Cranberry-Basil Margarita with Homegrown Citrus & Herbs

December 8th, 2017 § 4 comments § permalink


Cranberry-Basil Margarita

Tis the season for entertaining, and for many of us, that means welcoming guests with refreshing, festive cocktails. At the moment, I’m planning a Winter Solstice get-together for family. This will be more of a roam-about the room and chat party than a sit-down dinner, so I’m dreaming up tasty libations to set out in punch bowls and pitchers, or perhaps even prepare —at least in part— a day in advance. I’ve been trying out a few different twists on favorite cocktail recipes and this fresh take on a classic Margarita definitely fits the bill.Don’t you just love cranberries? They glow like ruby beads and they’re so willing to wait around in the fridge! As a life-long New Englander, I always make my own cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving, and an extra batch or two for using on sandwiches, later. While they are in season, I pick up a few extra bags of fresh cranberries whenever I’m at the market. I freeze what I can’t use and thaw them when I need some bright color in the dead of winter.Calamondin Orange in the Kitchen

I’ve always used cranberries in baked goods and savory sauces, but more recently, I’ve been experimenting with them in cocktails. Cranberry juice is one of the most popular mixers, so why not put the whole fruit in your drink? Cranberries combine well with so many things. Citrus —especially oranges and limes— is an obvious choice, but the tart flavor and bright red color of cranberries practically begs for fresh, green herbs as well. Hello windowsill herb garden and potted citrus trees, what do you have on offer today? Basil? Ripe calamondin oranges? OK, lets play.First, I make up a basic cranberry sauce, aka cranberry “jam”, (see recipe, below). This tart, multi-use condiment will keep well, covered in the fridge, for a few days. Obviously, cranberry sauce is great on sandwiches, but it’s also delicious when swirled into plain, Greek yogurt or dabbed atop warm oatmeal with cinnamon and a touch of maple syrup. But wait! Don’t eat it all! You’re gonna love using this jam in cocktails —especially this Cranberry-Basil Margarita!

Cranberry-Basil Margarita

Single recipe serves 1, Pitcher recipe serves 8

Ingredients

Cranberry Sauce

1       12 oz. package of fresh or frozen cranberries

1       cup fresh-squeezed orange juice

½     cup sugar (add more for sweet-tooths, up to 1 cup, to taste)

1        tbs fresh orange zest (optional)

Sugar-Salt 

¼       cup kosher salt

¼       cup granulated sugar

Single Cocktail 

sugar-salt mixture for rimming glass (recipe above)

1       calamondin orange or lime wedge

2       fresh basil leaves

1 ½  ounces blanco tequila (100% blue agave)

¾     ounce fresh squeezed calamondin orange or lime juice

½     ounce orange liquor, such as Cointreau, or triple sec

1       ounce cranberry sauce (recipe above)

½     ounce agave syrup (or simple syrup), or ¾ ounce, for sweeter taste

¾     cup of ice cubes (about 6-8 cubes, plus more for glass)

Pitcher of Margaritas 

sugar-salt mixture for rimming glasses (recipe above)

16     fresh basil leaves

½     cup agave syrup (or simple syrup), or ¾ cup for sweeter taste

1       cup cranberry sauce (recipe above)

4       calamondin oranges or 1 lime, cut into wedges

¾     cup fresh calamondin orange or lime juice

½     cup orange liquor, such as Cointreau, or triple sec

1 ½  cups blanco tequila (100% blue agave)

6       cups ice cubes, plus more for glasses

Directions 

For Cranberry Sauce

Heat a cup of fresh-squeezed orange juice and stir in ½-¾ cup of sugar on medium-high. When the mixture begins to boil, stir in 12 oz. of cranberries. Continue stirring and allow the mixture to bubble for a minute or two. Lower the heat and simmer for 5-8 minutes. When cranberries begin to pop and juice starts to foam, turn off the heat and crush the berries with a potato masher. The sauce should be chunky, with bits of fruit and some whole berries. Consistency will become more jam-like as it cools. Cover and refrigerate (up to 3 days), until ready for use.

For Sugar-Salt

Combine sugar and salt in a small container with lid. Shake and pour onto a small plate (be sure to choose one wide enough to fit the overturned rim of your cocktail glass).

