Merrimack Seed Library: Getting Started

We’re excited that you took home some seeds from Merrimack College’s Seed Library! This volunteer-run Seed Library works in concert with the Merrimack Garden (located at 27 Rock Ridge Rd.). Feel free to pop by the garden any time. We have a host of annual vegetables and perennial plantings.

A chalk board sign welcomes people to the Merrimack Garden. We have lettuce, strawberries, blueberries, apples, asparagus, corn, beets, carrots, potatoes, chives, kale, broccoli, rosemary, thyme, lavender, onions.
The Merrimack Garden welcome sign highlights the 2021 offerings
A hand holds a ripe strawberry.
One perfect Merrimack Garden strawberry

Our Seed Library will be open from early March through the end of November in the McQuade Library lobby (just to the left once you walk in the doors). We will have a rotating offering of seeds that suit the particular time of year.

If kept cool and dry, the seeds you take home should last for at least a year. Once you get growing, please tag @Merrimack_Garden on Instagram or email Lisa Perks (perksl@merrimack.edu) if you have any photos to share! 

This image is of a book shelf with garden-related books on the bottom and a seed library on the top in a card catalog-type box.
The Merrimack Seed Library on its birthday

This first post gives some general advice for starting and maintaining a garden. Click the links below for your type of seed to learn more specific growing advice. If you have more questions, feel free to do what some of the best gardeners do: Google it. 

Seed Starting

Many seeds can be planted directly in the ground. Others may need to be started indoors (under grow lights or on a sunny windowsill) during the colder New England months to get a jump on the growing season. Check out the seed-specific blog posts linked below:

Getting to Know Your Merrimack Library Seeds (more links to follow)

Site Selection

Plants can be grown in many ways: raised beds, straight in the ground, in pots or containers. 

The first main step is to find a site that gets a good amount of sun. Six to eight hours a day is ideal. Be creative: this may mean you grow plants on a deck, rooftop, front yard, driveway, etc. 

Part-shade can support greens (kale, lettuce, etc.), herbs, and shade-loving flowers. You could also consider growing mushrooms if you have shade! 

Types of Gardens

Consider whether you want to build raised beds or an in-ground garden. To build a raised bed (which means you raise up the soil level), you can use lumber, logs, bricks, rocks, a kit, or something else. Just avoid using treated wood that could leach chemicals into the garden. Alternately, do an in-ground garden (with no border holding up the soil) and simply mound up the soil.

The Merrimack Garden includes a growing army of wooden raised beds.

Many towns offer free compost (usually from yard waste or leaf pick up). Or purchase compost, loam mix, or topsoil (in bags or a large delivery) to build up a bed. 

Container gardening can be done in pots, five gallon buckets, grow bags, reusable grocery bags–even a repurposed kiddie pool! Just make sure whatever container you have has good drainage. 

One additional thing to remember is that the container garden growing medium should be light and fluffy. Regular soil is too heavy for containers and doesn’t drain well. Find a bagged container potting mix or make your own with one part compost, one part vermiculite or perlite, and one part coco coir (a more sustainable alternative to peat moss).

Watering

If starting seeds indoors or in tiny pots before putting them in the garden, water the young seedlings daily. Container gardens also dry out quickly. Giving container gardens a soaking (at the base of the plant, not at the foliage) once every day or two is generally wise. 

If you’ve recently put baby plants outside into the garden (or you’ve planted seeds directly in there), give them a good daily watering about every day or two for about two weeks. Once they’re established (maybe 2ish weeks in their new spot) they can go longer between waterings–a soak every 3 days or so in the absence of rain. 

Trouble with Garden Pests? Check out this post.

Looking for Houseplant Advice? Check out this post (forthcoming).

Beets

Overview: Beets (Beta vulgaris) are a hardy vegetable that can survive the cold temperatures of New England. These colorful plants are a great addition to your garden and are perfect for a beginner gardener!

