HAWLEY -- The official start to spring is about two weeks away, and many gardeners are starting to think about planting their gardens. There are many options to starting plants for a garden: Sowing the seeds in the ground after the frost is no longer a threat, starting the seedings indoors yourself or buying the established plants at a nursery or greenhouse.

Windy Ridge Farm in Hawley, a community supported agriculture (CSA) farm, is offering home gardeners yet another option this year -- Plant Start CSA Shares.

"The more popular model that you see in our area are vegetable shares that people prepay in the early spring for a season's worth of produce from a farm, which they generally pick up every week," explains Julia Lemieux, owner of Windy Ridge. "We have a CSA vegetable program and we also have CSA plant shares. There will be two pickups in the Pittsfield area in the early spring at the appropriate times for planting. You get enough starts for a small garden, a large garden or a small container garden. It's plants instead of produce with this model."

With a Plant Start share, buyers will get six-packs or little 4-inch pots of different herbs and vegetables to plant into their garden or containers on their patio or porch, take care of them and "enjoy the fruits at the end of the season," Lemieux said, adding buyers save 20 percent off regular retail prices by pre-purchasing the plant share.

"It's also a community thing -- getting to know the people growing your plants. A lot of nurseries buy their plants from other larger growers, which is fine, but if you go to your local hardware store, they didn't grow those plants, they're just reselling them," Lemieux said. "By buying a CSA plant share, you're talking to the person who grew the plants when you pick them up. We're sort of a wealth of knowledge in terms of gardening tips and things. It's getting to know your local grower, your local nursery owner."

The CSA model for farming is the most financially sustainable for Windy Ridge because it brings in funding early in the spring, which is when many of its expenses occur, Lemieux said.

"We have to purchase a lot of seed and a lot of soil to start the plants in the nursery and then we have to purchase fertilizer, then soil amendments for the fields in the early spring, so when CSA members sign up in March, they are helping us cover all of our early season expenses."

The reverse is true in the traditional farming model, where the farmer purchases the necessities, grows the crops over the summer and gets the money when the crop comes in and is sold.

"You're waiting for several months and many farms take out operating loans to carry them through the summertime. With the CSA model, you get some funding early in the season and that extends your income season," Lemieux said. "It's worked for us since 2008, and we're trying to expand it into the plant area since we do a lot of plants here."

With Windy Ridge Farm's vegetable CSA, customers prepay a certain amount and starting in mid-June, can pick up produce at the farmers market every week, on Saturdays, eight to 12 vegetables each week. The program runs for 20 weeks, until the end of October.

"There is a small share or a large share with the vegetables for the full 20 weeks and we also offer a punch-card share -- people purchase a punch card and they come to the market whenever they want," Lemieux said. "You don't have to come every week and you don't have to get a huge basket of produce every week. You get to choose whatever you want and it goes in $5 increments. It's like a gift certificate -- you save about $50 by pre-purchasing the share in early spring and using the punch card all summer."

Although Windy Ridge is not a certified organic farm because it is small, and being certified is cost-prohibitive for it, it does adhere to organic standards.

"We use all certified organic soils and certified organic fertilizer so there's no chemicals, no pesticides or herbacides at the farm at all," Lemieux said. "It's a very sustainable setting that they're grown in.

"Our greenhouses are low-impact greenhouse, we don't use any propane or fossil fuels to heat it. It's solely wood-heated and thermal mass greenhouse. It has a smaller footprint than most greenhouses."

Lemieux hopes in the future to keep growing the membership for both the vegetable and the plant shares in the next few years. "There are a lot of people getting interested in organic farming, so I think there's a good local market for the plants."

Plant share sizes

Container Garden Share -- 6 mixed lettuce, 2 slicing tomatoes, 2 cherry tomato, 3 chard, 3 kale, 1 hot pepper, 2 bell pepper, 3 eggplant, 2 parsley, 2 basil, 1 chives, 1 rosemary, 3 additional cutting herbs of your choice. Cost of share: $45.

Option: Plants are delivered already transplanted in full-size decorative pots with just the right amount of organic soil and organic fertilizer for the entire growing season. Cost: $135.

Small Garden Share -- 6 mixed lettuce, 6 kale, 6 chard, 6 broccoli, 6 bell pepper, 3 Cauliflower, 3 Cabbage, 3 hot pepper, 3 eggplant, 4 cherry tomato, 4 slicing tomato, 4 basil, 4 parsley, 2 chives, 2 rosemary, 4 additional cutting herbs of your choice. Cost: $85.

Large Garden Share -- 12 lettuce, 12 kale, 12 chard, 12 broccoli, 12 onions or leeks, 6 cabbage, 6 cauliflower, 6 hot peppers, 12 bell peppers, 12 paste tomatoes, 6 slicing tomatoes, 6 cherry tomatoes, 12 basil, 6 parsley, 3 rosemary, 9 additional cutting herbs of your choice, 4 winter squash, 4 summer squash, 4 cucumber, 2 pumpkins. Cost: $200.

The farm has 50 shares for this year and there are plenty of vegetable shares and plants shares still available. The deadline for signing up for the Plant Start CSA shares is April 1. Pickups may be made at the Downtown Pittsfield or Berkshire Mall farmers markets, at the farm or can be delivered for a small fee. To order Plant Start shares or more information: Julia Lemieux, (413) 339-5548 or windyridgeorganics@gmail.com or via a sign-up form at www.windyridgeorganics.com