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ask-ruth-pictureHi Ruth,

I am a gardener in Asheville looking for good starts for my spring garden. Do you know of anyone producing quality vegetable starts for sale in the area come spring?

Thank you,
Traci Smith

Dear Traci,

One of the best places to find excellent veggie transplants is at local Tailgate Farmer’s Markets. Many local farmers grow extra transplants to sell to Tailgate Market customers, and many of these farmers use organic practices (just ask the farmer whether their starts are organic). These plants are gorgeous, and at these markets you can find unusual varieties ~ especially heirloom tomatoes, different peppers, and the farmer’s own favorite cultivars. Most markets will be opening around mid-April. Initially you will find cool-weather transplants like broccoli, cabbage, kale, and lettuces. A little later on ~ the tomatoes, peppers, etc. will arrive.

Wherever you live, look for these local tailgate markets and contentiously support the farmers represented there. Get your veggie starts at the market, and regularly return during the season to buy those weirdo things you did not plant, the staples you overlooked, and the produce your garden was not large enough to accommodate (watermelon, sweet potatoes, etc.).

LINKS to find Tailgate/Farmers Markets:
ASAP Local Food Guide
Tailgate Market Fan Club
Local Harvest

Another great source of transplants will be the 22nd Annual Asheville Spring Herb Festival on April 29, April 30 & May 1 (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) at the WNC Farmers Market, 570 Brevard Road in Asheville. This super-popular event is free and has over 55 vendors and around 25,000 attendees. Even though the main focus is herbs, there are always lots of really nice transplants, especially heirloom tomatoes.

Local garden centers and natural groceries often carry quality vegetable starts, and many of these have been produced locally. Reems Creek Nursery raises most of their veggie transplants ~ their plants are raised using organic soils and organic fertilizers, and they will have lots of different tomatoes and peppers…transplants they buy from other sources are separately displayed. Transplants from Appalachian Seeds and Wildwood Herbal can be found at some area garden centers and natural groceries.

Some of the WNC Garden Centers/Suppliers (check also at smaller local
garden centers):
B. B. Barnes
Fifth Season
Jesse Israel & Sons
Reems Creek Nursery & Landscaping

Some of the Local Natural Groceries (and also at smaller local produce
French Broad Food Coop
Greenlife Grocery

Consider growing your own transplants Traci. Seeing baby green leaves breaking though the soil is pretty magical, and starting your own transplants will allow you to choose varieties that may not be available otherwise. Cool season transplants can be started right now. Start tomatoes around the end of March or sooner if you plan to grow them on in larger pots before transplanting outside.

Germination heat-mats really do work (since they warm the soil, the seeds will sprout more readily). I like to bottom-soak my seed flats in a vat of water mixed with liquid seaweed, or a seaweed/fish blend (seaweed enhances seed germination rates). Once the soil is thoroughly wet, poke a hole in the center of each cell or pot with the eraser end of a pencil. Then press the seed into the soil, and lightly cover the seed with additional soil if required. You don’t have to cover lettuce seeds. After you finish seeding, gently water the flat again with a watering wand. I don’t recommend using those adjustable gun-like sprayers for watering. They are too forceful and will probably blast the seed into outer space.

Keep your newly planted seeds evenly moist ~ but not swampy ~ until they germinate. As soon as they germinate move them to the brightest possible spot in your house. If the weather is nice take them outside during the day, or put them in a cold frame. If you can afford it, grow lights will keep your seedlings from getting leggy. Cool-season veggies won’t mind exposure to cooler temps, though they would probably enjoy having the protection of floating row covers when bitter weather looms. Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, okra, basil, and other warm weather plants should be in a warm environment until you can set them out after the frost date (about May 10). You can try pushing the frost-date window and set your tomatoes (and other heat-lovers) out earlier than the frost date, but you chance loosing everything if we have an awful frost.

Tom Elmore (Ask Tom) uses an old refrigerator (unplugged) to get his starts going. If it needs to be warmer than the average temperature of the day, he adds a light bulb or a small heater on a thermostat to the fridge. Check on the seeds daily. It is important to move the just-sprouted seeds into bright light as soon as they sprout, because they can get leggy in a few hours. As soon as the seed coats break, Tom transfers them to a coldframe. The fridge moderates the daily ups and downs of temperature and keeps mice and birds from gobbling up the seeds.

Tom also utilizes soil blocks, rather than plastic flats/packs when he plants his seedlings. Special tools stamp out cubes of soil in different sizes. You can stamp out very tiny blocks that are seeded, and when the seedlings are big enough, they can be bumped up into a larger soil block size, and finally set out like any transplant. The beauty of this method is that it avoids the use of plastic cells; these plastic cells are petroleum products that are often used only once and then discarded into landfills. Check out the soil blocker tools at Johnny’s.

Seeds for transplants can be found at the same garden centers and natural groceries listed above. I know of two local seed companies, Sow True Seed and Appalachian Seeds. The OGS Spring Conference had a number of seed vendors including Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, High Mowing Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Seeds of Change, and Sow True. Lee Barnes faithfully provides a seed exchange booth at the OGS Spring Conference. Lee is a wealth of information about seed saving and open-pollinated seed varieties. Of course, seeds are readily available from catalogues and online. Pat Battle mentioned Baker Creek as one of his favorite seed catalogs. If you want to harvest seed later this year to use next year, remember to plant open-pollinated seed varieties.

So Traci, the main objective is to get your garden going…using any or all of these approaches, and then to look forward to a delicious harvest. YUM!

Best of luck with your garden,

Ask Ruth © 2013 Ruth Gonzalez & Organic Growers School

Gardeners: Got a question for Ruth? Email it to us at

Ruth Gonzalez

Author: Ruth Gonzalez

Ruth Gonzalez is a former market farmer, gardener, and local food advocate who wants to see organic farms proliferate and organic gardens in every yard. She serves on the Organic Growers School Board of Directors, and in her job at Reems Creek Nursery, Ruth offers advice on all sorts of gardening questions, and benefits daily from the wisdom of local gardeners.

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