By SARA ARTHURS
“Anyone who thinks gardening begins in the spring and ends in the fall is missing the best part of the whole year; for gardening begins in January with the dream.” — Josephine Neuse
Sunshine. Glorious, colorful flowers. Soon to be followed by fresh herbs and luscious tomatoes.
Feels like a dream in Ohio in February, doesn’t it?
Fear not. Winter will not last forever. Gardeners are merrily planning, and they say spring really is on the horizon.
“I think true gardeners have already started plotting out — in their minds, at least, if not on paper — where they want to move things, what new plants they want to get,” said Pat Harris, who grows a perennial garden.
And when the catalogs arrive in the mail, you think, “Aw, I don’t have THAT one!”
Harris and her husband are snowbirds, and don’t spend February in Ohio. But she’s thinking about her garden while she’s away.
“I’m usually looking online and seeing different plants and going ‘Ooh!’” she said. (Often this is followed by the realization that, although that plant would be nice in her garden, she isn’t sure where she would put it.)
“I want a white clematis,” said Betsy Kreidler. She had one of these flower-covered vines years go and it was “so exquisite.” One place she checked online was sold out, but she’ll keep looking.
Kreidler said gardeners can also spend February planning spring trips to garden centers. She enjoys several near Elmore.
Harris said this season can also be spent cleaning up your tools so they are ready to go when spring arrives, and maybe figuring out what new tools you need.
“It’s a hard season right now because … you want to be out there, you really want to be out there, but you just can’t do it,” she said.
Jan Young and her husband, Rob, grow flowers, vegetables, grapes and even a hardy kiwi. They spend the winter looking through catalogs and researching plants to learn more about their necessary care, and how much space they’ll need. They’re planning, but they’re impatient: “We can’t wait for spring.”
Young brings a lot of her plants inside for the winter, in their pots. This allows her to grow “tropical” plants and other things she otherwise couldn’t. She even has a palm tree — although not the large ones you may associate with sunny beaches — that she puts outside in the summer and brings inside in winter.
Sharon Hammer Baker, who has kept garden notes for years, rereads them in the winter months to refresh her knowledge of which plants did well in which locations. It keeps her from repeating a mistake, and helps her to be realistic as “this time of year, it’s really easy to get overambitious.”
If you don’t already have a garden journal, now is “the perfect time” to start.
Hammer Baker keeps track of when the first tulip blooms, or when the garden experiences a really cold spell. And when someone says things are happening so late this year, she may look back in her notes and find that it’s no later than usual: “It just seems like it’s late, because we want it earlier.”
Betsy DeFrancesco is planning which beds to enlarge, and what new plants she wants to try.
She’s been spending a lot of time “reading magazines, reading articles online.” And, “I’ve been kind of overdoing it, ordering gardening books on Amazon,” she said.
“Winter’s a good time for reading,” Hammer Baker said.
Also, just “go to the window” and “look at the structure of the garden. … You can really see the shape and the structure of everything,” she said. You might realize a bed is too small or too big, or perhaps that you need a tree to provide some height in a particular place. Once the leaves come in the spring, it will be harder to see these shapes.
DeFrancesco said there are some projects, like putting in pavers or edgers, that can be done even on the rare nice day in February.
Winter is also seed catalog season. Some catalogs even arrive in the fall.
Richard Deerhake ordered from five companies. He will also plant some seeds left over from last year, but this doesn’t work with some plants, like parsnips or spinach.
Deerhake typically grows 45 different kinds of tomatoes. Little red ones and yellow ones, orange, purple, “pear-shaped ones, Italian tomatoes, and big fat juicy beefsteak tomatoes. … I have tomatoes of every color, size and description.”
Lest you think he’s obsessed, do note that this is only a small fraction of what’s available.
Deerhake said a tomato-centric seed catalog offers 450 varieties, and more than 10,000 exist.
Usually about six or eight of every 10 seeds germinate. Deerhake takes four seedlings and when they get four leaves on them, he puts them into a four-pack container.
