Our far-flung correspondents in the west are all reporting balmy weather these first weeks of February. It’s as if we’ve skipped spring fever this year and gone directly to spring.
Warm temperatures in the Pacific Northwest are bringing early blossoms to ornamental trees, explosions of blooms from some rhododendrons and everywhere thick, lush grass. Even at 7,000 feet above sea level, Santa Fe New Mexico is recording daytime temps in the 60s. Folks are planting greens and perennials, often in containers, and the whole countryside is greening up.
Here in Bozeman, Montana we’ve had unusually warm weather with predictable results. Even 40 degree temperatures — a couple times into the 50s! — gives us the itch to go work in the garden and do some planting. Why not get a jump start on the outdoor growing season?
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At first, this seems a foolish idea especially when its a safe bet that we’ll experience temperatures well below freezing, maybe even sub-zero temperatures, before winter is over. But I’ve had some success with winter planting, both here in zone 4 Montana and in wet Pacific coast areas. The secret is to take advantage of the weather when it’s good and protect your fragile plants when it’s not.
That itch to start working the soil in your garden? You should know better. Even if the ground is thawed, it’s most likely wet, probably deeply. Turning your earth now will compact it, yielding a plot of clods and clumps. It’s hard to resist temptation, I know, but resist it you must. Let the soil dry to that self-defining condition so popular in garden speak — “workable” — before you work it.
But don’t let that stop you from winter planting.
It follows that you wouldn’t work damp garden soil just to get seeds in early. So don’t. Instead, sow seed right on the surface — hopefully it’s not too broken up — and then lightly cover them with compost if you have it or some good, moisture conducting topsoil. Buy it if you don’t have any that’s not saturated.
I think of February planting as an experiment. I’ll mark off a couple squares in a convenient spot in the plot with a two-by-two frame built just for square foot gardening. I’ve done kale and some hardier lettuces (which, of course, aren’t that hardy when hit by a hard freeze), spinach, Mizuna and other Asian greens; often just seed leftover from the previous season. I’ve had particular success with arugula. But success isn’t guaranteed.
Maybe the year-old seed is one of the reasons germination rate in the winter isn’t anything compared what we get later in the spring when the soil has warmed. My unscientific take on the germination problem is that those seeds planted in February face much tougher conditions. I try not to skimp when broadcasting the seed.
I always plan on planting early in the day and leaving off the mulch until later afternoon, hoping the shining sun passing overhead will warm the garden. But it seldom works that way. You’re at work, the day progresses, and the fantastic weather, uh hum, plants the seed in your mind to start your spinach crop. You’re out there after work, the sun already behind the trees.
Even if your soil is damp, give the seeds a light watering. Then mulch lightly. I like grass clippings, if I have them, or shredded leaves. Don’t lay it on so deep that your emerging seedlings have to struggle and get leggy working their way out.
Then keep your fingers crossed. A streak of good weather may be only a tease. Cold and wet weather, or piling snow, can be just around the corner. Here, in Montana, I’ve seen young, fragile vegetables of all kinds buried by a late June snowfall. The surprise is how many of those plants take the set back and go on thriving.
So that’s one thing you’ll have on your side when planting a winter garden patch: the hardiness and persistence of plant life. But control your expectations and be prepared for disappointment.
On the other hand, one of the biggest thrills you can get in March is to pull back the mulch, gently, and see spinach seedlings preparing to set leaves. And those first few leaves of garden lettuce that you get sometime after Easter? Those are the best ever.
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Mineral-rich and a Vitamin C powerhouse, spinach can be sown early in the season.View all
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