Three newly harvested beets sit on a bed of grass
Three newly-harvested chiogga beets from the Merrimack Garden
A white bowl holds three different colors of beets: golden, bull's blood red, and chiogga, which has pink and white stripes
A bowl of chiogga (striped), golden, and bull’s blood beets

Seed Starting: Plant seeds in soil that is free of rocks, as their roots cannot develop properly with them in the way. Seeds should be planted very early spring, about 4 weeks before the last frost. A second crop can be sown in early August. Sow seeds 1/2 inch deep and 1-2 inches apart from each other directly into the bed in which you wish to grow them. Beet seeds (little balls) are actually a clump of 2-4 seeds. Soaking them before planting can speed germination and soften that hard seed coat. Make sure they are watered sufficiently for proper germination as well!

To level up, consider multi-sowing beets, which means starting multiple seeds in trays or six-packs before transplanting into the garden (Source: Tiny Garden Habit). As the beets mature in a group, they push the other beets out. You simply harvest the biggest one of the bunch and let the others continue to grow. 

Growing Advice: Beets prefer full sun – at least 6 hours a day! Once your seeds germinate and start to grow, you should thin your plants to around 5-6 inches apart so that their roots will have space to spread. No need to pull up the plants to do this – you can just cut off the greens at the tops to not disturb the other beets. They should get 1 inch of water per square foot weekly.

Harvesting Advice: Beets push up and show their size above ground. When a beet reaches the desired size (maybe 1-3 inches in diameter), gently pull it from the ground. Note that beets can lose their sweetness and become “woody” if they get too big.

Sauteed Beet Greens Recipe

While beets are tasty, their leaves are equally so! Here is a zero-waste recipe for sautéed beet tops. (Originally found here). You will need:

  • 1 bunch beet greens
  • 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons golden raisins
  • Lemon wedge
  • 1 tablespoon chopped walnuts or pistachios
  • Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Separate the stems from the beet greens. Finely chop the stems and coarsely chop the leaves.
  • Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and the beet stems and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the beet greens, a few pinches of salt and freshly ground black pepper, and sauté, tossing, until just wilted.
  • Turn off the heat, add the raisins, a big squeeze of lemon, and toss. Transfer to a platter, top with the walnuts and season to taste with more salt and pepper.

Written by Sophia Beland

Milkweed

Overview: Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca L.) is a species of flower native to the United States that will attract many butterflies and other pollinators to your garden!

Seed Starting: Milkweed plants will have a deep system of roots and will prefer to be planted far apart, about 18 inches. They are also best planted in the fall.

Growing, Harvest, and Special Advice: Common milkweed can survive in a drier environment, so watering only when the soil appears dry will be sufficient. They are quite an easygoing plant, as they need not be fertilized either! Milkweed, as it is a native plant, can survive in subpar soil conditions. Because milkweed has a deep root system, it is not recommended to transplant plants once fully grown. They will also spread their seeds over time and replant themselves.

Peppers

Overview: Peppers are another versatile vegetable that have their own measurement called scovilles. Scovilles measure how hot peppers range from bell peppers, around 0-2,000, to the hottest peppers in the world like the carolina reaper at 1.5 million scovilles and higher.

Seed Starting: plant pepper seeds 1-2 feet apart. Peppers like partial shade and well drained soil. Peppers are often 

Growing Advice: Peppers do well with a trellis or fence to climb and to bear the weight of the peppers as they mature.

Harvesting: Harvest peppers with a knife or scissors when to desired size, bell peppers typically will be in full color (in accordance with seed type) and around the size of hand. 

Stuffed Peppers Recipe

  • Preheat the oven to 425°F and set an oven rack in the middle position.
  • Tenderize the beef: In a medium bowl, using your hands, mash the beef with 1 teaspoon of the salt and the baking soda. Let sit for 20 minutes while you continue with the recipe.
  • Line a 9×13-inch baking dish with aluminum foil for easy clean-up, if you like. Place the peppers, cut side up, in the baking dish; drizzle with 1 tablespoon of the oil and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ teaspoon salt.
  • Roast the peppers for about 20 minutes, until slightly browned and tender-crisp. A bit of liquid will accumulate in the bottom of the peppers; that’s okay.
  • Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat in a large nonstick skillet. Add the onion and cook, stirring frequently, until soft and translucent, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute more; do not brown. Add the ground beef mixture, chili powder, cumin, and oregano and increase the heat to medium high. Cook, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon, until the meat is browned and almost cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the tomato sauce and bring to a boil; reduce the heat to medium low and cook, uncovered, until the meat is cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice and ¾ cup of the cheese, and stir until melted. Remove the skillet from the heat.
  • Remove the peppers from the oven and spoon the meat filling evenly into the peppers. Sprinkle with the remaining ¾ cup cheese and place back in the oven. Roast for 10 to 15 minutes, until the filling is hot and the cheese is melted and bubbling, and serve.
  • Make-Ahead Instructions: The peppers can be partially cooked and filled with the beef mixture up to 2 days ahead of time and refrigerated, or frozen in an airtight container for up to 3 months. When ready to serve, defrost overnight in the refrigerator if frozen, cover the dish with foil, and bake in a 425°F-oven for about 15 minutes. Remove the dish from the oven and remove and discard the foil. Top the peppers with the cheese and place back in the oven for about 5 minutes, or until the filling is heated through and the cheese is melted. 
  • Recipe from Once Upon a Chef https://www.onceuponachef.com/recipes/stuffed-peppers.html
Pepper plant with 3 peppers on it

