Here in the shadow of the mountains of Zone 4, the snow is piled up and frost is shaking off the trees most mornings. Despite the current weather, as a gardener, we need to keep our sights on Spring. We need to have things lined up so that when the sun is higher in the sky and the temperatures moderate, we are standing there with our Hori Hori in one hand, and a young plant in the other so that we are ready to get growing. Let’s take a look at what we can do in the dead of winter to jumpstart our growing season.
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Choosing Seed Varieties
Many times we start receiving seed catalogs around Christmastime. When the hubbub of the holidays dies down, it is the prefect time to stack the catalogs beside you and start going through them. Every gardener I know looks forward to sitting down with a cup of tea (or a glass of bourbon), and perusing the new types of vegetables and colors of flowers.
Plant breeders are constantly coming up with new and exciting varieties. Once they have enough inventory to offer to the public, they start showing up in the catalogs. And it is glorious!
For my garden this year, I’m continuing to edge towards growing all dark-colored tomatoes. So I keep my eye out for those hybrids which show that purple tinge, or even darker purple flesh. We’ve enjoyed the taste and the deep color of the sauce we make from them.
I also just found a great YouTube channel called Hot Thai Kitchen which introduced me to Holy Basil. There are so many different kinds of basil and I hadn’t heard of this kind before. So I’ll source seeds and give it a try. Will I like it? I don’t know. But that’s part of the charm of growing your own varieties. Each year you can eliminate or add depending on your taste. Last year I was able to try an interesting Asian green which I won’t grow again. But how was I to know it wasn’t for us unless I gave it a try?
As you browse the catalogs, be sure to pay attention to what is important to your area. For example, I pay close attention to days to maturity because I have such a short growing season. Maybe you have a certain plant disease that is prevalent in your area and you need to choose varieties that are resistant to it.
Another thing to keep in mind as you’re looking at catalogs, are those microclimate pockets in your yard. Maybe you have a particularly shady spot, a spot that is almost completely protected from the wind, or a depression where water tends to collect. Each of these are just waiting for the right plant, the one adapted for those specific conditions. You may just find the perfect solution for those spots.
The best part of pouring over seed catalogs is the possibilities they offer. As long as you are realistic about how much you can do, and force yourself to narrow down your choices, start making notes and readying your order.
Inventory Your Growing Supplies
If you are going to be starting seeds, Winter is also the time of year to assess the supplies you need.
Supplies include items such as seed-starting trays and pots. Seed warming mats may be something you’ll need as well. Don’t forget the seed-starting soil and plant labels. Be sure to mark your labels with a pen that doesn’t fade in the sun.
Trays and pots are the first thing you’ll need for seed starting. You may use specific techniques for germinating the seeds, such as wrapping them in a wet paper towel, but you’ll still need a place to put them once they start growing. A lot of folks will use small pots placed in trays once the seedlings are growing well. I buy the stronger pots in the 4″ size and use them over and over again.
I choose to germinate mine in a tray with drainage holes and then transplant them when they are just starting to get true leaves. I used to use some of those inorganic plugs which worked very well, until I realized that they don’t break down. My worms can’t eat them and they don’t decompose in the compost pile. So now I stick with starting everything in one tray.
Remember the seed warming mat. Don’t use anything else but a warming mat specifically for seed-starting. These are designed to just barely warm the soil, and if you spill a bit of water on them, it won’t damage anything. They are also the perfect size to fit under your trays.
Do you need more than one warming mat? Now is the time to decide if you are going to be starting more than one tray of seeds at a time. Also remember to inspect your warming mat if you’ve had it a few years. If there are any cracks in the mat or the electrical cable, be sure to replace it. There is no use risking a fire.
Do your trays need covers on them? I would suggest having at least one or two covers depending on how many seeds you are starting at the same time. Covers help keep the humidity levels high which is beneficial for the fragile seedlings. I have a shallow cover for quick growing seedlings and a taller cover for those seedlings which need that extra TLC to get going.
Maybe you have all the containers you need, but do you have soil? There are lots of potting soils on the market so be sure to find one that is specifically for starting seeds. In fact, ProMix is the soil that most serious gardeners have gone to now. My suggestion is to look for that first since most professionals swear by it.
What about plant labels and a good marker? I have tons of plant labels and do my best to reuse them when I can. Inevitably, I buy a few more labels every year, mostly because it is frustrating to have everything ready and find you’ve run out of labels. A good marker is essential as well.
A Sharpie has been my go-to marker for years. I use Sharpies for all sorts of things around the house. When I got tired of my labels fading toward the end of the season, I finally graduated to a better solution. If you can, use a marker that is designed for plant labels, you won’t be sorry you did. I’ve even known some gardeners who have gone to engraved markers for some things, but I don’t think that’s necessary when you are planting your seedlings.
Before leaving your inventory tasks, be sure to organize all the supplies. Does your workspace get spread out the more you use it? Yeah, that’s me. There’s nothing more aggravating that having to stop everything and look for something you forgot. Take a few minutes extra to arrange all your supplies so that you don’t have to think about where things are. It also helps keep the process fun instead of becoming a bothersome chore.
