Green Beginnings: A Beginner’s Guide to Seed Starting in New England

The world of gardening in New England can be a whirlwind, where the seasons change when they want, and the growing season can sometimes feel fleeting. If you’ve ever dreamt of cultivating your own lush garden, there’s no better way to kickstart the process than by mastering the art of seed starting. In this beginner-friendly guide, we’ll take you through the basics of seed starting in New England, helping you turn those green dreams into a reality.


Understanding Your Zone

New England’s diverse climate spans USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 7, meaning we experience cold winters and warm summers. Understanding your specific zone is crucial for selecting seeds that thrive in your local conditions. The USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map is an excellent resource to identify your zone and plan your gardening calendar accordingly. You can find our blog post on the recent change in the zone map here!


Choosing the Right Seeds

Selecting the right seeds is like choosing the cast for your gardening production. Consider factors such as your region, soil type, and sunlight availability. For New England, cool-season crops like lettuce, kale, and broccoli are perfect for early spring, while warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers can be started indoors in late winter. But don’t worry, we’ve made it easy for you, take a look at our table that shows you exactly what to plant and when here!


Seed Starting Calendar



Timing is Everything

In New England, where frost dates can be unpredictable, timing is key. Consult your local agricultural extension office or use online resources to determine the last frost date in your area. Count backward from this date to determine when to start your seeds indoors. This ensures your seedlings are strong and ready to be transplanted when the soil is warm enough.


Creating the Ideal Environment

Set up a dedicated space for your seeds to germinate and grow. Ensure they receive sufficient light, either from a south-facing window or using artificial grow lights. Maintain a consistent temperature, ideally between 65-75°F (18-24°C). Regularly check soil moisture and avoid overwatering, as New England’s cool indoor environments can slow down drying times.


Now you’re ready to get started!  Let’s go step by step.

Step 1: Gather Your Supplies

Before diving into seed starting, gather the essential supplies. New England’s variable weather conditions make indoor seed starting a smart choice, allowing you to control temperature and protect delicate seedlings from unexpected late frosts.

Collect all the necessary materials before you start:


Step 2: Choose the Right Seed Trays

Opt for trays with drainage holes to prevent waterlogging. Cell trays or peat pots work well for individual seeds. Make sure the trays are clean and have been disinfected to minimize the risk of disease.

Step 3: Fill Trays with Seed Starting Mix

Use a high-quality seed starting mix that provides good aeration and drainage. Fill each cell or container, leaving a little space at the top for watering.

Step 4: Planting Depth and Spacing

Check the seed packet for specific instructions on planting depth and spacing. As a general rule, plant seeds twice as deep as their diameter. Small seeds can be surface-sown.

Step 5: Watering

Moisten the seed starting mix before planting to ensure even water distribution. After sowing, use a gentle stream of water or a spray bottle to avoid disturbing the seeds. Keep the mix consistently moist but not waterlogged.

Step 6: Covering Seeds (Optional)

Some seeds benefit from being covered with a thin layer of vermiculite or seed starting mix to maintain moisture. Refer to the seed packet for specific instructions. You can also use plastic wrap or a humidity dome to create a mini greenhouse effect until the seeds germinate.


Step 7: Temperature and Light

Place the trays in a warm location to encourage germination. A consistent temperature between 65-75°F (18-24°C) is ideal. Once germination occurs, move the trays to a well-lit area. If using natural light, ensure your seedlings receive at least 6-8 hours of direct sunlight. If not, supplement with grow lights placed a few inches above the seedlings for 14-16 hours per day.

Step 8: Thinning Seedlings

As seedlings grow, thin them to ensure proper spacing and prevent overcrowding. Choose the healthiest-looking seedlings and snip the weaker ones at soil level.

Step 9: Hardening Off

Harden off your seedlings by gradually exposing them to outdoor conditions for a week before planting. This helps them adjust to the changes in temperature, sunlight intensity, and wind, reducing the risk of transplant shock when they are finally moved into the garden.  Select a sheltered outdoor location for your seedlings. A porch, patio, or any area that provides partial shade and protection from strong winds is ideal.  We recommend the following hardening off schedule:


Day 1-2: Introduce to Shade

On the first day, place your seedlings outdoors in a shaded area for 1-2 hours. Gradually increase the time each day, exposing them to a bit more sunlight. Monitor them closely for signs of stress, such as wilting or leaf burn.

Day 3-4: Partial Sun Exposure

Move the seedlings to an area with dappled sunlight or morning sunlight for a few hours. Again, increase the time they spend outdoors each day. Ensure they are protected from strong midday sun during this phase.