Watermelon

Overview: Watermelons are Annuals (only one life cycle). They typically take 80-90 days from seed to full maturity. You’ll get 1-3 fruit per plant

Seed Starting: The best time to start the seeds would be late spring to summer for planting, the soil must reach 70º Fahrenheit before growth can start. Watermelons needs 3-5 feet between growing plants

Growing Advice: Unless living in a warm/ tropical climate, watermelons will need lots of attention and care. plastic bags, green houses, kiddie pools, etc are all commonly used to warm up that soil to start the seeds. When the melons mature to the point of weighing down to the ground, put straw underneath to prevent molding.

Harvesting: home grown melons are often much smaller than bought or farm grown, so keep this in mind when it comes time to harvest.

Recipe for Watermelon Salad

  • cut up watermelon and red onion into a fine mince.
  • Rinse onions in ice water to remove bite
  • Add feta cheese crumbles, basil, and top with balsamic glaze of choice.

By; Jackie Rosney

One small watermelon on vine being held
Small watermelon plant

Potatoes

Overview: Potatoes are a meal staple all over the world. The starchy vegetable is one of the most versatile, there are hundreds of ways to prepare and enjoy them.

Seed Starting: Started from seed potatoes from either pieces or whole small potatoes. One potato seed can yield as many as 10 potatoes. Potatoes need full sun and loose soil.

Growing Advice: cut up seed potatoes and let them dry out, this helps prevent rot. The bigger the plot or pot the better, more room can mean more potatoes under the right circumstances.

Harvesting: the potatoes will sprout a plant with vines and flowers, when these vines start to die that’s when the potatoes are at their most mature and are ready to be dug up.

Recipe

  • Preheat oven to 400°F.
  • Wash potatoes and slice into ⅛” thin slices. Slice onion as thin as possible.
  • Layer potatoes and onions in little stacks. Place stacks upright in a greased casserole 2.5qt to 3qt dish.
  • Melt butter & flour in a saucepan and cook 2-3 minutes. Add seasonings and milk. Whisk over medium heat until thick and bubbly. Remove from heat and stir in cheeses until melted.
  • Spoon cheese sauce over potatoes. Cover with foil (sprayed with cooking spray) and bake 60 minutes. 
  • Remove foil and bake an additional 20-30 minutes or until lightly browned and potatoes are cooked. Cool 15 minutes before serving.
  • recipe from Spend with Pennies https://www.spendwithpennies.com/au-gratin-potatoes/

By: Jackie Rosney

Dill

Overview: Dill is a light-tasting herb, useful in many dishes: fish, chicken soup, potato salad, dips, pickles. It’s easy to grow, helpful to pollinators, and excellent as a companion plant. 

Seed Starting: Plant seeds ¼ inch deep, spaced about 8 to 10 inches apart, after danger of spring frost (Source: University of Minnesota Extension). Direct sow, as dill does not like to be transplanted. This plant will readily reseed, offering easy harvests year after year.  

This is a dill plant with a yellow flower umbel on top
Flowering dill

Growing Advice: Dill will reach 2 to 4 feet tall and be 1 to 2 feet wide. It has feathery foliage and sends up several yellow flowers, reminiscent of Queen Anne’s lace. Dill, Queen Anne’s lace, carrots, and others are all in the umbelliferae family [Source: Farming While Black].

Pollinators love dill. It is a host plant for black swallowtail butterflies!

