Get a jump on spring

As I write this, it’s hard to believe it will ever be spring. It’s 13 degrees below outside this morning, and the snow that fell in early December is still on the ground, two months later, looking brown and shabby but protecting our gardens from the elements. So that’s a good thing.

By the time you read this column it will be March. That means there will finally be something for us gardeners to do. Might as well start with something fun. If you’re like me, you’ve got a pile of seed and plant catalogs lying around. They start arriving in early January and I keep them all so I can flip through them just to get a small hint of summer during the long, dark days. (My favorites are from White Flower Farm, Seed Savers Exchange, Klehm’s Song Sparrow and Seeds of Change.) But there are lots of plant catalogs out there. To peruse several options, try this website: www.mailordergardening.com.

If you’re looking to save some money on plants or you want to try things that are out of the ordinary, mail-order catalogs are the way to go. Most nurseries ship plants either bare root or in containers. Both are inexpensive and bagged in plastic. Though they seem tiny, especially the bare root plants, which resemble dry sticks tossed inside a bag of dirt, in my experience, they catch up quickly to larger, spendier plants I put in the ground at the same time.

One tip, though: If you do use bare-root plants or small seedlings, be sure to mark the spots where you put them because they are very hard to see against dirt and mulch. Just last year I managed to forget and then clumsily trample five tiny dwarf goatsbeard (Aruncus aethusifolius) plants I forgot to mark. You’ll want to order now to get the best selection, and many catalogs will let you skip snail mail and order online. Unless you specify a date, plants will be shipped according to appropriate planting times for our zone, so you can expect those living packages to start showing up around the end of May.

Even more money can be saved when you start your own seeds. I usually grow at least a few things in my basement every year, mostly plants I can’t find at garden centers. I like having the chance to dig in the dirt just that much earlier. March is prime seed-starting time so it’s too late to order seeds for this year. But you can easily find seeds at local garden centers, local co-ops and grocery stores. The back of each packet will tell you when the seeds should be started, usually six–eight weeks before they can be planted outside.

If you’re rolling your eyes at the thought of starting seeds, let me just say that it’s not as hard as it is often made out to be. You don’t need a bunch of fancy apparatus. I’ve tried a lot of different strategies over the years, and the method I like best goes like this: Buy seeds, a package of clear, 12-oz. plastic beer cups and a bag or two of soil-less potting mix. (Regular garden soil is too dense and your seeds will get water-logged.) Follow package instructions on how to plant each type of seed, adding a few to each cup in case some don’t germinate. Some seeds will be buried deeper than others and some will need special treatment, such as soaking in water before planting. Use a drill to punch a hole in the bottom of each cup for drainage. This method saves me the hassle of having to transplant seedlings from small peat pots or trays as they grow.

Your seeds will need a lot of light — about 16 hours a day. I put my lights on a timer. So once I’ve got my beer cups filled about three-quarters full of dirt and planted with seeds, I set them inside plastic trays that I save when I buy plants at garden centers. But you can use any type of shallow tray. (Label each cup so you don’t end up like I often do wondering what in the hell is in each one.) I line up the trays on some cheap, three-tiered metal shelving I bought at Menards and above each shelf I hang a shop light that holds two fluorescent bulbs. Don’t buy the hype that you need special lights. These fluorescent tubes do just fine and can be bought for only a few bucks at places like Menards and Home Depot. Hang the lights on chains so you can adjust the height as the plants grow, keeping them a couple of inches above the plants.

Water as often as needed to keep the soil moist but be careful not to overwater and drown your seedlings. Initially, you’ll probably only need to water every few days. Cover trays with plain old plastic wrap to help hold in humidity so the soil doesn’t dry out too quickly. If the soil seems moist but the seedlings are a little droopy, spritz them with a little water. Remove the plastic as soon as seedlings are fully emerged. You’ll be surprised at how addicting it is to head down into the basement to check on your little plants.

And here comes the part I hate. You have to thin your seedlings so the few that are left have the room and food they need to grow. Rather than pulling them out, use a scissor to snip off the tops of excess plants leaving only one or two in each cup. Start fertilizing with fish emulsion or a general-purpose, water-soluble fertilizer diluted to quarter strength once your seedlings develop a few of their “true” leaves. All seedlings start out with tiny, little leaves before developing their larger adult or true leaves. You’ll know the difference when you see it. It won’t be long now before your seedlings are ready to go to their new home in the garden.

Before planting, though, help the little ones acclimate to outdoor temps by moving them outside into a sheltered area near the house where they’ll get just a little sun but be protected from wind. In about a week, you can put them in the ground. If you’ve started perennials, it’ll take a couple of years for them to mature. But it’s worth it, and you’ll be amazed at how differently you look at plants you grew yourself rather than just buying and planting them.

Good luck and happy almost-spring.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer who lives in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to meleah@everydaygardener.com.