Six Things You Can Do in February To Prepare Your Spring Garden
USDA Plant Hardiness Zones break down the country into regions based on what their average extreme low temperature can reach for the year. They range from zones 1a to 13b. The majority of the United States falls in between zone 3a, which has a low temperature of between -40 and -35 degrees (F), and zone 8a, with a low of 10 to 15 degrees. That means that most of us have some sort of off season during the winter months when most of our outdoor gardening is put on hold. By December, most annual plants have finished their cycles and been taken up, and many perennials are dormant.
February, right in the middle of the winter, is the perfect time to start strategizing your garden for the upcoming spring. Depending on where you live, February falls somewhere between 8-12 weeks out from when you can start planting outside. The following ideas are some things you can be working on now to have better results from your garden when the weather gets warm.
Map Your Garden
Gardening is fun and rewarding whether you have a plan or not. There have been times where I planted seeds very late in the season because I forgot to earlier and still got results. I’ve planted things next to each other that you aren’t supposed to and still gotten results. To have the best turnout, however, a little planning goes a long way.
An easy way to plan your garden is to map it out and divide it into square feet. Depending on the vegetable, you can plant a certain amount of seeds per square foot. The following can be used as a guide:
Seedlings Per Square Foot
What to Plant
1 per 2 square feet
watermelon, vining squash
tomato, basil, broccoli, cauliflower, hot peppers
lettuce, other leafy greens
bush beans, snap peas
beets, radishes, turnips, carrots, onions
See an example map of a square foot garden plan.
When mapping out your garden you should also consider companion planting. Companion planting is the practice of planting vegetables or flowers that complement each other and produce higher yields and quality when planted in closer proximity. For almost any garden vegetable, marigolds are a good companion plant because they deter pests like beetles. Plan on including marigolds in your garden layout!
Now that you have your plan, you should have an idea of what seeds you are going to need. If you have been gardening for a while, you’ve probably signed up to receive seed catalogs from a few companies. The catalogs usually start arriving sometime around January 1st. If you’ve had a chance to look through them and have decided what you would like to plant, now is the time to place your order. You want to may sure they get to you in time if you are going to be starting seeds indoors. If you will be purchasing your seeds from a garden store, you can do that now, too.
If you’ve saved seeds from last year’s crops or from organic veggies you’ve purchased at the store, that’s great! You’re one step ahead.
Start Seedlings Indoors
Depending on your hardiness zone, your lasts frost date (and when you can start planting outside) falls somewhere between April 1-May 15. If you live in a more northern zone with an early first frost date like September or October 1st, that window doesn’t give your plants a whole lot of time to flourish if you are starting from seed. Many seedlings will fare better and will have more time to produce a full crop if started indoors first. February is the perfect time to start seedlings indoors so they will be strong enough to harden off and plant outside once its warm enough.
To start seedlings inside, you’ll just need a seedling tray or small containers with drainage holes, sterile seed starter mix, some plastic wrap, and a sunny window. Plant your seeds 1-2 per cell or container in the moistened mix. Cover with plastic wrap. Check each day that the medium is moist. Once seedlings emerge, you can remove the plastic wrap. Provided they get enough water and strong sunlight, your seedlings should be strong enough within the next 2-3 months to go outside. (Make sure to harden them off first).
Composting is a garden project you can start in winter, or any time of year. Having your own compost bin will save you money in the long run—its cheaper than expensive fertilizer from garden stores, and it uses waste you’d otherwise be filling your garbage bags with. There are a lot of options for compost systems to try, depending on if you’re doing it inside or outside, if you want to use worms or not, etc. For a worm bin compost or a no-turn (i.e. low maintenance) outdoor compost, the turnaround process is 3 months or more, so if you start now it will be ready during the early part of the growing season to start using in your garden. The decomposition process is slower in winter with the cooler temperatures, but there are a few things you can do to speed up the process if you start late and are going to want to start using your compost sooner.
Build a Hoop House
If you are especially anxious to get some plants in the ground outside, you can consider building a hoop house. A hoop house is a series of parallel hoops arching over your garden, covered in a heat retaining greenhouse material. This dome acts as a mini green house to protect your plants from frost. It can extend your growing season by as many as 8 weeks in spring and fall. By the middle of February you should be able to plant cold hardy plants (think arugula, onions, broccoli) in your hoop house. You can try plants less forgiving of frost if you add an extra layer of material inside the dome.
You can try making a hoop house yourself, or they can also be purchased at your local garden store.
Plant Fall Bulbs, If You Forgot Earlier
Oh no, you forgot to plant your tulip and daffodil bulbs before Thanksgiving! Plant them now anyway. Fall bulbs need a period of cold in order to bloom once the weather gets warm. Ideally they should be planted between September and December, but many will still bloom just fine if planted later, as long as they have some time in the ground in the cold. Bulbs are different from seeds—they won’t make it until next year, so you might as well try to plant them now while they still have a chance at success.
If you have spring bulbs like gladiolus, don't plant those now! They will need to wait until the soil is warmer and there is no chance of frost, as they do not work the same way as fall bulbs and won't survive winter temperatures.
For devoted gardeners, winter can be a dull time. Its natural to be antsy when there's not much you can do for your garden. Even though I know you'll be happier once last frost hits and you can get outside digging in the dirt, at least you can chase off the winter blues for now with some of these things on your garden to-do list. After getting started planning and planting your seedlings, last frost will be here before you know it. Happy gardening!