Learn about current February and March seasonal tips for gardening zones in the U.S.
Winter for the Northern gardener is a time to read the catalogs and plan next spring's garden. Fruit trees can be pruned from January at least until March. If you are going to graft, cut scion wood now and wrap it in four or five layers of plastic to store in the refrigerator. (The plastic protects the wood from any ethylene gases emitted by fruit in your refrigerator) Start early seedlings of leeks, onions and celery; even peppers can be started in late February. Wait until March for most other veggies. Check the root cellar and pantry for spoilage in onions, apples and squash. If there is a small problem, make soup. If the problem is worse, consider freezing food before it all rots.
Improve your germination rates by starting seeds in an incubator. You can create a toasty, well-ventilated spot using an old refrigerator, a shielded lightbulb and a small fan powered through a thermostat set at 86 degrees. Use the incubator to presprout radish, spinach, pea, carrot and beet seeds on moist paper towels — then plant them outside under row cover as soon as they send out their first little roots. Start seed for transplants of bulb onions, eggplant, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, lettuce, and some early tomatoes and peppers. Plant cool-weather greens in a cold frame for a jump on the season. Try some globe arti chokes in a cold frame, too — if exposed to temperatures between 35 degrees and 42 degrees while they are young, they often produce the same year. Plant potatoes around St. Patrick's Day for high, early yields.
February and March are transition months for Southern gardeners. By now you've already planned out (or at least thought about) your garden for the upcoming season. In February, start warm-season crops (tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, eggplants, etc.) indoors to have healthy transplants ready to plant after winter's last frost. Till soil four to six weeks before transplanting. This also is a great time to get your soil tested and add any nutrients it might need. Other activities for these months include pruning — especially roses (See "Pruning Made Easy," page 78 in this issue).
Garden fever starts early along the Gulf Coast. Our average last frost is around mid-February, but often we can plant tomato transplants in early February. A lot depends on how many you are planting. If you're only setting out a dozen plants, then take a chance — and keep the covers handy. Wait until March to transplant cold-sensitive eggplants and peppers. Plant a late crop of broccoli and lettuce transplants in early February and sow fast-growing, seeded crops like radishes, turnips and mustard. March begins the hectic planting of warm-season crops like beans, corn, cucumbers and melons, but whit until April to sow hot-weather crops like okra and southern peas. Apply a dormant-oil spray to fruit trees early this season before they begin to break dormancy. Don't forget the flower beds — plant dahlias and gladiolas now. In March, plant sunny beds with seed or transplants of marigolds, zinnias, gomphrena and rudbeckia, and brighten shady spots with impatiens and caladiums.
Spring is coming! Time to start many plants inside — be sure that you are beginning with disease-free conditions. Wash used trays and inserts, and fill with a quality seed-starting medium. Peppers will not germinate well at room temperature — keep them at a constant 80 degrees for best success. To avoid leggy plants, keep your light source as close as possible to the seedlings. Wait until the soil outside is workable and about 50 degrees to seed some early flowers and greens. If you are itching to plant outdoors, try using a cold frame or a mini-greenhouse tunnel to heat up a patch of soil.
Sprinkle fireplace ashes on lingering snow to warm your garden soil weeks early. After the soil warms to 40 degrees, begin planting frost-tolerant greens like arugula, Chinese cabbage, cress, kale, mustard, bok choy and spinach. To speed germination, cover with fabric row covers or, if you are more ambitious, make a simple cold frame. I (Bill McDorman) built one from a great set of plans found in the book Solar Gardening by Leandre Poisson (on MOTHER'S Bookshelf, page 129 in this issue). My community garden plot, where I used the cold frame, was the only plot completely green at the beginning of May. I was harvesting delicious greens when most of the gardeners were showing up to plant their first seeds. Don't rush the season when starting tomato and pepper transplants. Small, vigorously growing plants will surge ahead of stressed, larger ones.
Time for green thumbs of the Pacific Northwest to come out of hibernation. Garden peas and sweet peas can be planted directly into the garden as early as mid-February. To give the sweet peas a jump-start on the season, lightly scratch the seed coat with sandpaper and soak the seed in water overnight. Transplant or direct-seed lettuce, spinach, mustard and other greens, protecting them with a cloche or row cover. This is also the perfect time to start many vegetable, herb and flower seeds indoors. Build a compost sifter of hardware cloth nailed on a frame of 1 by 4-inch boards and add the sifted "garden gold" to your soil mix for flower and vegetable starts. This is a great way to concentrate all the nutrients around the transplant roots for season-long feeding. Cool-season cover crops will nourish summer plantings if you sow them now and turn them under in late May.
In central California, we go through exceptional droughts at least once every 10 years where, by law, we are forced to stop watering the European turfgrass lawns for the summer. They die, then everyone rolls out new turf when the drought restrictions are lifted. Wouldn't it be better to expect and prepare for future droughts with native plants in our landscaping and thick mulch in our vegetable gardens? One strategy is to plant vegetable varieties adapted to growing in drought conditions, like tepary beans from the Pimas of central Arizona and Hopi corn developed to grow in sand dunes without irrigation. Hot peppers also are a good choice. The beauty of growing a pepper crop in these conditions is that the hot weather and lack of water really help to develop the heat of the peppers.
Our thanks to the following for their contributions to the Almanac: Roberta Bailey, FEDCO Seeds, Waterville, Maine; Cricket Rakita, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Mineral, Virginia; Connie Dam-Byl, William Dam Seeds, Dundas, Ontario; Matt Barthel, Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, Iowa; Bill McDorman, Seeds Trust/High Altitude Gardens, Hailey, Idaho; Josh Kirschenbaum, Territorial Seed Company, Cottage Grove, Oregon; Rose Marie Nichols McGee, Nichols Garden Nursery, Albany, Oregon; Craig and Sue Dremann, Redwood City Seed Co., Redwood City, California; Dean Lollis, Park Seed Co., Greenwood, South Carolina; William D. Adams, Burton, Texas.
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