For Single Margaritas (up to two servings will fit in a standard sized cocktail shaker)

Moisten the rim of an Old Fashioned or Margarita glass with the citrus wedge (a wide-mouth, stemless wineglass will also work). Turn the rim down on the plate of sugar-salt and give it a slight twist while digging into the mixture.

In the bottom of a standard-size cocktail shaker, crush the basil leaves with a muddler or the back of a wooden spoon. When coarsely mashed, add the tequila, citrus juice, orange liquor/triple sec, cranberry ‘jam’ and the agave syrup. Stir. Add ice. Cover and shake for at least 30 seconds. For a rustic cocktail, pour (or, for a more refined cocktail, strain), into the sugar-salt crusted glass and serve immediately with a citrus wedge garnish and/or sprig of fresh basil.

For Pitcher of Margaritas

In the bottom of a large pitcher, crush basil leaves with muddler or the back of a wooden spoon, until coarsely mashed. Add tequila, citrus juice, orange liquor/triple sec, cranberry ‘jam’ and agave syrup. I like to throw in a few decorative wedges of citrus when using a glass pitcher. Cover the pitcher and refrigerate at least 2 hours or until well chilled.

When ready to serve, pour the sugar-salt mixture on a small plate. Rub the rims of 2 Old Fashioned glasses with a citrus wedge (a classic margarita glass or stemless wine glass will also work, in a pinch); dip and twist the rims in sugar/salt mixture.

Stir the pitcher of margarita mix. Fill a cocktail shaker ½ full with ice and pour in 1 cup (plus) of the margarita mixture. Be sure a bit of muddled basil gets in! Shake until chilled and pour (unstrained for a rustic drink or strained for a more refined cocktail) into two of the sugar-salt crusted glasses. Garnish with a citrus wedge and basil leaf. Repeat for remaining guests or servings.

C  H  E  E  R  S   !  ! 


Article & Photography copyright Michaela Harlow at The Gardener’s Eden, all rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used, reproduced or reposted elsewhere without written consent.

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Dilly Dallying in the Pickled Beans: An Intro to Canning with Jennifer Audette

July 28th, 2012 § 7 comments § permalink

Delicious Dilly Beans

Dilly Beans: Easy Entrance to the World of Canning      Guest Author – Jennifer Audette

Here in New England, a moment exists each growing season when the stars align and your local farmstand, farmer’s market or (if you’re really amazing), own garden suddenly has all the necessary ingredients for the first batch of Dilly Beans. I have the fortune of working in the ‘stand at Walker Farm in Dummerston, VT and this past Thursday it happened. On Wednesday, the fantastic field crew picked seven bushels of beans and then four more the following day.  That means beans coming out our ears for a few days. The first, shy harvest of red chilies appeared in a small bowl, bouquets of dill heads made my mouth water in anticipation of eating pickled things and the garlic has been harvested and waiting patiently for several weeks now.  It’s time to pickle those beans!

As a kid, I spent a lot of time helping my Mom can things like peaches, pears and applesauce. I was a master of slipping skins from blanched peaches; sliding the glistening, sunrise-colored orbs into a mild vinegar bath to keep them from discoloring.  In the autumn, I looked forward to the smell of warm, cooked apples wafting up to meet me as I managed the Foley Food Mill from my perch on the stool. My mom’s palate tends toward the sweet; she’s been known to sprinkle sugar on salad greens deemed too bitter. She doesn’t do hot peppers or vinegar in large quantity and she’s only recently discovered the joys of garlic. Dilly Beans were not part of my childhood canning experience.  But I crave the savory world more than I crave the sweet world and so several years ago, after my Mom had set me up with all the paraphernalia for canning, I found the recipe for Dilly Beans in the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving and entered my very own world of canning…

Slender, Verdant Beauties, Await Morning Harvest

Home Grown Herbs & Spices: Hard Neck Garlic, Chili Peppers & Dill

Freshly Harvested, Washed & Trimmed Haricots Verts from the Potager

This is where I’m supposed to give you a nice tutorial about making Dilly Beans; a specific recipe, step-by-step instructions and such. Unfortunately, I’m not that kind of person. I’m not very good at specifics and I almost never following directions exactly and I certainly don’t do anything the same way twice. But, if you were here with me, I would be happy to show you how I do it. Side by side, you would help me find eight wide-mouth pint jars in the storage space under the stairs, wiping away cobwebs and hoping no mice scurried out.  You would fill the dishpan with hot, soapy water and then wash the jars, the brand new lids and the old screw caps. Together we would wait a long, long time for the half-full kettle of water to come to a boil, discovering while we waited that I didn’t have enough white vinegar for the recipe. I would send you to the store for that.  Thanks, it’s so nice to have a helper!

