Winter and the Vegetable Gardener

By Nancy Dowling, Certified Master Gardener

Packets of Vegetable SeedsPeople seem to think that winter is a slow time for a vegetable gardener, but that’s a misconception. In fact, winter is the time a vegetable gardener works out plans for the coming year’s garden.

Planning includes imagination, research, organization, and . . . action!  For me, it starts with taking an inventory of seed packages on hand to see which ones are past their germination window, and which are still viable for the upcoming season. Usually seeds have a reliable germination period of about three years. Every year after the initial one lowers the germination rate by about 10 percent. So, if the initial germination rate is 90 to 100 percent, by the fourth year it may decrease to 50 to 60 percent, and that just might not be worth it when a new packet of seeds would increase your odds dramatically. Doubling and tripling the quantity of seeds needed in the fourth year may work for some seed types, but in my opinion, it leaves too much to chance. 

Monte Gusto Pole

Monte Gusto Pole Beans
Photo © 2016 Nancy Dowling

Winter is also the time for perusing seed catalogs, a favorite pastime when the weather is cold and snowy outside and the tea is warm inside. Once the seed inventory is done, I generally know what not to buy, which “old faithful” varieties I need to replenish, while always looking for those new types that look promising, different, interesting, etc. For example, I know I need to have Monte Gusto pole beans, because I’ve learned from the experienced gardeners at our Organic Vegetable Demonstration Garden at Potomac Overlook Regional Park that it’s a prolific, beautiful yellow bean that tastes good just picked and just cooked.

Lemon Cucumber

Lemon Cucumber Photo © 2020 Jamain (Own work)

Last year, I had success with a beautiful little cucumber called Lemon that I must grow again this year, if only because it is yellow, small, round, crisp and cute in a salad. (Imagine a little yellow round thing in your salad that isn’t sour.) It fools everyone I serve it to, and that’s a good enough reason for me to plant it. As far as tomatoes go, I love an Old German – it’s red and yellow, about 4–6 inches wide on the vine, and great for slicing with mozzarella and basil, olive oil and (maybe) vinegar. I miss it in the winter.

Lettuce seedling sprouting indoors.

Kale seedlings growing indoors. Photo © 2018 Nancy Dowling

After the seeds are ordered, then it’s on to the task of checking out the inventory of my indoor seed planting equipment— the trays, mats, and light fixtures, to ensure that they are all clean and in working order. I’ve learned from experience that buying cheap trays is more expensive in the long run, especially if you are a confirmed seed starter like me. I’ve been seed starting for over 30 years and have learned to invest in stronger trays and larger seed compartments, but everyone is different. If you don’t know if you even like planting your own seed, then starting with inexpensive trays is a good idea. They won’t last many years, but maybe neither will you! But whatever equipment you can use from the previous year must go through a diluted chlorine and water bath to disinfect it. Then, take care to thoroughly rinse them to remove any bleach residue that could be lingering on the equipment and could retard the growth of seeds. I always check my lighting equipment, too, to make sure all the tubes work before I really need them.

Seedlings sprouting indoors under the lights.

Seedlings sprouting indoors under the lights. Photo © 2018 Nancy Dowling

Ideally, by the time your seeds arrive, your equipment is ready too. Now, all you need to do is map out a time schedule for planting. Some seeds, like parsley, take forever to germinate, so I back up about 10–12 weeks from our zone’s last frost date (about May 1 in northern Virginia) for seed starting. Some seeds, like peas, radishes, carrots, and spinach are directly sown in the garden, so no indoor work is required. Others, like brassicas (cabbages, kale, brussels sprouts, and broccoli), can be started early indoors and transplanted into the garden very early in spring (mid-March under fabric or plastic), so starting them indoors in early February makes sense. The Solanaceae family of seeds, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, are best delayed until early March for starting indoors so that they don’t get to that leggy stage by mid-May, when the ground is warm enough to welcome them. The trick is to start seeds so that they will be strong and robust at just the right moment to plant in their perfect soil temperature. The more experience you have, the better you get at knowing when. Each type of vegetable requires a soil temperature unique to it. Note that soil temperature is different than air temperature, as the soil takes a while to warm up, even if the air has been warm for days or weeks. It’s tricky, especially because seedlings need to go through what we call “hardening” outdoors before direct placement in the outside soil.

All this information is available at the Virginia Tech Extension office at Fairlington Community Center in Arlington or online at:Vegetable Planting Guide and Recommended Planting Dates.

So anyone that thinks there is no work for a vegetable gardener in winter is just fooling themselves. I call it the “imagination stage,” and I can’t think of a better time to do it.

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