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Have patience, young grasshopper


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.


The daffodils—and all the other spring bulbs—will come. I promise.

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. 

tomatoes under lights
As you can see, last year’s tomato plants had reached max height under the lights before I was ready to start hardening them off. No need to start any earlier.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Clean your tools, because, if you’re like me, you didn’t do that in fall.
  4. Clean out your tool storage area.
  5. Order plants online. If you know there is something you will have to order, do it sooner rather than later because things sell out.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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. 
  9. 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.
  10. 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). 


6 Responses

  1. I really love your posts, aside from being informative, it feels like I’m reading something written by a friend haha

  2. Even here in the south our weather has been crazy. Yesterday it was 80 and today a high in the low 40s is expected. My Hellebores are blooming and my daffs in bud but I worry about late winter freezes for my tulips which are up about 5 inches. Spent some time in the last two days pruning roses and grape vines and removing some of the debris in my perennial beds. My back is reminding me this morning! Today going shopping for some lettuce and spinach seed and maybe pick up a bunch of flowers for the house. Patience is indeed a trait all gardeners must “cultivate”.

  3. Thank you for this. I have been so antsy looking at gardens online and drooling. We have a good 5″ of snow at the moment. I know better than to plant seeds, but they shouldn’t sit there and taunt me as they do. It’s just cruel.

  4. I laughed out loud at the “summer ” laundry. Not quite that bad here but this does make one think. I have been doing a lot of walking around in the garden lately. We have had some nice days. Today was the last of them. I shuffled around some rocks for a project. Really can’t do much else except dream. It is even too early to set out pots. I like to do that before I even get anything for them. I like to set them around in places where I think I want them this year. Of course that is all subject to change when they get potted up or when things begin to pop.

  5. Oh no, laundry! Did I wash all my garden jeans and tees? And where did I put them? I am trying not to buy more than my initial two orders. But as winter drags on, it is hard not to be seduced by all those gorgeous plants. Frantically trying to do the things on my winter list which I have barely touched so far. I suppose that is the advantage of the last cold and snowy weather. I will be able to cross some things off the list.

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