Years and years ago, I figured out that sowing larkspur seeds outdoors in February or early March gave me more and hardier flowers than when I planted them in April. Other spring-blooming annual flowers respond the same way to early-planting in the garden. I have found that some herbs and cool-season veggies do well when planted early, too.
It may seem wrong to set out seeds when the odds of freezing weather are still so high. However, the early-planted seeds tend to delay their sprouting until the deepest cold has passed.
Seeds for winter planting
The herb I am most likely to strew across a couple of square feet of prepared garden bed in February is dill. I grow one of the shorter, leafy varieties of dill. Another herb to try in a winter planting, for anyone who forgot to plant it in September, is cilantro.
My fall-planted cilantro is nicely established, but if I had forgotten to start it in the garden back in September, I would be putting seeds in the garden now. Many gardeners learn the hard way (sad experience…) that cilantro grows best in cool weather.
Another herb to seed into the garden now is parsley. Seeds for parsley can take two or three weeks to sprout indoors, which is the method I usually use to get more parsley, but I have had good success in the past setting parsley seeds directly into prepared garden soil early.
Parsley has a taproot, which makes it tricky to transplant without causing damage to the root. If you have had trouble growing parsley in the past, when set into the garden as transplants, you might be happier with direct-seeded parsley.
Vegetables for winter planting
Cool-season greens are ideal to set out early as seeds in a prepared garden bed. I have already planted seeds for spinach, which may be the most cold-hardy of greens, and more rocket.
Leaf-chicories and lettuces are also good choices. Beets are a good choice, too. Pretty much every vegetable that can stand up to a hard frost will work.
Other seeds that I plant early in the garden are peas; English peas and Sugar Snap types can sprout and grow in the garden when planted in February. Before planting these, I usually wait until I see flowers on the trout lilies in my backyard.
The flowering of the trout lilies, which are native plants in Georgia, is a signal that the soil is warm enough that the peas will sprout, and they won’t rot in the cold, wet ground. My trout lilies usually send up flowers in the last week of February, but I noticed yesterday that many leaves in the trout lily patch are already up. The flowering may be early this year.
Winter seeds in containers outdoors, following WinterSown guidelines
There is a method called WinterSown, that calls for seeds to be strewn in containers rather than the garden. You can plant this way, too, but then the little plants need to be removed from the containers and transplanted into either a larger container or into the garden.
If you have never tried the method, you should, because it is fun. However, I am in the Southeastern U.S., which has fairly moderate winters, so I skip the protective containers and go straight to the garden.
How to plant seeds in the winter garden
Prepare the soil
Check the general guidelines in my Good Garden Soil article if your garden is new. Otherwise, remove weeds, amend the planting area with compost, and mix in your organic fertilizer.
Soil texture — how fine or chunky the soil particles are — affects seed sprouting. Chunkier soils (like most clays) allow small seeds to slip down into cracks in the soil, so deep that they can’t break through to the surface. Texture is improved by a thick addition of compost. Try to add a layer of compost that is at least two inches thick, to mix into the top layer of the garden.
Soil fertility is important, too. That is why mixing organic fertilizer into the top several inches of soil is recommended, even after adding compost.
Setting in the seeds
Garden design and the characteristics of the mature plants both influence how I place the seeds.
For a crop like parsley that will be in the garden for a long time, I drop a pinch of seeds into a slight depression (fingerprint-size) in the soil in the exact spot where I want a plant to grow. Then, I sprinkle a little soil over the spot and press the area to firm the seeds into the ground before lightly watering.
For a crop like a short, leafy variety of dill that will be in the garden only a few months, I strew seeds more loosely across the small planting area that I have prepared. Then, I press those onto the soil before lightly watering. Pressing the seeds to the soil cuts back on the odds they will wash away in the next rain.
“Strewing” should take into account the final spacing. If you strew too many seeds, there will be some thinning to do. Keep in mind the recommended spacing for mature plants as you watch the seeds fall onto the soil. If you have tiny seeds, mixing them with some dry sand makes the strewing easier. This is the method I intend to use for a mixed flower/herb area this year.
For larger seeds like for beets, that need to be planted more deeply, I plant into individual little depressions. The depressions are made by poking a finger about a half-inch into the soil. Since I want my beets to grow about four inches apart, I poke the holes about four inches apart, drop a seed into each hole, push the top closed, press down on the whole area to firm the soil, then lightly water.
If your garden is larger, and the mere thought of crouching in the cold, damp garden to poke a hundred or so planting holes makes you miserable, you might consider borrowing or buying a seeder. When my garden was larger than it is now, my Earthway Garden Seeder made speedy work of putting seeds into the ground at the right spacing and depth.
Transplanting cool-season crops in February
When I told someone last week that I already had transplanted lettuce and radicchio seedlings into the garden, I was asked, “but what if they die in a hard freeze?”
My response: “I have more seeds.”
Actually, most winters, setting in little plants this early would be riskier. So far, though, we have not had a drop down below 20 degrees F. The ground in shadier parts of the yard is cold, but the soil in the space I prepared for these seedlings was only cool.
In addition, I took the precaution of setting up one of those little folding fences around the area and wrapped the fence with plastic, to make it easier to cover the space if very cold weather arrived.
Both of these crops are cold-hardy, and last week was warm. The plants had a solid six days in warm weather to settle in. They will be fine.
The last consideration for these plants is nutrients. Leafy green vegetables are most delicious when they grow quickly, which means they will benefit from some extra fertilizer. This patch (and the rocket and the spinach) will be getting some additional nitrogen in the form of a fish fertilizer, to encourage that speedier growth.