I’d want to show you how I organize my workspace so that the jars are being sterilized in the large pot of water on the left front burner, the lids are simmering for 10 minutes (not boiling!) in their own separate pan on a back burner and the pickling liquid is simmering on the other front burner.  We’d remove one jar at a time from the hot water and pack them with the beans I’d prepared the night before (washed and trimmed), garlic cloves, chili peppers and dill. We’d fill the jars to a ¼” from the top with the hot pickling solution, remove any bubbles, wipe the top, slap on a lid and load each one into the canner basket.  Likely, there are much better ways to go about packing jars with garlic, chilies, dill and beans. I’m not very good at it and it takes me way longer than it seems like it should. (Maybe if you were here you would have come up with a more efficient way to stuff all those beans into jars!)  But eventually, all 4 pounds of beans and spices would be nestled into jars and lowered into the canning pot. Once we reached a rolling boil, we’d set the timer for 10 minutes. Tick, tick, tick….ding! After a short rest, we’d use the super-cool jar tongs to remove them from the hot water. Then we’d high-five and tell the cat to clean up the mess while we sat out on the porch toasting our efforts with a cool beverage. I’d give you your very own copy of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving and you’d eagerly look through it for your next canning project (balsamic caramelized onions, sweet and spicy pepper relish, bread and butter pickles, tomato sauce, tomatillo salsa, hot peppers for sandwiches, barbecue sauce), knowing how easy it is to preserve the summer’s bounty, once you learn the ropes.

Dilly Beans

Dilly Bean ingredient list*

Ingredients to be Evenly Distributed in Each Jar:

4 pounds green beans, washed and trimmed

8 cloves of garlic

8 small red chilies

8 dill heads

Pickling Solution:

5 cups white vinegar

5 cups water

½ cup pickling salt

*For all the important canning safety basics and full recipe with directions, please take the time to locate a good book from the canning canon and do your homework.  The previously mentioned Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving is a very approachable, easy-to-use introduction, full of inspiring recipes. It’s a reasonable $9 or so and you might even find it at your local hardware store along with all the necessary canning supplies. Have fun!

 Today’s guest blogger, the multi-talented writer Jennifer Audette, is author of the always entertaining and often humorous Cozy Toes Blogspot. When not experimenting with canning, baking, cooking, horticulture, entomology or other scientific pursuits, Jennifer can also be found hiking, making music, writing and delivering smiles to her very fortunate friends.

Thank you Jen! xo

Some Great Resources for Learning to Safely Preserve the Harvest…

Putting Food By

Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving with 400 Delicious and Creative Recipes

How to Store Your Garden Produce

Tips for Growing and Harvesting Tasty Green Beans

Haricots verts —or French-style filet beans— are slender, deep green and very flavorful. All beans should be picked frequently in mid-summer —daily when hot— to insure they don’t go to seed. For best flavor and texture, harvest beans when they are no thicker than the diameter of a pencil. As with most crops, I think it’s best to pick beans very early in the morning, before the heat of the day. Marigold and Summer Savory —believed to improve the growth of bush beans and deter beetles— are fantastic companion plants for haricots verts. Enrich soil with well rotted compost and provide plants with regular foliar feeding (applying liquid fertilizer to leaves in a spray or shower) of Neptune’s Harvest or fish emulsion to insure strong, healthy plants and a beautiful, tasty crop. Always wash beans thoroughly when harvesting, especially after applying fish emulsion or any fertilizer. Green beans provide their best yield during the first three weeks of harvest. With this in mind, I like to succession plant this crop for a steady supply of tender young beans straight through the killing frost.

Dilly Beans: Easy Entrance to the World of Canning ⓒ 2012 Jennifer Audette. Photographs ⓒ 2012 Jennifer Audette and Michaela Medina for The Gardener’s Eden, as noted. All images, articles and content on this site (with noted exceptions), are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Please do not use photographs without permission. Thank you! 

