If you’re anything like me, I’m sure you’ve spent your fair share of time between November and now staring longingly out the window or wandering the garden in every frigid condition, bundled and waiting, crouching, poking and prodding in the hopes that some magical (if not improbable) bit of green is lingering just below the surface. To say we’ve all been dying to get outside and start planting already is probably the understatement of the century!
With winter officially behind us—at least on paper—and new gardening and seed catalogs arriving at our doorsteps (seemingly by the pound), resisting the urge to embrace that one-off 60 degree day and surrender your beloved plants and tender seedlings to the earth can be quite the challenge. I mean seriously, how can we be expected to just sit idly by and wait for spring?!
Well, there’s no need to fret just yet! March and April may be a bit early to work the ground for most plants, but there’s quite the laundry list of to-dos you can focus on now that will get your creative juices flowing and have your beloved garden looking and performing at its best come May.
Trust me, I know. Come February, the thought of slogging through another several months of winter stuck indoors is just plain brutal. However, it’s never too early to begin dreaming up a plan for your space!
If you live in colder climates, January and February are a great time to reflect on the prior year and decide what you want to keep and what you’d like to change. Did you really love that special tomato variety you got from your green-thumb neighbor and wish you’d planted fewer flowers so you could enjoy those juicy fruits all season long? Or maybe you were surprised to find that two plants didn’t do as well next to each other as you would have hoped and want to mix things up?
Whatever the case may be, make a list or refer to your notes from last season (PRO TIP: keep detailed notes on what worked and what didn’t in real time so you won’t forget later!). When I’m planning my garden, I reference my notes and often sketch out exactly what I want the space to look like. My personal journal is filled with dozens of these sketches, all of which help guide my final design.
I also make sure to refresh my own knowledge of companion planting—the concept that certain plants do better (or worse) when planted near other species. While extremely useful when planning vegetable gardens, companion planting is a rich topic of its own that deserves a separate post. To get you started, be sure to check out Carrots Love Tomatoes: Secrets of Companion Planting for Successful Gardening by Louise Riotte. It is an absolute must have in your gardening library; I promise you won’t be disappointed!
In March and April, depending on whether the ground is still frozen, you can test your soil. Think of soil testing as performing a physical on your garden. Does your soil have adequate amounts of Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorous—those key elements essential to plant growth and development? Is the pH balanced and appropriate for what you plan to grow? Not knowing these facts is like signing up to run a marathon without knowing you have a heart defect. Knowledge is power! When you know what your garden needs, you can take the necessary steps to maximize its health.
There are a couple of different ways to test your soil. Inexpensive and easy to use kits can be purchased online or at your local home improvement store, and allow for quick, reliable results. Follow the instructions on collecting your soil samples and voila! Be sure to keep a record of your findings, again, so you can reference them if need be the following year.
You can also send your soil samples to a third-party research lab that will perform a soil analysis for you, often for a small fee. Do a little research to find out which universities in your area offer these services. Where I live in the New York City area, UConn, Cornell, and Brooklyn College are some of a few institutions that perform testing. If you send out a soil sample for testing in April, you should have the results by early May—just in time to prep the garden to receive your plants!
Ordering Seeds, Replacing Tools and Other Supplies
Any time after the growing season is over is a good time to think about what tools, seeds, and other garden supplies need to be re-ordered or replaced. While you’re stuck indoors for that nor’easter, check your garden tools—are blades sharp, or needing cleaning or replacement? Is anything broken or missing? Take advantage of holiday sales and order what you need!
Seed catalogs will often hit doorsteps as early as late January; after you’ve done your planning and have a general concept of what types of things you’d like to grow, dive on in! Each year seed companies release hundreds of new varieties. Some of my favorite companies to order from include Hudson Valley Seed Co., Johnny's Seeds, and Seed Savers Exchange, to name a few! It can be overwhelming to navigate these offerings, but have fun with it, and be careful not to over order. The last thing you want to do is bid a teary farewell a year or two later to those poor extra seeds that went bad because you didn’t use them!
For many of us, watching a plant emerge from its seed is the most magical part of gardening. Again, this is a topic that more than deserves its own post!
Before you start your seeds, invest in a good reference book like The New Seed Starters Handbook by Nancy Bubel and Jean Nick and read up on the varieties that you plan to plant. Many seeds have nuances that help them germinate better; think of it as life hacks for your garden! Knowing exactly how to treat a seed before you sow it will make things easier and have your plants sprouting in no time.
As for how to start your seeds, read your seed packets for instructions on when and where to begin (i.e., late March and directly in the garden v. early April and indoors), how deep to plant, etc. These instructions are there for a reason – use them! Once your seeds are planted, find a warm, sunny spot and keep the soil moist until the first leaves emerge. Before you know it, you’ll have juvenile plants, ready to be hardened off and planted in your garden.
I'd love to hear from you - what kind of garden tasks do you get done while it's still cold outside? Leave a comment below!
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