Harvesting: Harvest the feathery leaves to use fresh in many dishes. Dill also leaves dry and store nicely for future use. Let the big yellow flowers go to seed to have “volunteer” dill plants next year. Or save the seeds to make dill pickles.

Dill Potato Salad Recipe (from Spend with Pennies)

Ingredients:

  • 3 pounds potatoes white or red skinned
  • 1 ½ cups celery diced
  • 3 tablespoons green onion finely sliced
  • ¾ cup mayonnaise 
  • ½ cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons fresh dill minced
  • 1 tablespoon dijon mustard

Steps:

  • Boil the potatoes until tender (approx. 15-20 minutes). Cool and cut into bite sized pieces.
  • In a large bowl, mix all ingredients except the potatoes.
  • Combine cooled potatoes with dill mixture and refrigerate at least one hour.

Lettuce

Overview: Lettuce is an easy-to-grow garden staple that prefers cooler temperatures.

Seed Starting: Lettuce can be direct-sown into gardens or containers. Several hours of sun and some shade (particularly in the afternoon) will be welcome. Cover seeds with fine soil no more than a quarter inch deep. Some folks even scatter lettuce seeds on the soil surface and gently tap or rake them in. Give newly-planted seeds a good watering. 

This is a bowl of mixed greens, including speckled lettuce, red lettuce, and arugula.
Salad mixes include a variety of flavors, colors, and textures

Depending on the variety, lettuce can be spaced 6-12 inches apart. If using a salad mix, consider scattering seeds closer than that and harvesting leaves here and there to thin plants out. 

Because lettuce tolerates and even prefers cooler temperatures, it can have two crops. Plant the first about 2 to 4 weeks before the last spring frost and the second in early August in New England. Lettuce can also be started in small pots and transplanted at these times. 

Growing Advice: Lettuce does not like to dry out. Give it frequent waterings. Lettuce may be munched by hungry slugs and other opportunistic critters. Keep an eye on the growing lettuce and visit the “Managing Pests” section of this blog as needed. 

Harvesting: Pick whole heads of lettuce or harvest leaves here and there to keep the main plant growing. Lettuce will “bolt” (grow tall and send up seeds) when the temperatures soar. At this time, lettuce can become bitter. However, harvesting leaves in the cool of the morning and soaking for a few minutes in ice water can reduce the bitterness. Store cleaned lettuce in the fridge in plastic bags or repurposed containers to preserve freshness. 

Salad Recipes by Lisa

After washing lettuce a few times to remove dirt and critters, rip up the leaves into bite-sized pieces. 

Experiment with seasonal pairings:

  • Lettuce with watermelon chunks, feta, pistachios and balsamic vinegar is divine. 
  • Consider trying raspberries, gorgonzola, walnuts, and a dressing of your choice as well. 
  • On a hot summer night, salad with grilled chicken and any available garden veggies hits the spot.

Garlic

Overview: Garlic is one of the most versatile and popular spices in the world. Strong in flavor, smell, and health benefits, garlic can be added to many dishes as a main or supporting flavor. 

Seven heads of recently harvested garlic sit atop a rock
Recently-harvested garlic

Seed Starting:  Garlic is grown from cloves. It takes 8-9 months for cloves to become new garlic heads. Garlic is one of the few foods planted in the fall in New England. It is harvested in late spring/early summer.

Growing Advice: Plant each clove tip up and 3 to 5 inches deep. It helps to insulate garlic over winter with a layer of mulch (shredded leaves, straw, etc.). . You can plant garlic from sprouted garlic, just add it to soil. Although garlic only has one life cycle after picked, simply replant a clove or two from each harvested head, to restart the process.

Harvesting: Harvest your garlic when the lower leaves of your plant turn brown. Don’t rinse dirt from garlic with water: shake it off to preserve the papery protection.

Recipe for Garlic Confit

  • Remove garlic cloves from head and peel
  • Put in ceramic or any oven safe container.
  • Separate cloves and cover completely with olive oil.
  • Add any additional herbs to your liking (rosemary, basil, peppercorns, lemon, etc.) and bake in the oven at 300 Fahrenheit for 30 minutes, or until golden brown.
  • Use as a spread, add to butter, or any of your recipes there are hundreds of uses!
  • Save the oil and now you have garlic infused olive oil!
  • Since you cooked the garlic and the oil make sure to refrigerate for keeping!