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Bavarian Purple, Spanish Roja & More: Selecting & Planting Gourmet Garlic …

October 24th, 2011 § 2 comments § permalink

Gorgeous, Gourmet Garlic! Bulbs, Clockwise from Top of Ceramic Bowl: German White, Russian Red, Bavarian Purple & Spanish Roja. On Table: Two Heads of Doc’s German & One Each of German Red & Music. In Basket: A Combination of All Garlic Varieties, Plus Continental.

Creatures of the night, beware: I grow garlic! Garlic and onion braids hang from the wooden beams of my kitchen, and they inhabit colorful ceramic keepers on my shelves. I have garlic galore planted in my garden, squirreled away for winter use upon shelves in paper bags and hanging from floor joists in my cellar. Vampires dare not kiss me, for I cook with this delightfully stinky herb most every night.

Every autumn, I plant many varieties of cold hardy, hardneck garlic in my potager (hardneck garlic is the best choice for climates with long, cold winters). It’s a good idea to purchase garlic grown close to your own home (this insures the hardiest selections for your climate and local growing conditions), and traditionally, each October, I visit the annual Garlic & Arts Festival in nearby North Orange, Massachusetts, to select a few more gourmet bulbs for my garden. One of my all-time favorite garlic varieties, which I finally found at the festival a few years ago, is Spanish Roja (a rocambole hardneck garlic). This beautifully colored, hot and spicy selection possesses a true garlic flavor and easy-to-peel cloves, making it one of the most popular —and sometimes hard to find— bulbs at market. This zesty variety and others —including German Red, Bavarian Purple and Russian Red—-  tend  to be my favorite types for roasting and cooking. But I also love the milder varieties of garlic —including smokey, medium heat Continental— for salad dressing, salsa, cold pasta and other recipes calling for raw cloves, and for use in subtler dishes.

Garlic Bulbs are Harvested in Late Summer, When the Tops Yellow, Wither and Flop (Also True for Onions). Once Lifted from the Earth with a Garden Fork, Excess Soil is Shaken from the Bulbs as They ‘Cure’ for Two Weeks in a Warm, Dry Place.

Many hard neck garlic varieties (including rocambole, porcelain and striped) store beautifully in cool, dark, dry conditions. Porcelain garlic bulbs, such as German White and Music, are exceptionally good selections for long-term (up to 9 months under optimal conditions) storage. Russian Red, another good-sized porcelain hardneck variety, is also a top-notch keeper. I hang garlic braids in my kitchen and always have a few bulbs on hand in ceramic keepers, but most of my garlic is stored on shelves in a cool (approximately 55 degrees) part of my dark, dry cellar. After harvest and curing (for more detail, see previous post by clicking here) I like to store my garlic bulbs in braids (click here for my popular onion/garlic braiding tutorial with step-by-step photos) and in loosely folded, brown paper bags (this provides ample air circulation). I mark the name of the variety on the outside for quick reference. Some bulbs return to the garden every autumn, and the rest remain in stock on my shelves for winter and springtime use.

Preparing to Plant Garlic: Breaking a Basket of Large, Firm, Hard Neck Bulbs into Cloves

Mid-autumn is the best time to plant hardneck garlic in my climate. Each year I rotate my crop; preparing a new garlic bed with fresh compost in late September. Selecting large, firm bulbs from my crop, I carefully separate the cloves and prepare tags for each variety. On a cool, dry October day, I plant each clove approximately 2″ deep and 4-6″ apart (space wider for big, porcelain bulbs like Music). Mulching is very important in cold climates like Vermont. I use throughly rotted compost and clean straw or ground oak leaves for a nice thick mulch. Read more about garlic planting, and find a link back to removing and using garlic scapes, in my previous post “A Thousand Mothers Set Into Earth” by clicking here.

Of Course the Best Part of Growing Garlic is Eating It! Click Here for a Delicious Garlic and Potato Soup Recipe

Photographs and Text ⓒ Michaela Medina/The Gardener’s Eden. All photos, articles and content on this site (with noted exceptions) are the original, copyrighted property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be reposted, reproduced or used in any way without prior written consent. Contact information is in the left side bar. Thank you!

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Designing an Enchanting Edible Garden And a Workshop for Vegetable Lovers…

May 10th, 2011 § 4 comments § permalink

My Backyard Potager – An Edible Oasis in Mid-July

Like a butterfly flitting about the garden before deciding where to settle, I found myself drifting in and out of greenhouses and garden centers last weekend, ogling possible additions to my backyard potager. I couldn’t help but notice that the aisles of my favorite farm stand and local nurseries are filling up with annuals, perennial herbs, vegetable starts, berry bushes and fruit trees. Ah yes, it’s that time of year again. Time to plant the vegetable garden!