Having trouble finding the supplies you need? Click here to check out the Garden Products on Botanical Interests.
Create a Planting Schedule
Once you’ve chosen your seeds and are getting ready to place your order, usually around the end of January to beginning of February, it’s time to figure out your planting scheduling.
Over the years, I’ve adjusted my schedule for what works for me. Tomatoes, for example, I plant around the 1st of May. They can grow so quickly that I struggle to find room for them if I start them much earlier.
Peppers, on the other hand, grow much slower for me so I’ll start them as early as mid-February. My outdoor planting date is June 1st so that’s a lot of time to take care of pepper seedlings.
Create your planting schedule according to your last frost date, or according to your experience with your own garden. The weather doesn’t always go according to the frost dates charts so be ready to be flexible. I have had years where I’ve had to wait until the next week in June to plant (thus the reason for starting my tomatoes so late). I’ve had other years I can plant the last week in May.
The point is to read the seed packets to determine when to start seeds, and stick as close as possible to those dates. In my negligence, I’ve gotten distracted by other things and planted peppers much too late. And I’ve paid with lower yields. Yes, a planting schedule is a guide, but do the best you can to research what is optimal and allow for a little leeway. If you need help, click here for Botanical Interests sowing guides, they are excellent.
Winter is a good time to think about a potting bench. My husband made me one several years ago, and now I can’t remember how I used to struggle finding a good spot to make a mess.
If you don’t have a potting bench, decide what you want and either buy it or build it. Don’t put it off, make it happen. You know you have space somewhere in your garage or basement where you can fit it.
Some considerations? Find your space first and build or buy to the right dimensions so that it fits there. Will it be inside or outside? I keep mine inside because I use it year-round even when it’s below zero outdoors. Maybe you can use it outdoors and even have a place where you can have a hose. I would love to have water at my potting bench, but we can’t have everything. Can we?
Consider what you need and what you want. Would I like more drawers and shelves? Sure I would, but I would rather have the bench to use and add those things later. If drawers, shelves, and having water available at the bench are things you can’t live without, then take the time to have a complete system up-front.
Whatever is the right fit for you, I’m encouraging you to have a potting bench as soon as you can make it happen. Your gardening life will be much more enjoyable once you do.
While we are talking about building, let’s look at a few more items we can build in the Winter.
I admit that you may want to build raised beds in the late winter so that you can place them in the garden after the snow has gone. I would suggest, though, that building is better than buying when it comes to raised beds.
Consider the size you want before you start building. I have four beds that are four feet by eight feet. Those are an excellent size but now would be the time to really narrow down what is the right size for you. As I get older, I’d rather not have to reach so far so we are adjusting the size of anything new. The four by four foot beds are much easier for me to work in, which means this size will likely be the size of any new beds we build.
What about height? Is it time to have some beds that are higher and require less bending over? I know I’m ready for that. Or maybe you would rather have a wider edge so that you can sit more comfortably as you plant and maintain your beds.
If you are looking at building something custom, or buying some of the pre-made raised beds, think about ergonomics and what works best for your particular needs.
Cold frames are another building project that should be planned and built (or purchased) in the Winter or early Spring.
The first question you’ll need to answer is: what am I going to put in my cold frame? What you are placing in it is going to determine your dimensions.
For example, I know how big my trays are, and I may need to fit between four to six trays in my cold frame at a time. So if I put six trays together, with some space in between so I can fit my hands in order to move the trays, this will determine the length and width of my cold frame. If I’m going to be putting something fast-growing into the cold frame, such as tomatoes, I’ll probably want it to be fairly tall as well.
When determining the dimensions of the cold frame, be sure to be practical. Yes, tomatoes grow quickly, but once they are a foot or more tall, shouldn’t they be going into the ground? The point is that you can’t design for every situation so be reasonable and practical about it. And plan to start tomatoes a little later so that the weather is good enough for you to plant them when they are big enough. Yeah, we can’t control the weather, but we can be reasonable in our assumptions and improvise if Mother Nature throws us a curve.
Going back to ergonomics, consider having a movable cold frame on a raised bed. A raised bed that you’ve already designed for your optimal height. Placing trays in a ground level cold frame can be a bit awkward so keep that in mind in your design.
While we are talking about ease of use, I’m going to say this loud and proud. Don’t build or buy a cold frame that does not have an automatic vent. If you are buying, these are going to be hard to find. And they will be expensive because there are so few of them. You can purchase automatic venting hardware by itself so be sure to include this in your design.
Without an auto-vent feature, you will be opening and closing the cold frame by hand. You will definitely want a remote thermometer to monitor the temperature inside the cold frame, but you don’t want to be a slave to the lid. Temps getting over ninety inside the cold frame? You better go out and the lift the lid so that some of that heat can escape. The auto-vent, which is standard on just about every greenhouse, takes care of this annoying task for you. The only thing left, then, is to find a good spot where it won’t get blown away.
No matter where you live, you’ll have to deal with some kind of wind. I’m hoping you don’t have hurricane force winds to consider, but you will need to keep your “normal” wind gusts in mind when you design your cold frame.