He gives away three of each type, and keeps one. (He’ll also give away some of the fruits of the plants he keeps, later.)
Yes, he really likes tomatoes. He “rarely” eats them in the winter, as they lack flavor. But he does make salsa and tomato sauce when they are in season, canning and freezing his bounty to enjoy later.
Marilynn Beltz said she’s excited about tomatoes, too. She starts them as seeds and this year, ordered a red tomato called Tasti-Lee.
“I used to get Supertasty from Burpee,” she said.
Deerhake has a list on his computer as to when to plant different things. He started beets, onions and leeks early. He has a greenhouse, which makes things easier, but said seeds can be started in a windowsill. They need a little warmth for germination and, once germinated, they need light.
When starting seeds, don’t use soil from outdoors, Deerhake said. Get potting soil, or a seed-starting mix. He buys it by 4-cubic-foot bales in Toledo. “That’s ’cause I’m crazy and grow way too many things.”
This year, Patrick Flinn will be trying a couple of new varieties of cabbage and said, “I’m going to be planting some rutabagas again.”
He said lack of light is a problem when starting seeds, and if the light is too far from the plant, it “makes plants stretch.” He recommends getting the light as low as possible, within 3 inches of the plant if you can.
Also, “People tend to either not water enough or water too much.”
Flinn said another common mistake is starting seeds too early. If you start tomato seeds in early February, unless you are using pots the size of 5-gallon buckets, you’re far too early and you’d need to transplant them several times. Exceptions are flowers like petunias and geraniums, which you may wish to start early because they do take a while to get to a good size.
Hammer Baker said sometimes when we have a warm spell, gardeners are eager to get outside. But the frost-free date is May 15.
Plants like tomatoes and eggplants, in particular, are sensitive to cold and shouldn’t be planted too early. Plants respond to the climate, to the moisture in the soil: “They don’t know what a calendar is. And they don’t care that you’re anxious.”
DeFrancesco, who has gardened for more than 16 years, is starting seeds indoors for the first time this year. She is growing plants for the Findlay Garden Club’s Junior Garden Club, which aims to get children more excited about the hobby. Among other projects, the children will grow a “pizza garden” of tomatoes, basil and oregano.
Because he has a greenhouse, Deerhake can also “force” bulbs. Daffodils, tulips and hyacinths are amenable to this. He sticks them in a place that is protected, and covers them with straw or vermiculite or perlite.
Recently during a week that had a warm period, he took several pots from his cold frame (an outdoor growing enclosure). In a few weeks, he’ll have spring flowers in the house.
He said it’s a way of “trying to somehow get a jump on the season” by “getting rid of the depression of winter. Either that or going to Mexico … I did that in January.” (Of course, when he returned to the Detroit airport, it was “7 degrees and snowing like crazy.”)
DeFrancesco said planning ahead means you can enjoy outdoor beauty in the winter. She grows a lot of conifers, which provide year-round color, so she has “greens and the blues and the golds.”
She said people could also plant red twig dogwoods which, as the name suggests, have red twigs that are pretty in winter.
Kreidler said she always spends the winter doing some “indoor gardening.” She has amaryllises, which grow inside and are “pretty and blooming” by March.
Outside, she grows hellebores, also known as “lenten roses” because they bloom during Lent. Hers turned to “mush” this year after freezing in the harsh weather, but she thinks it’s just the blooms that were killed, as the plants themselves are “very sturdy.”
Beltz encourages beginners to create a garden design. Figure out what you want to plant, and how much room you have. She suggested starting with the basics. “See how that goes for the first year” and then you can expand on it.
Hammer Baker noted that upcoming garden shows can offer some ideas, along with a chance to look at new tools. They are technically home and garden shows — you’ll also learn how to, say, remodel your bathroom — but there are many garden vendors and demonstrations.
A Columbus show runs through Feb. 24. A Cincinnati show is Feb. 23 and 24, and Feb. 28 through March 3. Dayton’s is March 8-10. Closest to home is the Pro Home and Garden Show in Toledo, running March 23-25.
Twitter: @swarthursBy SARA ARTHURS