There are so many things I love about growing my own produce, but my favorite summertime pleasure has to be settling into a comfy garden chair at the end of the day —glass of chilled white wine in hand and dinner fixings in a basket at my feet— as I watch the golden rays of late afternoon sun illuminate the beautiful flowers, fruit and vegetables in my potager. Of course the best part of edible gardening is doing just that —eating it! And by mid-June, I needn’t make a special trip to the grocery store to create a gourmet meal. Everything I need for a great breakfast, lunch or dinner is growing in my own backyard. On sunny days, I often enjoy alfresco meals in the garden itself, overlooking the beautiful vine-covered fence and swaying sunflowers…

Heavenly Blue Morning Glories are Attractive to People and Pollinators Alike!

An Alfresco Lunch – Last Summer in my Sun-Drenched Garden

Calendula Blossoms Not Only Add Beauty to a Garden, But Also Attract Beneficial Insects and Deter Undesirable Pests…

Heirloom Tomatoes Begin to Produce in July and Continue through October

Working in a Beautifully Designed Vegetable Garden is a Treat for All Senses

I Plant Sunflowers Partly for Decorative Reasons, But Also Because They Provide Food for Birds, Bees and Other Beneficial Garden Guests

Pathways Edged with Herbs are Beautiful and Fragrant Additions to the Potager. Why Not Make the Walk to the Vegetable Garden as Lovely as the Destination?

I’ll be presenting a free seminar on the art and science of vegetable gardening this Saturday, May 14th at Walker Farm, together with owner and organic farmer Jack Manix. We’ll both be discussing a wide range of edible gardening topics. The seminar will begin at 10am with Jack covering the basics of organic vegetable gardening. Jack will review the practical side of growing your own produce; with topics ranging from soil chemistry and compost, to pest management, specialty crops and succession planting. There will be plenty of opportunity to ask questions and have a look around the farm. Then after a brief tour of the fields, I will pick up where Jack leaves off; discussing ways in which you can make your vegetable garden a beautiful, welcoming multi-use space for your family, friends and other garden guests; like birds and beneficial insects. We’ll talk about edible, living walls and other fences, raised beds and borders, vertical structures and vines, bird, bat and toad houses, companion flowers and herbs, plus all the little details that will make your time in the garden less work and more pleasure.

To find out more about Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping or purchase a copy, click here

I hope you’ll join us this Saturday, May 14th at beautiful Walker Farm (click here for details and to save your seat) but until then —or if you live too far away to make it— I have a few beautiful and inspirational books on edible gardening to recommend. Rosalind Creasy’s Edible Landscaping (pictured above) is a great book, just chock full of gorgeous garden design photos and practical, inspirational ideas. I mentioned it in this post (here) earlier this year and I still highly recommend it. And landscape designer Jennifer Bartley —who will be speaking on Contemporary Kitchen Garden Design in Wilmington, Vermont on June 24th at the Sixteenth Annual North Hill Symposium —- author of one of my favorite potager design books Designing the New Kitchen Garden, has just released another beautiful and informative title, The Kitchen Gardener’s Handbook, from Timber Press.

Jennifer Bartley’s The Kitchen Gardener’s Handbook

I’ll be writing much more about creating enchanting edible gardens in the coming weeks. And, if beautiful and productive vegetable gardens appeal to your senses, you may want to revisit my potager page at the left (click here) and past-posts; including The Art of French Vegetable Gardening (click here) and Dreaming of Springtime’s Sweet Veggies: Planning a Lush, Welcoming Potager.

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Gardening Seminars at Walker Farm are Free and Open to the Public. The Gardener’s Eden received no compensation, of any kind, for editorial mention of businesses or products in this post.

Article and all photographs are copyright Michaela at The Gardener’s Eden, all rights reserved. All content on this site, (with noted exceptions), is the property of The Gardener’s Eden and may not be used, reproduced or reposted elsewhere without written consent.

Do you enjoy The Gardener’s Eden? You can help support this site by shopping through affiliate links here (including Amazon.com book links and Terrain Garden & Home). A small percentage of each sale will be paid to this site, helping to cover web hosting and maintenance costs. Thank you so much for your support!