Written by; Jackie Rosney

Beans

Overview: When starting from seed, there are two categories that beans can be grouped into: pole beans and bush beans. Both types are almost identical, but pole beans will climb once the plants progress in growth, and will need some form of support to grow on. Bush beans will require less maintenance in this way, but pole beans will typically produce a larger quantity of beans to harvest.

burgundy beans (purple in color)
Burgundy beans (bush type)
Scarlet runner beans (with green pods) hang from their vine
Scarlet runner beans (pole type)

Seed Starting: Beans typically grow best when planted directly outdoors. Because they generate their own nitrogen for use in the soil, they will not need supplemental compost or fertilizer unless your soil quality is particularly poor. Sow bush beans 1 inch deep and 2 inches apart in rows that are around a foot and a half apart. Sow pole beans the same way, but be sure to set up stakes for support around them prior to planting seeds (source).

Growing, Harvest, and Special Advice: If you continue to plant beans year after year, they will benefit from crop rotation (that is, planting them in a different bed or patch of soil the next year) to prevent diseases. Beans should be watered often, about 2 inches of water per square foot of soil weekly. It is also best recommended to water on sunny days to prevent moldering of plants. Once pole beans reach the top of their supports, you can pinch off the extra stems to encourage the plant to put more energy into growing bean pods instead of getting taller. They should also be harvested in the morning when their sugar content is at its highest – the more you harvest, the more will grow!

Recipe

Easy Garlic Green Beans (original recipe can be found here):

  • 1 pound of trimmed green beans, washed, drained, and halved crosswise
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 to 12 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
  • 1 small onion (½ cup), sliced
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  1. Bring 3 cups of water in a large pot to boil over medium high heat. Stir in the salt.
  2. Add the beans and cook for 7 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon to cook evenly.
  3. Remove from the heat. Drain the beans through a strainer over a bowl. Reserve ½ cup of the bean cooked water for later use.
  4. Put the same pot back on the stove. Turn on the heat to medium high.
  5. Add the vegetable oil and garlic, stirring with a wooden spoon for 1 minute, until the garlic start to get a little crispy and light brown.
  6. Add the beans, the reserved ½ cup bean cooked water, soy sauce, and onion.
  7. Cook for about 5 to 6 minutes, occasionally turning and flipping with the wooden spoon, until the soy sauce mixture boils down and the beans turn savory and tender. Remove from the heat and stir in sesame oil.
  8. Transfer to a serving bowl or plate and serve with rice. The leftovers can be refrigerated up to 1 week.

Written By Sophia Beland.

Parsley

Overview: Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) is one of the most well-known and versatile herbs out there. They are also very hardy and easy to grow for even the most novice gardeners.

This is a mound of light green parsley with serrated leaves.
Flat-leaf parsley (source: PublicDomainPictures)

Seed Starting: To sow parsley indoors, such as in a small pot to keep in your garden window, sow seeds ½ inch deep. If planting outdoors, sow seeds 1 ¼ inch deep and about 3 inches apart from one another (source).

Growing, Harvest, and Special Advice: Parsley will thrive in deep pots or beds, and will do well in heavily composted soil. Plants should be in partial shade. If planted outside, parsley will do well with companion plants of carrots, chives, onions, or tomatoes. Planting parsley around asparagus plants will repel asparagus beetles.

Recipe for Tabbouleh

Tabbouleh is a refreshing Mediterranean side dish that can be eaten with hummus and pita bread. Original recipe can be found here.

To start, combine cooked and cooled bulgur wheat (1/2 cup uncooked) finely chopped cucumber and tomatoes (1 cup each) in a bowl. Pulse parsley (around 3 medium sized bunches) in a food processor until finely chopped. Add parsley to your bowl with bulgur, tomatoes, and cucumber. You can also add fresh mint (one medium bunch) to the food processor with your parsley if you wish. To make the dressing, combine fresh minced scallion (1/3 cup), EVOO (1/3 cup), salt (1 tsp), lemon juice (1/4 cup), and a couple chopped garlic cloves. Mix everything together and serve chilled. Tabbouleh will keep in the refrigerator for 4-5 days.

Written By Sophia Beland.