Hartley Magazine

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Hooray for catalog season

There were more catalogs than Christmas cards in the mailbox this year, starting back in November. I could have spent all my cookie-baking time dreaming of next year’s garden, but that is a treat for January. So I dutifully let the catalogs pile up until the right time, when the tree has been ground up for mulch and the New Year brings new garden dreams.

I don’t actually start a lot of seeds. I don’t have that much space for new plants, especially vegetables. But I can’t let a long, cold February go by without getting a few hopeful green things growing under lights in the guest room or the basement.

Here’s the problem: It’s so easy to jump the gun and to overdo.

The colorful catalogs that keep a gardener warm in January can easily tempt you to buy many times as many seeds as you could ever possibly use. I know gardeners who claim not to have bought seed for years; they get all the new varieties they could ever use in seed swaps from the people who buy too many. Fortunately, seeds are relatively cheap, compared to designer shoes, electronic gadgets and other obsessions, so a little seed shopaholism won’t do you in. The more serious peril is from planting too early.

It’s easy to talk yourself into believing that you need to start tomato seeds in February, just because you want to grow tomatoes and you want to grow something NOW. But that can lead you to transplant them to the garden too early. Unless you have a greenhouse or a cold frame where you can give the plants some room, by late April your February tomato sprouts will be huge gangly things that have outgrown their space under the lights. It can seem like a good idea to just go ahead and plant them – into too-cold soil where they will languish or die.

Successful seed-starting requires iron discipline. You need to parse the instructions on the seed packet and follow them. Get a calendar and count back from your area’s average last frost date to figure out when it’s really time to start seeds. Tomatoes, for example, need eight weeks from germination to transplanting. In Chicago, our last frost comes, on average, about May 8 to 15, and it’s smart to wait a couple of weeks for semitropical plant such as tomatoes and peppers. So it’s folly to start tomatoes before the middle of March.

What, then, can I start in the winter? Earnest, healthy cold-weather crops such as spinach are really better direct-sown in the garden. The seeds I buy in January to start indoors in February are long shots and fantasies. Most – like oddball varieties of petunias and impatiens, which take 13 or 14 weeks – are not that different from what I will be able to buy in flats in the parking lot of grocery store in May for little money and far less trouble. But the seed-starting of deep winter is not a rational pursuit, and Lord knows it’s not about saving money. It’s all for the dreams induced by January catalogs and the crazy hope that comes from seeing a fresh green tendril curl up out of the soil.