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Here Comes the Sun, Doo’n Doo Doo: Gettin’ Started with Seed Starting…

February 10th, 2011 § 3 comments § permalink

On your mark, get set…

Twenty degrees fahrenheit. Ow… That’s nippy! Yes, the outside temperature still says ‘winter’ loud-and-clear, but the good new is that the days are getting longer, and the sunlight is getting stronger. That means it’s just about time to get a jump on the growing season by starting seed indoors. At this time of year in Vermont, I’m already sowing chives, onions and hardy herbs indoors. Cold crops like lettuce, spinach and arugula are now growing within the spring-like climate created by the hoop houses in my vegetable garden (click here for more information on how to build your own). I’m looking forward to an even more productive potager this year, with more home-grown gourmet vegetables started from seed.

Why start seed indoors when you can just pick up vegetable six-packs in early spring at the garden center? Well, first of all, it needn’t be either/or. Even though I still buy organically-grown vegetable starts from Walker Farm (by the dozen), I have plenty of reasons to start some seed here at home. Starting seed indoors gives me a jump on the growing season; allowing me to plant certain crops outdoors, and harvest before the local garden centers even open. When I start my own seed, I also have the option of experimenting with unusual, gourmet vegetable crops. Seed catalogs (and Seed Saving exchanges) offer far more variety than any local greenhouse can possibly supply (see sidebar and links below for some sources). And if you don’t have an organic grower nearby, starting your own plants from seed insures that your produce will be raised to your own high standards: you control the quality right from the start. Although there is an initial investment in grow lights and other gardening supplies, starting your own seed indoors can save quite a bit of money over the long haul. But the best part? I get to see the entire, magnificent process of life right from the beginning. If you have children, this is a great opportunity for teaching, and a wonderful experience to share.

A fine-textured medium (growing mix) is essential for seed starting. Regular potting soil is too heavy, and won’t drain efficiently. Buy or make your own seed starting mix for best results.

Seed Starting Basics

*

Start your new plants the right way: Purchase fresh seed from a reliable, organic source, near your region. Seed collected close to your own geographic area tends to perform best. Farmers in my area (New England), almost always buy their seed from New England sources. And although I do buy seed from elsewhere (some from as far away as California) I purchase the bulk of my vegetable seed packets from suppliers in nearby Maine, Massachusetts and Vermont. And when choosing germinating mix, remember to always use an organic seed-starter with very fine, loose particles. Never use regular potting soil to germinate seeds. Why? It’s much heavier and it won’t drain well. Seedlings need moist, but not water-logged soil.

Select your containers and trays: Many garden centers and online suppliers have plastic or peat cell-packs available for purchase. These packs are handy, because they usually come with plastic tops to keep the starter mix moist while seeds germinate. But, you can always use plastic wrap for ths purpose if you make/recycle containers. Some of my gardening friends like to make their own biodegradable starter pots from newspaper. You can also recycle old plastic six-packs or other containers, but you must sterilize those reused pots properly with warm, soapy water and a bit of disinfectant (bleach) to prevent the spread of disease. You will also need leak-proof trays to place beneath the seeds, in order to water them from the bottom (prevents washing the tiny seeds to the side of the pots and/or disturbing delicate roots). Whatever you choose to use, get everything ready —in one place— before you start.

Set up grow lights: While it’s true that you can start seed in a brightly lit window (I do this with some windowsill herbs) you will get much better results (stronger root systems, stems and overall growth) if you use grow-lights positioned close to the seed trays. You can use regular florescent shop-lights, or you can purchase grow-lights (available at many garden centers and online suppliers). If you are serious about starting seed indoors (or growing tropical houseplants) grow lights are a great investment. If you already own grow-lights, clean them and check bulbs and timers before you start your seed. Most vegetable seeds do not require heat-pads for germination. But it’s always a good idea to check the back of seed packets before you start, to be clear on requirements. Grow lights work best when they are raised up as the seedlings develop, keeping them close to (but not touching) the leaves. Crafty gardeners can try to construct their own systems, but grow-light systems —either floor or table mounted— can be purchased at all price points. Aim for durable, quality construction – with stands built to last.

Quality grow lights (like the one above, from Gardener’s Supply Company) are a great investment if you are serious about getting a jump-start on the growing season.

