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What To Do When It’s Too Cold To Garden

Winter can be a bummer for those of us with a green thumb, but there’s plenty of garden activity to keep you busy in the off season.

by Elizabeth SchollJanuary 18, 2016
PHOTO: Marcy Leigh/Flickr

You’ve planted garlic. You’ve gathered herbs and harvested late-season vegetables. You’ve spread compost and mulched your beds. Maybe you even planted a shrub or tree or a cover crop. The growing season has wound down, and the gardens are settling in for a winter’s rest. Aside from counting the days until spring, what can urban farmers and gardeners do when the ground is frozen and it’s just too cold to spend much time outdoors? Plenty, that’s what.

1. Grow Indoors

Many herbs can be grown inside on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights.

If you’re like many devout gardeners, you’ve developed attachments to some plants that can’t make it through the winter in your growing zone. You may have opted to bring your favorite plants indoors, in which case you’ll need to make sure they get the proper care to survive until spring.

Bringing plants from outdoor to indoor conditions is a shock to their systems, and they might not look too good for awhile. Don’t get discouraged—yellowing leaves is common, and with luck and good care, they will bounce back.

If you have a very sunny room to overwinter plants in, you’re lucky. If not, you may need to get some artificial lights to keep your plants going through the winter. If you’ve taken cuttings from annual herbs and flowers, such as basil, savory, rosemary, mints, coleus, scented geraniums, oregano, sage and thyme, you can pot them and continue to take cuttings as they grow. Make sure your overwintering plants have enough humidity, as indoor heat can be very dry. Place plants on a dish with gravel or small stones, and keep the stones moist.

If you have a basement or garage, a third option is to let some plants go dormant. In this case, the temperature should ideally stay around 50 degrees F. A lot of light is not necessary, but the plants should not be in complete darkness.

2. Read And Plan

Take the winter to read gardening books and browse seed catalogs.
Thomas Angerman/Flickr

Once the winter has really set in, most of us look ahead and begin to dream about next spring. The seed companies are onto this and time their catalog arrivals perfectly: just after the holiday craze is over and the reality of a long stretch of no outdoor gardening sets in.

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This is actually the perfect down time you’ve been waiting for. Make a cup of herbal tea—maybe from your garden herbs—curl up on the couch, and start browsing. You’ll no doubt make a list much longer than what you’ll realistically be able to afford and/or have the time and space to plant, but no worries, you’ll have plenty of time to tweak it and whittle it down to size.

This is also a great time to delve into those gardening books you’ve been meaning to get around to reading. For me, there’s usually at least one I ask for as a holiday gift, and then all the ones I buy during the season and barely look at before they get stashed on a shelf for less-busy days.

Ideas for the upcoming season will soon be brewing. This is a great time to plan that new bed, pollinator garden or permaculture guild. As you can’t run out and start digging, you’lll be able to do more thorough research, which almost always leads to a greater chance of success.

3. Start Seeds

Start seeds indoors sometime between January and March depending on your growing zone.
Susy Morris/Flickr

Depending upon where you live, seed starting can begin as early as January. For those in colder regions, February or March is the time to start many seeds. Most seed packets have information on planting according to growing zones. Seed starting offers tremendous benefits in terms of both the great variety of seeds available versus what you find when you purchase starts or plants, as well as a huge savings compared to the cost of buying plants.

While seeds can be started on a very sunny windowsill, artificial lighting offers the best success rate. Fancy setups are not necessary; shop lights with standard fluorescent bulbs do the job quite well.

Good timing is essential for success with seeds. When you plant your seeds in trays, keep in mind that these will become larger plants, and will take up more space under the lights or on the windowsill. Plan the number of seeds you start with your space in mind. You want your plants to be well-established when it comes time for them to be outdoors, but not too much sooner or you’ll run out of room inside. Many seeds, particularly herbs, leafy greens and other cold season vegetables can be started outdoors, even when the temperatures are still way too cold for warm-season vegetables.

4. Go To Farm Conferences And Garden Shows

Attending regional flower shows or conferences like ones hosted by the Northeast Organic Farm Association, which has winter events in several states, is a perfect way to beat the winter blues, network with other farmers and gardeners, learn something new, and come home inspired and ready to plan the upcoming season.

Many of these shows also have large vendor areas where you can pick up seeds, tools, books and all sorts of things you never even knew you needed. Check farming and gardening associations in your area to find conferences and shows nearby.

5. Prune

Winter is the best time to prune trees and shrubs.
Todd Mecklem/Flickr

Did you know that winter is the best time to prune most deciduous trees and shrubs? According to the Chicago Botanical Garden, 90 percent of deciduous plants can be pruned during the winter, starting as soon as the plants go dormant.

On a sunny winter day, get out your pruners, look at your small trees and shrubs with a critical eye, and notice their natural shapes, which is much easier to do at this time, when the plants do not have their leaves and blooms. Keep in mind the best pruning jobs look as if nothing was done at all—so, be conservative, and keep stepping back to look at your work. You can always trim a little more, but if you take too much off, you can’t put it back on.

6. Maintain Your Tools

Clean tools and protect them by rubbing them with linseed oil.
Melvin “Buddy” Baker/Flickr

While the best intentioned among us know that cleaning tools is something that should have been done back in the fall, we might have not gotten around to it with all the other tasks at hand. It’s not too late.

First things first: Make sure you store your in a place protected from moisture. If they still have soil on them, use a stiff brush to remove the dried, caked on dirt. Boiled linseed oil can be used to coat both the metal and wooden parts of tools to prevent rusting blades and cracking handles. Because most boiled linseed oil has a solvent added to prevent hardening in the container, allow 24 hours before using linseed-oil-treated tools in the garden. By this time, the solvent will have evaporated, and you can safely use your tools around edibles.

7. Enjoy Your Harvest

Take any abundant herbs and infuse them in oil or vinegar for both culinary and home use.
 latisha (herbmother)/Flickr

If you harvested bunches of herbs from your garden and now have an abundance you don’t really know what to do with, consider using them for oils or vinegars. You can use these for cooking, condiments or to give as host/hostess gifts during holiday parties. Dried herbs are recommended for infusing oils, as the moisture in herbs can cause rancidity in the oil.

To make an infused oil, place herbs in a jar and cover with oil, making sure they are totally immersed. Place jar in a saucepan 1/4 filled with water. Allow to simmer in the water bath for 4 hours. An alternative method, called cold infusion, is to cover your herbs with oil, close the jar, and allow to infuse in a warm place, such as a windowsill, for four to six weeks, shaking the jar gently every few days. For culinary use, oils should be refrigerated and used within a month. Herbal vinegars can be made in the same way as cold oil infusions, using vinegar instead of oil and allowing to steep for a month or more.

Herbs For Body Care

Many of the same herbs that make delicious flavorings, as well as those that fragrance the garden and attract pollinators, are also wonderful for body care. Rosemary and thyme are great for muscle aches and inflammation, lavender is relaxing and antibacterial, and sage is known for making hair thicker, shinier and stronger. Herbs can be blended with salts for both culinary use and as bath salts.

Although it sometimes seems an endless wait before the ground warms up enough to really get started growing again, there are always ways to bide time from season to season. While I sometimes regret our shorter growing season where I live in the Northeast, I often find myself thankful for the time off, which gives me the opportunity to do things I never have time for when I’m out working in the garden every day. 

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