I hope all of you are busy planning your vegetable gardens and getting those seeds ordered! If you haven’t purchased seeds yet, now is the time. A lot of seed companies are experiencing larger than usual interest and several have had to temporarily stop accepting orders. Many varieties of seeds are running out. So jump on it!
If you already have your seeds and your plan of action, you may be champing at the bit to get started. Those of us who start seeds indoors feel the urge to play in the dirt (or the soilless seed-starting mix) even in winter, but it’s often not a good idea. When I began gardening, I started many plants far too early, and was sorry later when I had enormous seedlings that couldn’t be put in the ground until the weather cooperated. So as a former offender, I will state clearly: DO NOT START YOUR TOMATO PLANTS IN FEBRUARY. In fact, do not start your tomato plants until late March or early April, and you will be much happier, and so will your plants.
But what CAN I start, you ask, with a pitiful, yearning look in your eyes. I know. I really do. Here’s a list. It may not include anything you’re actually planning to grow, but I’ll give you another suggestion at the end. Here we go.
Onions and Leeks
If you bought onion or leek seeds, it’s time to get them into the pots or flats or whatever you’re growing in. They take forever to get moving, and want to be planted before the last frost (whatever that means these days; let’s say by mid-April), so early February is a good time to start bulbing onions and leeks. Scallions can be direct-sown in the early spring, if you prefer; garlic is best planted in the fall and shallots can be planted either spring or fall, but neither of those is commonly grown from seed anyway.
Onion sets and onion or leek plants are less of a worry, since those are planted directly in the garden, preferably in April. Most companies will ship at the right time, but if you get your order too early, when the ground is still very cold, sets can be kept in a cool, well-ventilated area (not freezing) and plants can be separated from their bunch and kept at cool room temperature out of direct sun for at least a week (they will look pathetic, but they’ll bounce back when planted). If you have to keep them for weeks or more (that happened to me one year when my onion plants arrived in February), pot them up about an inch apart and keep them lightly watered in ordinary indoor light; get them into the garden when you can.
Most cabbage family plants do okay started indoors in March, but cabbage itself is a slow grower and can do with a head start in the latter half of February. I have also started broccoli that early; be careful with cauliflower because it doesn’t like to be transplanted at older than 4-5 weeks or into very cold weather. Personally, I will never grow longer-season cabbages again, with a “days to maturity” number of more than about 70 (putting heading-up into the tricky early summer when temperatures get too hot), but that’s counting the days after transplant so isn’t really relevant to when you start the plants inside.
Celery and Celeriac
Real stem celery is tricky to grow in our climate, though you can manage it if you don’t expect it to look like the store-bought stuff, but leaf celery (used mostly for flavoring) and celeriac (celery root) do okay. They prefer cool weather and grow slowly, so February is not too early to start the seeds.
If you’re going to take on the challenge of growing artichokes in our climate, they need to be started early. Look up “artichoke vernalization” to understand the cold-treatment process required to get them to produce in the first year. They are perennial, but may not winter over here. We’re in the marginal temperature range for that.
When I was a beginner at seed-starting, I got confused by the advice I was reading about starting peppers. Some sources said 4-6 weeks before last frost; some said 8-10 weeks. Turns out it depends on the pepper, though also on the conditions in your little nursery. Most of the sweet and hot peppers we grow belong to the species Capsicum annuum; these grow more or less like tomatoes, fast-sprouting and fast-growing. Since you will be transplanting your peppers a week or so after your tomatoes (they’re more cold-sensitive), you don’t want to start them too far ahead of time. Mid-March is usually fine, or even later. But there are other pepper species that some of the spicy types belong to: C. chinense and C. baccatum. These can take much longer to germinate and be slow in their growth, so if you start them with the annuums they will be smaller at transplant time. Get them going in mid-to-late February, using seed no more than a couple of years old and placing your flats on a warm surface, and you’ll have better luck. Check the seed packet or do some searching to find out what the species is.
Unless you want to keep basil growing in your house in the winter (which is a terrific idea) you don’t need to start it earlier than mid-March, but many other herbs benefit from a little head start so they are good-sized at transplant time. This is particularly true of the perennial herbs like thyme, lavender, rosemary, etc., and biennials like parsley. If they get out of control before it’s warm out you can trim them back and season your food with the trimmings. (Is it worth growing herbs besides basil from seed? It’s often more efficient to buy a plant. But if your heart says it’s seed-starting thyme…)
Some Annual and Perennial Flowers
Read the seed packet here, because there’s a huge difference in how fast flowers grow from seed. But should you want to start something in February, seek out the many annual flowers that advise seeding 10 weeks before last frost. Many perennials want an early start too; investigate whether they need a cold period to germinate and consider starting them in flats outdoors if so.
And finally… Microgreens!
Microgreens are a great way to get some baby plants going in the house even in the winter. I wrote a post on microgreens last year, and here is my latest project—pea shoots!
They are a great addition to a salad or stir-fry. You can see by the chopped-off stems that we had some last night, but those plants will grow back and provide more greens. Eventually they’ll run out of gas unless I fertilize them, but I’ll get several cuttings out of this seeding. For larger seeds like peas, give the plants a couple of inches at least of potting soil, soak your seeds for a couple of hours and then lay them on top, then cover with a half inch of potting soil, and water. Smaller seeds need shallower soil and covering. You can sow any of these seeds much more thickly than you would when planting in a garden—they can almost touch.
You can also see in the corner there that I have started some basil plants. I’ll keep them under lights and cut leaves for cooking. Also cilantro, dill, and parsley. I’m not growing any of the plants in the list above, so I need some February green!!
By Erica Smith, Montgomery County Master Gardener