Time your starts: Check the back of your seed packets for the number of days to germination, and the start date. Usually the packet will list the start date by referencing the number of weeks prior to the last frost date. Do you know your last frost date? Check with your local USDA cooperative extension service (click here for interactive map) or, the awesome, easy-to-use table for common vegetable start dates on The Farmer’s Almanac website (Just enter your city and state in the pace provided – love the Farmer’s Almanac)! If you live in zone 4 or 5, February is a good time to start onions, leeks, chives, celery and hardy herbs. Later this month (or early March) you can begin cool-season crops like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbages and brussels sprouts. Unless you are located in zone 7 or warmer, wait to start warm-season crops (like tomatoes, peppers and eggplant) until mid to late March, or even early April.

Moisten the starter mix and fill containers: One the best ways to insure that your seedlings have plenty of moisture is to soak your germinating mix overnight prior to planting. I like to wet the mix in a big tub the night before planting; adding enough warm water to make it damp, but not soupy. I know the starter medium is ready to use when all of the water is absorbed and the mixture is moist like a fresh cupcake, but not wet and gloppy like mashed potatoes. If you try to form a ball it should crumble apart, but still feel moist to the touch (just like natural garden soil at planting time, remember how great that smells?)

Hello baby!

Plant your seeds in the containers: Plant two to three seeds per cell (you will thin the plants later) Not sure of how deep to plant? The back of the seed packet should list planting depth. But if it doesn’t, aim to plant the seed three times as deep as it is large (measuring by diameter).

Cover the seeds and wait for germination: Once all the seeds are planted and set in their trays, cover them with the plastic tops, or loosely with plastic wrap (to contain moisture and raise humidity) and place them in a 60-75 degree (fahrenheit) room. Be sure that the catch trays are filled with water, and check the seed starts daily to insure that the soil remains moist. A plastic spray-misting bottle can be useful in the early stages of seed starting to insure that the surface of soil remains moist. Seed trays can be placed beneath grow lights, but you won’t need to turn them on until the seeds pop out of the soil. Again, unless the seed requires warmer germination temperatures (or if you are starting plants in a cool/dark spot like a cellar) you won’t need heating pads for the trays.

Sunflowers are an exciting and easy crop for youngsters to grow in recycled milk cartons. But wait a bit longer on this crop. February is too soon to start sunflowers in New England…

Light up their life: As soon as the seeds germinate, they’ll need at least 12 hours of light per day (and for many vegetables 14-18 hours is even better) In these northern parts, this is where grow-lights come in. Remembering to turn lights on-and-off can be tricky at first, and an inexpensive timer can really be your best work-buddy!

Feed me Seymour!: Once the seedlings have a set of “true” leaves (as opposed to the tiny seed leaves, which emerge first), give them their first meal: a bit of dilute, organic fertilizer (I use a very weak fish emulsion solution, diluted in water).

Biodegradable pots allow room for root development, and can be popped right into the soil (no struggling to remove tiny plants without damage!)

Transition time: Once spring closes in, seedlings will begin to really take off. As certain young plants grow, they will need thinning and perhaps later, transplanting to larger pots before being “hardened off” (process of bringing seed outdoors for short periods of time to adjust to outside temperatures and light). We’ll talk more about this process later. In meantime, If you are starting many seeds, it’s also wise to invest in a fan for air circulation. Check with some of the seed supply sources linked here for more information, or visit your local garden center. It’s also helpful to have some larger sized pots and regular potting soil on hand for later. Peat pots (or other biodegradable containers) are particularly good for the purpose of transplanting, because they can be placed directly into the soil. This reduces root-disturbance and makes for a swifter, stress-free transition into garden soil.

And although we are all anxious to get back out in the sweet earth, resist the urge to rush tender plants into a cold garden. Unless you have hoop houses, row covers, cloches or other protection for your crops, it’s too risky to push them out before the recommended date (again refer to the links at the top of this post). I’ll be writing more about the process of seed starting over the coming weeks and months.

For more information and seed sources, please visit previous posts, linked here!

Here comes the sun! It may still be a little early for most vegetable starts, but growing windowsill herbs (like chives and cilantro) is fun and easy anytime…

Special thanks to Tim Geiss for his fantastic seed starting photos. Visit Tim’s site here.

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Article and noted photo ⓒ Michaela at TGE

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