking they would be ok for an afternoon on the back porch before an onshore breeze knocked them clear across the yard.

So here are a few things that we’ve found work:

Make sure you time your planting correctly. Plants like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, melons, cabbages and cauliflower, which take a long time to grow, benefit from the head start generated by planting indoors. Long Island is in planting Zone 7, which means that the months of March and April are the perfect time to start these plants indoors for transfer to the garden by late May.

We’ve found that the aforementioned peat pots can be a gardener’s nightmare. You need a system that ensures even moisture. The omnipresent Burpee company makes a simple, square, “self-watering” cell pack setup, with a greenhouse lid and a tray of water beneath the cell pack, with a cloth that wicks moisture up to your seedlings. Only keep the lid on this setup long enough to create the warm conditions for your seeds to germinate, because if they’re anywhere near a sunny window (and they should be near a sunny window), you’ll kill sprouted seedlings on the first hot day you leave it alone with the lid on. 

A grow light is helpful if you don’t have too much sun indoors, but if you have a good sunny window, you are among the lucky ones. If you’re home all the time because you’re quarantined or laid off, you can even take the time to move the plants throughout the day to maximize their exposure to the sun. Make sure the cells don’t go dry, but don’t overwater.

The hardest part of starting seeds indoors is the baby steps you have to take to “harden them off,” which is similar to the process of sending a teenager off to college. They still need you, but they won’t admit they need you until they’ve nearly died from being out in the world without your help for too long.

“Hardening off” is essentially the process of getting your seedlings used to their life in the great outdoors. It usually takes about a week, but it depends on the weather. You’ll have planted your cold-tolerant seedlings, like cabbages and broccoli and cauliflower, in a separate cell pack from the non-cold tolerant seedlings, like tomatoes, eggplant, peppers and melons. Our last frost date on Long Island tends to fall in late April or early May.

Cold-tolerant plants can go out a week or two before the last frost date. Don’t even think of planting the non-tolerant plants until after this date. Either way, you need to give them a week to harden off. This is where being stuck in your home works to your advantage. You have all the time in the world to devote to exposure therapy for plants.

Pick a shady spot that’s protected from the wind for your first hardening off spot, and put your plants there for about an hour on the first day. Check on them regularly. They’re not used to this and they may react badly by drooping or wilting or drying out. Take them inside sooner and give them a little drink of water if they react badly. Each day, do this for an additional hour, monitoring how happy they look and moving them to a less sheltered space in your yard. If they look like they can handle it and the temperature isn’t expected to dip too far, leave them outside overnight near the end of the week. Once they can withstand this for a couple nights, it’s time to have them bid adieu to your home.

During this time, you can prepare and double dig your garden beds, go get compost from the transfer station in your town (these places were still open as of press time!) to mix in with the soil, do a home pH test if you feel so inclined, to see if you need to change the soil’s alkalinity (these tests are much easier to find than coronavirus tests and they will give you some small feeling of control!).

Plant your tomatoes and peppers and melons in a sunny spot, deeper in the soil than they were in your pots in the house. Follow the directions on the seed packet (you did keep the seed packet) for how far apart to space these plants, and don’t cheat. They may look small now but they will be giants before long, especially the tomatoes and melons. Keep them watered and plant a stake or a trellis nearby to train them, but remember, it will be several months before you will eat the fruits of your labor.

Planting peas on St. Patrick’s Day.

In the meantime, there are plenty of seeds that you can start right now, directly into your garden soil. St. Patrick’s Day is the perfect day to plant your peas outside, but if you’ve missed that date, it’s not too late. And kale, lettuce, radishes, arugula, spinach, beets and carrots can all go directly in the ground now. Some of these cool-loving crops, especially radishes, arugula and baby spinach, grow quite quickly, and if you cut some of the greens but leave the roots, they continue to grow.

Where should you find seeds? The sky is the limit. We’re partial to the small home gardener friendliness of Pinetree Garden Seeds up in Maine, and Johnny’s Selected Seeds’ new selection of staple crops makes decision-making easy. Gardener’s Supply Company has a great variety of tools for the home gardener, along with mail-order plants and seeds as well.

There’s one thing we must stress, though, if you’re thinking about planting that once-staple of Long Island agriculture, the lowly potato. You should always buy certified seed potatoes, and never plant the potatoes you buy in the grocery store. Seed potatoes are certified to be disease-free, and will not spread airborne plagues like the blight that caused the Irish potato famine. 

We have our hands full containing a human pandemic right now. It only takes one bad potato to start a plant pandemic too. Be a good neighbor, and your whole community will reap the rewards.

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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