Day 5-6: More Sun Exposure

Expose the seedlings to direct sunlight for longer periods, gradually increasing their exposure. By this point, they should be able to handle a few hours of direct sunlight without adverse effects.

Day 7-10: Full Sun Exposure

Towards the end of the hardening off period, your seedlings should be ready for full sun exposure. Place them in direct sunlight for most of the day, mirroring the conditions they will experience in the garden.
Keep a close eye on your seedlings throughout the hardening off process. If you notice any signs of stress, such as wilting or discoloration, scale back the exposure and increase gradually again. As your seedlings spend more time outdoors, they may require more frequent watering due to increased exposure to wind and sun. Keep the soil consistently moist but not waterlogged. During the hardening off period, be cautious of nighttime temperatures. If frost is forecasted, bring your seedlings indoors or provide them with some protection.


Once your seedlings have successfully completed the hardening off process and show no signs of stress, they are ready to be transplanted into the garden.



Step 10: Transplanting with Care

Once your seedlings have developed sturdy roots and a couple of true leaves and the danger of frost has gone, it’s time to transplant them into your garden. Choose a sunny location and prepare your soil with compost and Bio-Tone Starter to give your plants the best start possible.


Step 11: Ongoing Care

Congratulations, you’ve successfully started your seeds and transplanted them into the garden! However, the journey doesn’t end there. Regular watering, weeding, and monitoring for pests are crucial for a thriving garden. Stay connected with us as we post blogs and tips specific to New England’s unique challenges.


Embarking on your seed starting journey in New England is a rewarding endeavor that connects you with the rhythm of the seasons. Armed with the knowledge of your local climate, careful planning, and a bit of patience, you’ll soon be enjoying the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor. Happy gardening!


Unwrapping the Magic: The Fascinating Story of Poinsettias and Tips for a Flourishing Holiday Season


Welcome to the enchanting world of Poinsettias – those vibrant bursts of red, pink, and white that herald the holiday season. As you prepare to deck the halls with these festive favorites, let’s dive into the rich history, captivating biology, and practical care tips that make the Poinsettia a cherished symbol of joy and warmth. 


A Blooming History

The Poinsettia’s journey from the sun-drenched landscapes of Mexico to the heart of holiday celebrations worldwide is nothing short of magical. Native to southern Mexico, the plant is known as “Cuetlaxochitl” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. These ancient people prized the plant for its brilliant red bracts and utilized its sap for medicinal purposes. 

Joel Poinsett, the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico in the early 19th century, encountered this botanical gem during his diplomatic tenure. Struck by its beauty, he sent samples back to his home in South Carolina, introducing the Poinsettia to the United States and sparking its meteoric rise to seasonal stardom. 


Flourishing in Mexico’s Landscape

In its native habitat, the Poinsettia isn’t confined to a decorative pot; it naturally grows into large, lush shrubs, transforming the Mexican landscape with a riot of colors. This perennial evergreen shrub, known botanically as Euphorbia pulcherrima, thrives in the warm, subtropical climates of Mexico and Central America. 

Reaching heights of up to 10 feet, the wild Poinsettia graces hillsides and open areas, contributing to the vibrant tapestry of Mexico’s flora. Its adaptability to varying soil types and preference for well-draining conditions make it a resilient presence in the natural environment. 


Behind the Brilliance: Bracts and Flowers

While the Poinsettia’s beauty is undeniable, it may surprise you to learn that what we commonly perceive as petals are, in fact, specialized leaves known as bracts. These bracts are responsible for the plant’s stunning array of colors, ranging from classic red to elegant white, and soft pink. Nestled within these vibrant bracts are the Poinsettia’s tiny, inconspicuous flowers, located at the center of the plant. It’s a true marvel of nature, where the leaves steal the spotlight, and the flowers work their magic quietly. 


Poinsettia Care 101

Now that you’re enchanted by their history and beguiled by their unique biology, let’s ensure your Poinsettias thrive throughout the holiday season and beyond. Here are some friendly tips for keeping these botanical wonders happy: 


Light and Location

  • Poinsettias love bright, indirect light, so find a cozy spot near a window with filtered sunlight
  • Avoid placing them in drafty areas, as they prefer a stable temperature.


