Contrary to popular advice, I start planting my seeds in December. It’s not because I’m impatient, or at least not only because I’m impatient. It’s because of the types of plants that I grow. Tomato plants grow so large so fast that if you plant them too early, they might take over your entire house before spring. But the native plants, the herbs, and the early spring greens are a different story. Some seeds need long periods of cold stratification, or they grow slowly, or they are so hardy that they can be planted outside as soon as early March. Even now, in February, I’m already hardening off my first round of transplants to prepare them for life outdoors. If you have the urge to garden all winter long, this article is for you.
December is for Cold Stratification
Beginning in December, I start seeds that require long periods of cold stratification. These plants won’t even germinate until spring. Plants that are likely to require cold stratification include perennials, native plants, wild plants, and medicinal herbs. If your seeds need this treatment, they will usually say so on the seed packet. I’ve tried a number of different methods of cold stratification, and all have their pros and cons. This year I am experimenting with a new method: planting my cold stratification seeds in gallon sized pots outside. None have germinated yet, but I am pleased with the low maintenance of this method. The large pots retain moisture much better than the tiny soil blocks I usually use, and I have only had to supplement the natural rain water they receive a few times. They don’t take up space in my refrigerator or under my grow lights, and they get to experience the natural temperature fluctuations outdoors. Presumably they will germinate at the natural time for this region, which is ideal because almost all of my cold stratification seeds are native plants. Because they are in pots rather than in the ground, it should be easy for me to identify and keep track of the seeds that I planted.
January: The Slow and the Hardy
I grow kale almost year round. I gathered my last harvest from the outdoor garden in early January right before subzero temperatures arrived, and I planted my first kale seeds indoors a few days later. My entire extended family loves kale, so I always grow plenty. I started a small percentage of my kale plants in January to provide an extra early harvest of this cold hardy spring favorite. I also started some slow growing hardy perennial herb seeds around the same time including sage, marjoram, and oregano. I don’t plant a huge quantity of seeds in January because if winter lingers long, I might have to pot up my kale and herb seedlings to keep them happy indoors. It’s not a big deal if there are only a few, but it is a significant effort to pot up a few hundred plants.
Looking Out on February
These plants are not going to take over my house, because I move them outside very early in the season. As soon as these hardy seedlings have germinated and grown true leaves, they are ready to begin acclimating to outdoor life whenever temperatures allow. On warm calm days in February when the temperatures approach 50 degrees, I take these babies on little outings. Each small exposure to outdoor conditions will help these plants grow stronger and will prepare them for full time outdoor life.
The first time I take them outdoors, I place them in a shady spot protected from wind, and set my alarm for one hour. At the end of that hour, I bring them back inside. On the next warm day, I repeat this, increasing the duration by one additional hour. If it has been more than a week since the last time the plants went outside, I don’t increase their exposure time. Once the seedlings are able to stay out for 8 hours, they are strong and ready for new challenges. I will then gradually transition them out of the shady protected location until they can spend full days in the sunny garden. Usually by early March, the kale and hardy greens are ready to be planted in the garden. I always protect them with a makeshift low tunnel for good measure, and so far I’ve never lost my spring kale to a freeze. It’s worth noting that if your garden is the only source of green goodness early in the season, you may need to protect it from hungry bunnies.
My February seed starting calendar includes many more herbs, all the peppers, and eggplants. These heat-loving plants will be indoors with me for a long time, and they will need to be potted up. I am willing to do this extra work because I find that by giving these plants a substantial head start, my yield significantly improves. I also start my indeterminate tomato seeds near the end of February, which is very early to start tomatoes. This also requires extra time and effort. The tomatoes will definitely need to be potted up, maybe twice. They will need to be planted outdoors in April, which means they will need layers of protection against the cold weather. If I can pull it off, I will reap an earlier harvest and also a bigger one, since indeterminate plants continue growing new vines and producing new fruits all season long. By contrast, I wait to plant my determinate tomato plants until March. Starting determinate tomatoes early might give you an earlier harvest, but ultimately, the harvest won’t be any bigger over the course of the summer. The growth habit of determinate tomatoes is optimized for canning. They achieve a certain size, ripen a quantity of fruit within a short time span, and then they languish. It usually doesn’t matter much whether that happens in July, August, or even September.
Preparing The Garden
Outdoors in the garden, the ground has already thawed. I’ve been spreading compost and mulches, transplanting and dividing perennials, and generally preparing the space to be planted. I practice no-till gardening, and one of many advantages of that method is that I do not have to wait until the ground is dry to begin preparing my garden beds. Winter is a great time to work on structural projects. I recently erected some new arched trellises, which will allow me to utilize the space over the walkways between raised beds. I probably should have spent that time finishing the new chicken coop, which has been in progress for years now. As a result, the “mobile” coop is still in use, and remains stuck in the middle of the garden. I think I have developed an emotional block around that project, because I can never quite bring myself to finish it. Whenever I finally complete the new coop, I will be able to demolish the old one and plant some melons in the (now extremely fertile) garden space that it currently occupies.
The Road Ahead
We don’t always have weather this warm in February, and winter is not over. We will live through many freezes and thaws before spring truly arrives. Still, some of the hardiest plants have already begun to grow. Egyptian walking onions, wood betony, radicchio, and dandelion are all greening up. I’ve even seen dandelion flowers! Unless we are hit by another polar vortex, these hardy plants will likely weather the rest of winter in green form.
Beginning the gardening season early and with a well-planned strategy can increase your yield and extend your gardening enjoyment. So if you’re feeling eager, go ahead and start some seeds. Focus on the slow growing and cold hardy plants for now. Savor the experience, and let the tiny bits of green sustain your soul until springtime.
For Further Reading
Build Your Own Custom Grow Light Stand : A Budget-Friendly DIY Guide
Starting Seeds With Cold Stratification
Blackberry Winters and Thermal Masses : 5 Tips To Protect Your Summer Garden From Spring Frosts
A Night In Tomato House
The November Garden