What to Start Growing When You Can’t Wait for Spring

Gardeners often have a hard time waiting through the last stretch at the end of winter for spring to arrive so they can get their hands in the soil and start planting. Did you know you can scatter seeds for your favorite native plants already, right now, in February? In nature, the seeds would not be stored inside for winter and then planted when the ground warms up in the spring. The seeds would fall from the plants or be scattered on the breeze or

picked up by animals in the fall and would spend the entire winter outside. The freeze-thaw cycle helps the seeds wiggle into the soil to be ready for spring, and many types of seed need cold stratification, or time in cold conditions, in order to germinate. These seeds can be kept refrigerated until spring, or you can just scatter them outside now and let nature do the work. If you’d like a bit more control though, either to be sure the seeds aren’t all eaten by animals before spring, or because you want to transplant seedlings to specific spots rather than scattering the seeds in your garden area, the Winter Sowing Method might be something you want to try and is something you can start right now. The idea is to make mini-greenhouses that are kept outside and exposed to the weather, so the seeds experience the winter cold and the spring warm up, but they’re a bit more protected in their little “greenhouse” environments than they would be directly in the ground. The little greenhouses are made with repurposed plastic containers, usually milk or water jugs (opaque or clear, not white,) but people can get very creative here with other types of containers. There are many resources online for learning this method, and it’s great for starting natives, many perennials, and even annual flowers, vegetables, and herbs.

Peeking inside a winter sowing jug

If you’re not ready to try a whole new seed starting method right now or would rather learn more about it first but still want to get some seeds started right away, there are a few things you can start indoors in February. Many plants that need a longer growing season than our zone 5 climate provides can be started right now. This includes vegetables like celery and onions. Onions are usually available in garden centers as “sets,” which are little bulbs, or “starts,” which are little plants and are typically sold in bunches, because they need a head-start since there’s not enough time to grow them from seed if you wait until spring to plant them. Growing from seed gives you more options for varieties than buying pre-started onions that are often only available in “red,” “white,” or “yellow,” with no other variety information available. Here in the north, you will want to look for Long-Day varieties like Walla Walla or Sweet Spanish yellow onions, or Day-Neutral varieties. Aside from celery and onions, why not be adventurous and try something new? If you like artichokes, I recommend trying cardoon. It’s commonly eaten in Sicily and tastes like artichoke hearts (it’s a close cousin of the artichoke,) but the stalks are eaten instead of the flower. The best part is, if you apply the Permaculture principle, “observe and interact,” as I discussed in my last post, you can identify a warm, protected area to plant it in in your yard, and with a good, thick covering of mulch before winter, it might come back each year! Cardoon is a delicious perennial vegetable with a huge “cool” factor! They definitely add interest to the garden and I bet your friends and neighbors don’t have any in their yards yet! Seeds are available online and should be started now and transplanted out to the garden in mid to late May or early June. People often use a specific date on the calendar to tell them when to plant outdoors, like May 15th, or Mother’s Day, but these are really just general guidelines. The “right” date is somewhat more intuitive and depends greatly on the ever-changing weather. It is best chosen by checking the weather reports and paying attention and being connected to the earth and the season, or “observing and interacting.”

Indoor tomato plant

Even though onions, celery, and cardoon are “supposed to be” started now, don’t worry too much about the “rules,” just get growing! If you don’t want to wait to plant other things, go ahead and plant them! Experiment! I used some compost from my worm bin around my potted baby fig tree and some heirloom tomato seedlings sprouted up from the compost. I have a hard time throwing away a perfectly good plant that wants to grow, and my usual tendency is to try to help it, so I transplanted those seedlings into 5 gallon buckets and put them in a south-facing window. Those plants are now huge and have little tomatoes on them, indoors in the middle of February. Just plant something and see what happens! Peppers are usually started around the same time as tomatoes in March, but they tend to be slower growers, so why not give them a head-start and start them now? You decide! You can also order heirloom and native seed catalogs, flip through them, enjoy all the colorful pictures and interesting varieties, and dream up your garden plans for this year. Think about what you can propagate from cuttings, look for gardening workshops & classes you want to take to learn more about the possibilities of what you can create and how you can connect with nature. Isn’t it amazing how busy the “off” season of gardening can be? Thankfully, winter gives us the opportunity to do all this!