Yes, I reiterate often that I’m the Negligent Gardener, but when it comes to some of these types of designs, my husband is a big fan of over-engineering. I encourage you to do the same. There is nothing worse than watching your cold frame crumple and fly away, thus watching your plants scatter across the lawn. It just plain sucks, take it from me.
I’m going to place an Amazon link here that shows all the various cold frames you can purchase. Notice there are multiple pages of them. My advice is to use this link to search for something else on Amazon (doing this will still help support this website). What I want you to notice, is there might be only one or two cold frames on these pages that have any kind of auto-vent. Another thing to note is that they are pretty flimsy.
If you have anyone who is reasonably handy in the workshop, I would suggest having them design and build a cold frame for you. It’s going to be stronger, meet your needs better, and maintain your peaceful gardening mindset.
If you live in a northern area like I do, you are going to have to deal with those dreaded frost warnings.
These warnings notoriously happen in the early season, even after you’ve planted in the ground. They also will happen in the late season going into the Fall. Why not be prepared before you need to protect your plants?
Mainly you should be worried about your tender vegetables. You won’t need to worry about the cold hardy ones such as cabbages, onions, or carrots, unless they are very young.
Winter is the time of year to purchase some PVC pipe and some frost blankets. Attaching PVC loops across your raised beds before you need them, will make it easier to spread the frost blankets over your plants.
If you can avoid it all, don’t let your frost blanket touch your plants. So consider what you normally plant in each bed and how tall you want the PVC hoops. Once again, it’s time to be practical and reasonable. I plan on frost protection more in the early season than the late one and that’s what my hoops are designed for. The tall plants, such as tomatoes, are going to mostly be out of luck in the late season.
One way to help those tall plants is to consider pruning them as Fall is approaching. The small tomatoes at that time of year have no time to mature anyway. It may be time to chop them off and concentrate on protecting the larger fruits that are closer to ripening.
Do you want to be able to remove these PVC hoops or leave them attached? Whichever you choose, make sure you have considered this question in your design. I don’t mind having them permanently attached so mine are screwed into the side of the raised bed.
If you want to be able to remove them, consider a slightly larger piece of PVC, and use a metal pipe strap to attach to the wood of the raised bed. Then you can slide it into and out of the larger piece. Just make sure the larger piece of PVC is deep enough that the hoop you’ve created doesn’t pop out.
Once you’ve gathered all your materials, decided if your hoops are going to be permanent or can be removed, make sure you organize them in a convenient place. Remember that we are looking for ease of implementation and again, not having to struggle at the last minute helps to maintain peace in your own mind. It could also maintain peace in your family if it prevents a blind panic with all hands on deck to set up frost protection at the last minute.
Outdoor Compost Bins
As long as you’re building cold frames and raised beds, take a few of the wood scraps and put together some compost bins.
If you have room on your property, or at the edge of your garden, it is definitely worth putting together two or three compost bins.
The bins only need to have wooden corners with wire mesh strung between them. They don’t necessarily need a bottom or a top unless those are something you prefer. One side will need to be removable, though, for when you are able to harvest the black gold that is finished compost.
The sides of the bins need to be strong enough to contain decomposing plant material. You will want to place the bins in an area that is easy to get water to, also. Though if you get quite a bit of moisture where you live, this may not be a huge worry. I live in an arid region and need to water my compost piles every week or so to maintain a high enough temperature for decomposition.
Compost bins are the perfect project for early in the year and gives you a place to put all the dead plant material during the Fall and Spring clean-up.
If you haven’t done so already, winter is the perfect time to do those needed repairs to your gardening tools.
This is the time to sand handles and rub them with linseed oil. Or get out the bench grinder and do some major sharpening. Or maybe handles need to be replaced, or some tools are just too far gone and need to be tossed in the garbage can.
Once again, finish up by organizing them in a way that makes sense to you. Don’t let that frustration seep in because you can’t find the exact tool you are looking for. Maintain that inner peace by having everything available when you need it.
Indoor Plant Pest Patrol
Winter is the time to pay attention to houseplants. If you don’t spend inspect houseplants a few times a week to check for pests like white flies, aphids, or mealy bugs, start now.
One of the places that I use to isolate infested plants is my basement utility room. I usually use this room when I’m starting seeds so it’s a good place to put plants that I’m working to control pests. Once you’ve gotten the pests under control and have returned it to the rest of the healthy plant “herd,” be sure to do some clean up work where they’ve been.
Wipe down surfaces and floors to ensure that some pests aren’t left behind. Most pests don’t go far from their host plant so it isn’t usually a big job. It is an important job, though. Especially if you put your houseplants outdoors in the summer, you will inevitably have some sort of unwanted insects in your house. These insects could sabotage your seed starting by killing young seedlings and making you start over. So do your best to inspect and clean the leaves of your houseplants regularly. It could save you a lot of time at seed starting time.
These are the just some of the things to help jumpstart your growing season. What else can do you do in the winter months to make sure things will go smoothly when it’s time to get out in the sunshine? Leave a comment below with your own suggestions!