Winter is the time to think about spring! In some parts of the country, the garden is already starting to wake up. Are you ready?
Here’s a checklist of things to do:
• Be sure you know the average frost-free date in your area. If you don’t know, a quick call to your county extension office will answer that question. This date tells you when to have all your new plants ready to go into the garden.
• Clean all your tools and sharpen any that need it, if you didn’t get this done in the fall. Have your lawn mower serviced. Buy or order any new tools or supplies you may need.
• Set up grow lights in the basement or a spare bedroom. If you haven’t started herbs and vegetables from seed before, try it. It’s fun and rewarding. Examples of herbs that are easy to grow from seed include basil, feverfew, horehound, hyssop, and calendula.
• Do you have lots of mail-order garden catalogs? If not, order some. They’re great for ideas and inspiration. You can count on many common herbs being available at your local nursery, but if you want to try special cultivars or unusual plants, you’ll need a mail-order source you can trust. You’ll find good mail-order companies among The Herb Companion advertisers.
• Make a list of what you want to plant this year, how many of each plant you’ll need, and whether you’re going to grow them from seed or purchase them as transplants. Order or buy the seeds and plants you want (or get them from gardening friends!)
• Add a timetable to your list of when plants should be started from seed and when they’ll be ready for transplant. As a rule of thumb, seeds are sown indoors six to eight weeks before they’re ready to set out, but some take longer to germinate or need special treatment, and some fast growers can be started four weeks before the frost-free date. An excellent resource for information on growing plants from seed is Thomas DeBaggio’s Growing Herbs from Seed, Cutting,Root (Interweave Press, 1994).
• Remember that some herbs, including the umbelliferous herbs such as dill and fennel, should be sown directly in the garden where you want them to grow, because they don’t like being transplanted. Note this on your list. You’ll have the most luck with direct seeding if you first prepare the ground by breaking up the soil and raking it smooth.
• If you’re starting a new garden plot or expanding your garden, start to prepare the ground as soon as the soil has thawed enough to be worked. Double dig the soil, add compost or other organic matter and any amendments you need, and turn it over again. If you work the soil well, by planting time it will be friable and so easy to work with that it crumbles through your fingers. You’ll be glad you did this work early.
• Stroll through the garden and evaluate what’s there. Which plants need dividing? Which plants need moving, maybe because they need more or sunnier space or just for aesthetic reasons? Add these garden chores to your list.
• Is there some kind of hardscaping you’d like to add to your garden, such as a walkway, fountain, bench, trellis, or pergola? Spring is a great time to do that work, before the plants grow so big that they obscure the bones of the garden. Perhaps you have a sweetheart who’s looking for a gift to give you for Valentine’s Day. Drop a hint.
• Don’t be too quick to tidy up your garden, because in colder areas of the country, early spring is a time of thawing and refreezing, which can heave plants right out of the ground. They need that protection of winter mulch and leaves that you put out last fall.
• Remember that all new plants, whether you start them from seed or buy them at a nursery, need a transition period from indoors to the garden, called “hardening off.” Starting a week or so before planting time, move them outside every day for a few hours, then bring them in. Gradually extend the time they spend outside exposed to the elements. By planting time, they’ll be tough and ready for anything.
Kathleen Halloran, former editor of The Herb Companion, is a freelance writer and editor in Las Vegas, Nevada.