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Spring Seed Starting

Seed Starting in Spring

Getting a head start on your garden can be gratifying, particularly if you’re the planning type. Starting seeds indoors gives you more time to enjoy flowering plants, and lets you harvest your first vegetables sooner. You also get a greater choice of variety, since you can almost always find a wider selection of seeds than you can started transplants. And if you’re into growing obscure varieties of heirloom tomatoes or wickedly hot peppers from exotic locales, it may be your only option.

Many seeds can be started indoors—the seed packet should tell you the right time to sow, usually noted as how many weeks before the last expected frost. As a rule of thumb, tomatoes are started 6-8 weeks before the last frost (start early/mid-March), peppers 8-10 weeks (start mid-February/early March). Flowers vary widely from 4-12 weeks.

Use a good quality seed starting mix, or a regular potting soil with no added fertilizer. Seeds are actually full of nutrients, sufficient to sustain a seedling at least until regular leaves form, at which point you can fertilizer with dilute liquid fertilizer if necessary. Seedling soil also needs to drain well, yet retain enough moisture for delicate seedlings. Digging soil from your garden to start seeds should be avoided as it often contains diseases and pests that can proliferate to the point of harming young seedlings. Won’t those same problems be present once you transplant seedlings into the garden you may ask? Yes, but the seedlings will have grown stronger, and the natural balance of “wild” soils keeps harmful diseases and bugs in check.

You can use any clean container to start seeds; recycling egg cartons and yogurt containers as seed starters is popular and fun when you’re growing seeds with kids. You can also get pellets of peat moss that expand into plantable mini seed pots or pots formed from (deodorized!) cow manure, coconut fiber, or peat moss, all of which can be planted directly into the garden when the seedlings are ready. For the crafty, Pinterest is full of ideas for making seed starting containers, out of everything from ice cream cones to cardboard toilet paper rolls. (Take some of those suggestions with a grain of salt. In reality, ice cream cones will turn to gooey mush before you get them into your garden!) 

Start your seeds in a sunny window. Once they germinate, supplying additional light can help the problem of skinny, stretchy seedlings. For maximum effectiveness, lights should be placed 1-2” above the seedlings once they germinate, and raised as seedlings grow to keep a 1-2” distance from the leaves. Lights should be on for 14-16 hours per day.

If you start in small containers it may be necessary to transplant seedlings into a larger container before they’re ready to go into the garden. In that case, choose a container about twice the size of the original and handle the seedlings gently. When reusing containers that previously held plants, sterilize with a 1:9 bleach/water solution to kill any pathogens clinging to the container.

One step often forgotten is “hardening off” the seedlings for at least a week by moving them outdoors during the day to a sheltered location that gets filtered sun and little wind. Gradually increase the time spent outdoors. This reduces shock when transitioning from indoor conditions to outdoor conditions.

A final note-sometimes seed packets will indicate that they are best sown directly in the ground. Often this is because they transplant poorly, or grow poorly in indoor conditions, resulting in a weaker plant overall. As tempting as it may be, resist the urge to start these seeds early-you’ll probably have to re-sow anyway to get a quality plant.


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Checking leftover seeds for viability

Wondering if you can still plant those seeds you bought last year but didn’t use up? How likely they are to remain viable depends on how they were stored, with temperature and humidity affecting seeds the most, but as long as seeds were stored relatively cool and dry, most are good for one to three years. Try this test to determine what percentage are still alive.

  • Count out a number of seeds (at least 10-20)
  • Dampen a paper towel. You want it moist, not drippy
  • Fold towel in half
  • Place the seeds on one side of your folded towel
  • Fold towel again over the seeds
  • Slip the folded towel flat into a sandwich bag and seal the bag
  • Place the bag in a warm dark place
  • Take out the towel and check the seeds after 48 hours, then every 24-48 hours after, making sure to keep towel moist if it starts to dry out
  • Viable seeds will begin to germinate in the towel. After a week you can determine if the percentage of likely viable seeds is worth planting.

Remember, fresh seeds generally give the best results. Even when older seeds germinate, the resulting plants are sometimes not as vigorous as those that grow from fresh seeds.


Pruning Fruit Trees

Pruning Fruit Trees

To produce quality fruit, fruit trees such as apples, pears, cherries and plums need regular pruning in their first few years to develop healthy growth and well-spaced branches, and continuous minor pruning thereafter. There are many different ways to prune fruit trees that result in good quality trees such as central leader, multi leader, open center, espalier and cordon styles, and we recommend that you research other methods if you are interested. This is an overview of central leader training, which results in an attractive fruit tree for ornamental home use.