Watering Wisdom

  • Allow the soil to dry out slightly between waterings
  • Overwatering can lead to root rot, so moderation is key to a healthy Poinsettia


Feeding Fun

  • Fertilize your Poinsettia every 2-4 weeks during the growing season (spring and summer)
  • Opt for a balanced, all-purpose fertilizer to keep those bracts looking vibrant


Extended Joy

  • To encourage reblooming, reduce the amount of daylight your Poinsettia receives starting in October
  • Keep them in complete darkness for 14 hours a night, ensuring they get 10 hours of bright light during the day. This mimics the natural conditions that trigger blooming


Click below for our detailed printable care guide!

Poinsettia Printable Care Guide


As you welcome these iconic plants into your home this holiday season, remember the rich tapestry of history and biology that accompanies each Poinsettia. By caring for them with a touch of TLC, you can extend the magic well beyond December and enjoy the beauty of these festive companions throughout the year. Happy holidays and may your poinsettias flourish with the spirit of the season! 




Pruning Roses with Jeanette

When the forsythia blooms, it’s time to prune your roses! Our very own rose expert, Jeanette, loves roses and loves to show what she knows about them. Join us as Jeanette takes us step by step through her guide to pruning roses in early Spring. Note: the roses featured are Hybrid Tea roses that will benefit from a prophylactic dose of fungicide or neem oil after pruning. Other varieties are such as Knock Out Roses or David Austin are less susceptible to such issues and you can skip that step with those!

Embracing Change: USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map Gets an Update in 2023!

While we’re all bundled up for winter, it’s the perfect time to dive into a blooming topic that’s been making waves in the gardening community – the recent update to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map in 2023.  

The Zone Map Shuffle: A Quick Recap 

For those new to gardening, the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map helps gardeners understand which plants are most likely to thrive in a specific region based on the average annual minimum winter temperature. It’s like a GPS for your garden, guiding you toward plants that can weather the local climate.  The map has only been updated 5 other times since its first release in 1927, so this is a big deal! 



The first Plant Hardiness Zone Map by Dr. Alfred Rehder 1927                                           The recently updated 2023 Plant Hardiness Zone Map


Now, drumroll, please! The 2023 update brings some exciting news for us in Massachusetts and New England. With warmer winters on the horizon, the hardiness zones are on the move, creating opportunities and challenges that every plant enthusiast should be aware of.  Previously Massachusetts fell in between 5b-7b depending on where you were in the state, and while we still fall within those zones, much of the state has now moved into the warmer zones of 6a-7a. If you’re near our Winchester, Brighton, Concord, Tewksbury, or Chelmsford stores, you’re in zone 6b!  But if you frequent our Falmouth or Osterville stores, you’re probably in 7a. 


Curious about far away locales and their zones?  You can play around with the brand-new interactive USDA Plant Hardiness Zone map on their website here! 

Hello, New Green Friends! 

One of the perks of this shift is the chance to welcome a broader range of plants into our gardens. With milder winters, you can experiment with species that were previously a bit finicky in the colder weather.  Want a quick and easy way to see if the new plant of your dreams would work in your zone?  A quick search of the intended plant name and the keywords ‘growing zone’ or ‘hardiness zone’ should give you the answers you’re searching for (just bear in mind that the changes are new so some growers may still be catching up).

Imagine the vibrant hues of new flowers, the exotic foliage of different shrubs, and the sweet fragrance of novel blooms gracing your backyard. It’s a plant party, and you’re invited! 


But Wait, Let’s Be Mindful Gardeners 

As we embrace change, it’s crucial to keep in mind the delicate balance of our local ecosystems. While the update opens doors to new plant possibilities, let’s not forget our native flora. These plants are the backbone of our environment, providing food and shelter for local wildlife. As we introduce newcomers, let’s do so responsibly and avoid pushing out the tried-and-true natives that make our region unique. 


The Not-So-Welcome Guests: Invasive Pests and Plants 

Warmer winters might sound like a dream, but there’s a potential downside – invasive pests and plants gaining a stronger foothold. With milder temperatures, these unwelcome guests may survive and thrive when they would have otherwise been knocked back by frosty winters. Vigilance is key, folks. Keep an eye out for any signs of invasive trouble and act promptly to keep your garden and the surrounding environment in harmony. 


In Conclusion: A Blooming Future 

So, there you have it – the lowdown on the 2023 USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map update. Change is in the air, and our gardens are ready to blossom with newfound potential. Let’s embrace the opportunities, be mindful stewards of our environment, and continue to cultivate the beauty that makes Massachusetts and New England truly special. 

We’re here all winter at Mahoney’s and the chilly months are perfect for planning. Stop by and let’s dream about your spring garden together! Here’s to a year of growth, both in our gardens and in our knowledge. Happy gardening, and may your plants thrive in this ever-changing, ever-exciting world!