By Marykate Smith Despres with Sarah Gabriel | Photographs by Brian Samuels
I have hoes and trowels and pots and stakes. Garden markers and grow lights, and fertilizer gleaned from both fish and farm. I have a notebook in which, every February, I plot my plans for rows of root vegetables, a variety of greens, and two plantings’ worth of lettuces. I have a pile of plastic trays and peat pots that has moved with me three times in four years.
Every year starts with high hopes and good intentions. I believe that this season, more seedlings will make the full journey from packet to plate than the spring before. Inevitably, though, my plans unravel into reality. I return from work to find a gruesome scene of dirt and seedlings strewn on the floor while the cat looks down nonchalantly from the sun spot she stole from my flat of sprouts. Or I am forgetful, or overzealous, or both, and everything ends up drowned or moldy. The one April I transplanted nearly every seedling I started, we have a week of wind and rain so heavy, every would-be salad and side dish is washed away.
Yet, I have not seen a single season without some kind of yield. Often, despite myself, I am overrun with at least one crop or another, enough so that I can bring baskets full of beans or cherry tomatoes to friends, who take them admiringly while I smile and admit nothing. And so I have learned to trust in the sun, in the soil, in the seed.
A seed begins its quiet awakening in the same place where many people find their final rest—embraced on all sides by the earth. There is a memory, a history, a knowing, that we become a part of when we plant a seed. It is an old, strong sun that shines down on the herbs on my window sill. It is a shared breath I let in when I sniff the basil that grows there and that I let out at the taste of a leaf whose whole life I know.
The Valley is a special place to plant a seed. It is inspiring to grow a kitchen garden in this place of people who feel a connection to food we grow here, and of soil deeply enriched by the river that runs through it. But it can also be intimidating. I’ve met fifth-generation local farmers and first-generation back-to-the-landers, folks with certificates and degrees in sustainable agriculture and others with container gardens built and maintained more carefully than most of the apartments I’ve lived in. But season after season of good intentions and modest means have taught me to trust that all I really need is a tiny plot or pot of dirt, a sunny spot with room to stretch, and a belief in the seed I bury.
The Art of the Start
When I got serious about stepping up my seed game, I turned to friend and food expert Sarah Gabriel. As a gardener, chef, and food writer, Gabriel knows first hand about the entire life cycle of a meal.
Whether you’re hoping to grow your whole meal or a single crop, starting early is key, especially in New England, says Gabriel. This means finding a space in your home a few weeks before the season’s last frost (which, for much of the Pioneer Valley, is not until May) and gathering the basics: “seeds, media, light, and heat.”
As quality ingredients make the meal, quality seeds make the ingredient. Gabriel suggests ordering from Seed Savers “because they have an enormous selection of heirloom varieties and they act as a genetic repository and educational resource.” I find flipping through the annual Seed Savers catalog akin to the giddiness of reading the Sears Wish Book at age eight. It is that vast and that thrilling. For more “obscure varieties,” she uses Sand Hill Preservation Center. Locally, I’ve had great luck with both Greenfield Farmers Co-op and community seed exchanges.
“Once you’ve procured the seeds,” Gabriel tells us, “you’ll need a place to put them.” She warns against the garden center favorites—peat moss or soil and vermiculite—and instead suggests a more sustainable, renewable medium: coir, or coconut fiber. Available compressed in bricks, individual pods, or loose, coir is easy to find online, at hydroponics supply stores, and occasionally at garden and hardware stores. Whatever medium you choose needs to balance water retention and drainage, be dense enough for solid root growth, yet light enough for seedlings to push through.
Most seeds need both a good light source and warmth to germinate and grow. Gabriel says the ideal setup will allow for exposure to natural light but, “a few cheap, fluorescent grow lights will do the trick if you can get them very close to the seedlings—no more than 18 inches away.” She puts hers on a vacation timer to keep with the natural light cycle. For heat, “buy a clamp lamp at the hardware store, screw a 100-watt full-spectrum bulb into it, and clamp it near enough to your trays to warm the soil to 80°.”
I’ll be honest here and admit that I’ve never taken my soil’s temperature (Gabriel simply uses the back of her hand). Nonetheless, I have had luck with the clamp lamp, even in my old north-facing apartment. Plastic tray covers will help keep seeds warm, but can quickly cause mold if not taken off a few times a day.
Fans are another a great tool for ventilating and, says Gabriel, also aid in hardening off your seedlings. This is a crucial step in seed starting, especially if your seedlings end up a bit spindly (usually caused by low light). A little fan breeze is much gentler than a strong spring wind.
“As you can see,” says Gabriel, “it doesn’t take a ton of money, special equipment, or expertise. Happy spring! Now get to work.”
Greenfield Farmers Cooperative Exchange
269 High St., Greenfield, MA 01301
413-773-9639, M–F 8am–6pm, Sat 8am–5pm
Marykate Smith Despres writes about food, art, and knitting for various blogs and publications. She has worked as a baker, but learned how to cook from her mom, who taught her that everything good starts as a little butter and onions in a pan. Marykate is the program manager at Whole Children in Hadley, a recreation program for people of all abilities. She lives in Turners Falls, where she bakes lots of cookies and grows a small, edible garden with her family.
Sarah Gabriel worked in fine dining and neighborhood bakeries for about seven years, put in four years of recipe development with America’s Test Kitchen and local Boston bakeries, and did a few seasons of farm hand work in the meantime. At home, she cultivates her own hops, experiments with home brewing, and has spent seven seasons gardening in her 180-square-foot urban micro-plot, which takes up more vertical space each year, but has yet to yield melons. She continues to plant them as an exercise in humility.
Brian Samuels is a lifestyle and food photographer and writer in Boston and New York. He is the creator of the acclaimed food blog A Thought For Food. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Bon Appétit, Sunday Morning on CBS, Saveur, Edible Boston, The Boston Globe, and The Kitchn. Contact Brian at email@example.com.