Can you feel it? Spring is (almost) in the air. Walking to work each morning, I’ve been noticing the first signs of the world waking up from winter. Snow drops and crocuses are starting to bloom. In our garden, chard, arugula and kale seem to perk up every time the sun comes out. Our leeks our holding their own. Chives are just starting to poke out of the ground, and the garlic we planted in the fall has sprouted.
This is the time of year when I pull out my favourite gardening resource, the West Coast Seeds planting chart for coastal British Columbia, to see what I can start planting. It’s still early days, but Vancouver’s warm climate means that there are a few seeds that eager gardeners can get a jump start on.
Is it really worth it to plant seeds this early? That depends on your goals. For ambitious and experienced gardeners, many perennial vegetables, flowers and herbs, like chives, mint and parsley, really benefit from the extra time given by starting them indoors in February. Other crops can theoretically be planted this early, but the benefits may be limited. Earlier in my gardening life, I was advised by a fellow gardener to make sure that my tomato seeds were planted no later than mid-February. I dutifully followed their recommendation, only to be overrun with enormous, leggy seedlings in May. The big plants got stressed during transplantation and didn’t bear fruit any earlier than usual. I’ve now gone back to my old habits of planting tomato seeds in the second half of March.
Tokyo Bekana (top of photo) and Giant Red mustard (centre) are two great greens to try planting. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.
Planting seeds outdoors in February
Spinach, pac choi and mustard greens are particularly worthwhile crops to try planting in February. These cool-season greens bolt (go to flower) quickly as soon as the days get longer, so they really benefit from early planting. Mustard greens are particularly beautiful plants ideal for container gardens, with many varieties featuring feathery purple foliage. Some of my favourite varieties are Tokyo Bekana, a very fast-growing mild mustard with chartreuse leaves, and Giant Red mustard, a striking plant with leaves that can grow larger than your hand. Keep these young greens protected from inclement weather and slugs. If you’re growing in raised beds, use row covers. In containers, try cutting a few holes in the plastic domes from commercial salad mixes.
Other candidates for outdoor February sowing include broad beans and radishes. Some people plant peas this month as well, but personally I’ve found little advantage to starting them this early; wait until the second half of March for a more reasonable planting date.
Keep in mind that your soil will likely be “tired” at this time of year after months of intensive growing (if you planted vegetables last year), followed by the stress of winter rain and frost, which tend to wash minerals and organic matter away. Before planting anything, it’s a good idea to test your soil’s pH using a home kit available from garden supply centres or seed catalogues. If your soil is too acidic, you’ll have plenty of time to add lime. Incorporate an inch of fresh potting mix, topsoil or well-finished compost into your existing soil before adding any seeds.
When planting this early, start small with just one container or one small section of your garden. Sow another container or section every week or two as spring approaches, and be sure to label everything with the variety and planting date. If your seeds haven’t sprouted by mid-March, fear not. Seeds are cheap and there’s lots of time; just plant them again!
Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. Join her on Roundhouse Radio 98.3 FM every Tuesday afternoon at 5:00pm for Fabulous Urban Gardens. She blogs about urban food gardening at http://abundantcity.net.
Last year, I planted my peas in February. This year, I’ll plant them in March, as I didn’t find a big advantage in starting them this early. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.