Real Estate: Now is the time to plan a new vegetable garden

03/15/2011 10:03 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Now’s the time to plant the seeds that will pay off, come summer, in produce like this.

With the first daffodil shoots poking out of the cold garden soil, now is the time to get a start growing warm weather crops indoors, such as tomatoes, peppers and eggplant. All those gardeners who want to start with seeds need to get their orders in quickly because the catalogue companies often have a shipping backlog at this time of year.

But how does the novice know how many seeds to order, or how many of the seedlings grown indoors will fit into their garden plots when they’re full-sized plants?

Those were some of the subjects covered by Peconic Land Trust stewardship manager Denise Markut when she spoke to a packed house of gardeners late last month at Southold’s Charnews Farm, the land trust’s agricultural education center.

“Planning is the most important stage,” Ms. Markut said. Without developing a good plan over the winter for your dream garden, she said, “Come June, you’re not going to be able to fit everything in it.”

For those who missed Ms. Markut’s talk, the Peconic Land Trust will hold another forum on starting seeds on Saturday, March 19, at 10 a.m. at Charnews Farm. Cornell Cooperative Extension vegetable specialist Sandra Menasha will give tips on planting and growing seedlings indoors and transplanting them into the garden.

Charnews Farm is at 3005 Youngs Avenue in Southold and admission to the event is $5 per person. To reserve, call 283-3195.
In her talk, Ms. Markut advised that novices use garden planning software found at, a website where users can enter the dimensions of their gardens and the types of vegetables they’d like to grow. The site will offer customized tips, such as the number of plants they should put in each square foot.

Many common summer vegetables native to warmer climes need the early boost of being started indoors. Seed-starting kits, complete with sterile soil or peat moss and miniature greenhouse-style lids, are available for tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squashes and melons at both Talmage Farm Agway in Riverhead and Chick’s Southold Agway.

It’s relatively easy to moisten the dehydrated peat pellets found in many kits, then drop in seeds and put the kit in a sunny window. But Ms. Markut advised against starting the plants too soon.

“If you do, you’ll have huge plants by May,” she said.

Most seeds need warmth in order to germinate. A warmer placed beneath seed trays is a good idea, Ms. Markut said, as is horticultural lighting positioned close to the plants to keep them from growing too spindly.

She usually starts tomato seedlings in her greenhouse in mid-March and transplants them into her garden about May 1, though she does have a slightly warmer micro-climate in her yard than the average Long Island garden. She said many people don’t plant their tomatoes until around Mother’s Day.

Good garden soil is crucial to growing good crops. Ms. Markut recommended sending a sample of garden soil to Cornell Cooperative Extension’s testing lab (more information is available at The results will determine what nutrients need to be added.

Much of Long Island’s soil is naturally acidic, she said, and much of what hasn’t been gardened before is sandy and needs a good deal of organic material added. Both backyard compost piles and any one of the East End’s many municipal compost facilities are good sources of soil additive.

After Ms. Markut starts her seeds indoors in a sterile potting mix, she usually transplants the tiny seedlings into a mixture of peat moss, her own garden soil, sand, compost and an organic fertilizer, she said.

“My soil isn’t sterile. I want to inoculate the babies with the soil they’re going to go into,” she said.

Ms. Markut recommended keeping a gardening journal with key dates, successes and hardships faced each planting year, as well as a record of the sunny and shady spots in your yard. Vegetables tend to do best in a southwest corner that gets at least six hours of direct sunlight each day — but every site is different, she said.

“Use your front yard, no matter what the neighbors say,” she said. “If that’s your sunniest spot, do it.”

As for what to plant, she said just about anything grows on Long Island, but it’s important to plant vegetables you like to eat.

“Start small with whatever you can handle. You can always expand next year,” she said.

[email protected]