A tree pruned to central leader form will have a Christmas-tree shape at maturity, with layers of the lower branches longer than the upper branches, and terminating in a single leader at the top. Each layer of branches should have 3 to 5 branches that radiate from the trunk fairly evenly,  not directly across from or above one another. The next layer of branches should start 18 to 24 inches above the one below to allow for light to penetrate to the interior. The layers of branches alternating with open spaces continue up to the desired height of the tree. To create this shape requires careful pruning for the first several years.


Young fruit trees often have upright-angled branches (fig. a), which ideally should be spread to a wider angle.  An angle of about 20°-30° above horizontal is ideal. Too upright and excess vegetative growth is produced at the expense of fruit. Too flat/low produces fruit at the expense of vegetative growth. Branches can be propped open with notched boards, weighted down, or tied to a stake in the ground to encourage a wider angle (fig b.). As new branches grow at the top, begin the spreading when they are 3” to 6” long. At this small size, toothpicks will work to spread the branches.


When pruning Fruit trees, the following types of growth should be removed:

a. Broken branches or stubs
b. Watersprouts and suckers
c. Branches growing in toward the center of the tree
d. Crossing over or rubbing branches (remove the weaker branch)
e. Branches that grow downward
f. Competing leaders (unless training for multi-leader tree)
g. Long slender growth in the inner part of the tree


Apples - Fruits are usually borne from fruit buds on short spurs two years old or older. Spurs may live 15-20 years and tend to bear fruit every other year. When fruit sets, new growth comes from the side of the spur causing it to develop a zigzag growth pattern. Non fruiting spurs are straight. When pruning, be careful not to remove fruiting spurs. 

Pears - Trees are pruned similar to apples but tend to be more upright growing. Branch spreaders are a good method of developing wider crotch angles. Pears are slow to begin fruiting and produce their fruits on spurs.

Plums - Bear the majority of their fruit on vigorous spurs on wood two years or more old. Avoid heavy pruning which stimulates watersprout growth. A light thinning out of small branches and twigs is needed each year to open up the tree and prevent declining fruit production in the inner area of the tree. Older tree which haven't been properly pruned bear fruit only on the outer 2-3 feet of each branch.

Apricots - Most of the fruit is produced on short spurs which are productive for up to three years. Annual thinning-out of upper branches is needed prevent inner shading and to stimulate the development of new fruiting spurs.

Sour Cherries - Produce some fruit on annual shoots but most is borne on spurs. Light thinning out of upper branches is needed to keep the tree open and to allow for good sun penetration.

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Solutions for Wet Areas in the Yard

Solutions for Wet Areas in the Yard

Wet areas in your yard can range from minor annoyances to persistent problems that make areas of your property unusable. Let’s look at a few wet area scenarios and the possible solutions, from simple to more involved.

First, check to see if your problem has a simple solution. If your wet areas are because of your gutters, check that gutters and downspouts are clear. Perhaps simply redirecting downspout flow away from the problem area will help.

Is your soil heavily compacted, preventing rainwater from draining and causing persistent puddles? Maybe a few seasons of regular aeration will break up soil enough to allow water to drain. As an added benefit, your lawn will probably look a lot better after aeration also.

A low spot in the yard that holds a little too much moisture, particularly after rain, can be addressed with a rain garden. Adding a few plants that tolerate “wet feet” occasionally to absorb and control excess water is a relatively inexpensive way to address the problem, and can be done easily in a weekend. This works well in small areas as well as relatively larger areas. Since a rain garden doesn’t eliminate a wet area but merely controls it, it is not a good solution for wet areas close to your house where the extended moisture could affect your foundation.

Dry Creek bed

A more involved solution would be a dry creek bed that incorporates river rock and small boulders. This is particularly useful when uncontrolled water is causing erosion. Excess water from rain events is captured in the “creek” and allowed to percolate back into the ground, or it can be directed to a drainage area. At other times it is an attractive landscape feature that can be landscaped to blend in with the surrounding area. Adding a dry creek bed does require that the area has some natural slope to it, and again is not suitable for wet areas too close to the house.

Sometimes wet areas need a solution that doesn’t interfere with the aesthetics of the landscape, or quickly removes the water from where it can become a serious problem.  For these areas, a French drain or a catch basin and drainage pipe system can be installed, redirecting the water to another area on your property. This requires some planning and digging, both for the basin and the piping, but once complete it’s invisible except for the discharge end of the pipe. The redirected water could even be discharged into a rain garden or dry creek bed some distance away from your home. (Be aware that redirecting your problem water onto your neighbor’s property is a big no-no.)

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