March 19, 2017 12:00 pm

How to start preparing your veggie garden: tips from a certified horticulturalist

WATCH: Dave Attard of Urban Gardener shares his best advice on growing your own herbs and veggies on a balcony garden.

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With warmer weather just around the corner, many green thumbs are itching to get their gardening kit out. Now is the time to start thinking about the products you might need to replenish and what types of veggies you want to plant this year, according to certified horticulturalist Stephanie Philip.

Philip advised that this season is the perfect time to start planting your vegetable seeds indoors.

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“The general rule is to start planting seeds six to eight weeks before the last frost,” she said. “Last year it was around May 4 [in Toronto], so it works out to around early March to early April this year.”

She says the first thing to consider is whether the seeds you’ve chosen are for a variety that will work best in your space. For example, pick more compact-growing plants if you’re a balcony gardener or a plant that grows well in shady spots if you don’t get a lot of light. And you don’t need to plant your entire seed packet. Philip recommends planting at most three seeds per pod and saving or sharing the rest of your seeds.

READ MORE: How to grow your own food in a small, urban space

She said there are three key things to watch out for when planting your seeds: heat, light and moisture.

Heat:

A warm environment helps the seed soften up, making it easier for your plant to sprout.

“A lot of the times people will put their seeds on top of their fridge or near a heat vent or any other warm spot to help the germination process happen,” she said.

Light:

Young plants need lots of light as soon as they sprout, some up to 16 hours a day. Philip said it’ll help avoid the sprouts getting too leggy (having too much space between the stem and the first set of leaves).

“You want make sure your plants are going to get adequate light, especially when they start to germinate,” she said. “Make sure that they get enough light so that they can grow on and become strong plants.”

The popularity of at-home greenhouse kits, outfitted with lamps to recreate a sunny environment, has gone up, Philip says, noting they’re not essential.

Moisture:

Philip says drainage is an important factor to consider when watering your seeds. Too much moisture might make your plants rot, and not enough will make them wither or not germinate at all.

If you’re planting your seeds in an egg carton, make sure to poke holes in the bottom or carefully control the amount of water you give them. To avoid too much water from evaporating quickly, a plastic liner can help.

How to prepare your seedlings for outdoor success

Once you’ve successfully sprouted your seeds and the weather begins to get warmer, habituate your plants by exposing them to the outdoors over time. Philip calls this “hardening” your plants, because you don’t want to leave them out all day and night in the early season when it can be quite chilly in the evenings.

“It starts with having them outside for a couple of hours a day, then four hours, then all the way up to eight hours a day,” she said. “Then you can start putting them outside all of the time.”

You should also be preparing your soil or containers to receive the new plants.

“If you’re planting into a garden bed it’s good to prep that ahead of time. After the ground thaws, it’s good to start mending the soil by adding nutrient-rich, organic material like a mushroom compost or worm compost — which is the ‘black gold’ of horticulture,” Philip said.

READ MORE: How to grow your own plants, food inside this winter

As for container gardens, keep in mind that they dry up faster and need a different type of soil.

“I like using soil that’s specifically made for containers because it’ll hang onto a little bit more moisture,” she said. “Black earth might be too heavy or dense and your plant might suffer because of that. It’ll get too waterlogged or it might be too heavy a soil that will make it difficult for your plant to form roots.”

Philip’s final tip is to get in touch with your neighbours or local gardening groups to find out what varieties work best in your region.

“Reach out to people who are in the area that might be growing things,” she said. “It does help. It might feel a little weird at the start, but just asking your neighbour [for tips] is a really great way to gain a better understanding of what grows well in your area.”

© 2017 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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