This moment—right now—is when gardeners start to get really restless, particularly those of us in the northern part of the country. Our gardening brethren in warmer zones are reporting sightings of Galanthus (aka snowdrops), hellebores and crocus, and they are starting seeds indoors.
But for many of us it is just too soon. Almost anything we do in the garden at this point is a mistake. It is the time for patience.
Trodding around looking for signs of life is dangerous at this time of year. Tiny new growth just starting to think about emerging can be stomped on. Even if it can be done without walking in the garden, cleaning out beds at this point is for those who like to live dangerously as many places still have a fair amount of wintery weather likely headed their way and plants will appreciate some extra protection during that time.
I think the biggest mistake people make with seeds is starting them too early. People think they will get a jump on the growing season by starting early, and to a certain extent that is true. That’s why it can be helpful to start some seeds indoors. But there is a limit to the effectiveness of that strategy and the law of diminishing returns applies. At some point you actually set the growth of a plant back.
Once seeds start growing they want to keep growing. They don’t look kindly upon a lot of sitting around and waiting, so it’s important to keep them moving once they get going. This means that they need to be potted on once they’ve outgrown their living quarters. For scatter-sown seeds (i.e. planting several seeds in a small pot), this is usually after they’ve gotten their true leaves and they should be moved into individual cells. Later they’ll need to move onto a 3- or 4-inch pot. I like to start from soil blocks, then pot on when I start to see roots.
At some point, that 3- or 4-inch pot won’t be enough to sustain your plant. Ideally this is when you’d plant it outside in its permanent home. But if it’s not warm enough, you can’t do that, and you’ll need to look at either potting it on again to a larger pot or risk stunting it possibly permanently and the odds are very good you won’t be able to give it enough light and it will just get leggy. This is why its not uncommon for a plant you started from seed inside to actually mature more slowly than one you either direct sowed or purchased at a nursery.
This is why you have to figure out when you can safely plant it out and count back from there.
So what can gardeners do right now? Enjoy this list of some of the things I do to pass this slowest of times as I wait to get in the garden.
- Plan. Plan. Plan. I’ve laid the ground for more gardens I don’t really need at this time of year than any other. If you can restrain yourself from from overdoing it, it is a great time to plan changes to gardens.
- Mentally design your containers. Brainstorm what your containers might look like and come up with a general concept. Sometimes I make plant lists for this, but it can be hard to find some annuals, so I like to have substitutes in mind as well.
- Clean your tools, because, if you’re like me, you didn’t do that in fall.
- Clean out your tool storage area.
- Order plants online. If you know there is something you will have to order, do it sooner rather than later because things sell out.
- Built garden structures. I’m going to need a few new simple trellises this summer and now is a good time to crank those out.
- Source plants and products locally. Local nurseries and garden centers are sitting around with some time on their hands right now too, so you will get their undivided attention if you need help selecting a variety of tree or a specific product. Many of them have already ordered for spring so you can reserve special plants as well. I had two trees, including my espalier Asian pear, ordered by this time last year.
- Remove trees. Hopefully you don’t have this on your list, but if you do have some trees that need to come out, it can be a good time to get on a tree removal service’s schedule. Once it warms up they will be busy again and you’ll have to get on the list.
- Indoor projects. You know that list of little things that need to get done in your house? Cross those off now so you’ll be able to spend long days outside when the weather does improve.
- Laundry. Hopefully be now you’ve caught up on the laundry left from summer. If you work hard you may be able to wash enough clothes to get through at least June. (I jest, obviously).