This time of year, walking out to fetch the mail may be one of the only ways you're scratching the itch to spend some time outdoors. These short forays to the front stoop or the end of the driveway don't allow us to get a whole lot of fresh air, but what's inside the mailbox might be bringing you a little of the sunshine you crave. In the gray winter months, few things brighten a gardener's path quite like the surge of catalogs that find their way to our doors. From seeds and sprouts, to trees and tubers, the handful (or dozens!) of enticingly colorful magazines that are delivered to our homes really kickstart the desire to get a jump on the growing season.
But is it too early? It still gets dark by dinnertime, and nobody would be shocked by waking up to find a few more inches of snow on the ground. It may not feel like it right now, but it won't be winter forever. Spring will be here before we know it! When the gardening catalogs begin to pile up, it's the perfect time to start planning and preparing for the gardening season.
Once you answer these questions, it's time to start making a list of what you'll be planting. It's okay to be a little over-ambitious at this stage, you can always pare your list back later. Study the list you've made and think about space and timing. Do you have enough room in your garden to fit everything you want to grow? Keep in mind that some plants require more area than others to thrive, and that your planting will most likely be spread throughout the spring and summer, and not be done all at once.
You've got your list together, and you've studied it, rewritten it, and pruned it back. It's still not quite time to boot up the computer and click "add to cart," though. If have some seeds leftover in packets from plantings past, or if you harvested seeds from last year's garden, be sure to look through those first. It can be easy to forget about seeds you've saved once they've been stored in a cool, dark place, but finding them and giving them a thorough once-over will prevent you from buying what you already have.
Once you've compared what you have tucked away to the list of things you want to grow, then go ahead with ordering anything you may need to fill in the gaps.
After planning and shopping are completed, you've arrived at seed starting. It may still seem way too early; perhaps the ground is frozen solid and the day's length doesn't seem to have gotten quite long enough. But, if you have a sunny south-facing window, you can get seeds started indoors where you can keep a watchful eye on them during their first weeks. Sow your seeds in some starting medium from the lawn and garden center, either in small peat pots, egg cartons, or paper cups. Make sure you keep them moist but not sopping, and watch the green sprouts arrive one by one. A small green squiggle in a sunny window truly feels magical after a long, cold winter. These sprouts, once they grow into something a bit stronger, can be hardened off and planted outside when the weather becomes kinder toward young plants.
If windowsill gardening isn't your thing, or if you want to add another element to this early stage of your garden, you can plant some of your early crop seeds directly in the ground. Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts tolerate the cold pretty well, though if you foresee temperatures dipping too low, you may consider using a cold frame when planting outdoors, at least before mid-March.
Some lovely flowering plants that are great additions to landscapes that can be planted in the cold are chicory and poppies. A once-popular method for planting poppy seeds was to scatter them on top of February snowfall, allowing the melting process to press the seeds into the ground and water them in simultaneously.
These steps, starting with flipping through catalogs, all the way up to planting sprouts you grew yourself, will help you make the most of the entire growing season. By the time the weather warms and we have more minutes in the sunshine, you'll already have plenty of plants ready to go. Let this early work help you get a great start on reaping the rewards of this year's garden!