Late Winter? Don’t Despair


This has been one of those late winter years when Old Man Winter is reluctant to let go. Hard frosts, heavy snow, sleet, major windstorms, high rainfall – we’ve had it all. Under normal circumstances, we would now be enjoying daytime temperatures around 70. My various cool-season vegetables would be at least six to eight inches high. Not this year. The soil in the garden beds is too soggy to add amendments. Branches and immature pine cones, broken by snow loads or high winds, litter the garden. If it were not for the crocus, daffodils and hyacinths, you would never know we’re in the middle of the spring gardening season.

Late Winter Flexibility and Planning

So what do you do when your food production plan is stymied by a late winter? I’ve noted a time or two in my writings that flexibility is key to gardening. If you have a greenhouse (which I don’t) you can grow leafy greens and such, not to mention starting warm-season plants like tomatoes when the snow lies deep. In the absence of such niceties, the key is to plan ahead and take small risks. It helps if you’re a seed-saver, as you can afford to use extra seeds to beat the vagaries of the weather. It’s a little tougher when you want a head start on the aforementioned warm-season plantings, but still doable.

Start in the Fall

Spring planting preparation starts in the fall. Add soil amendments – you don’t need to work them in, just spread them on your beds. Cover the beds with mulch or compost. I grow a lot of things in big pots, old water troughs or bathtubs, and half barrels. It’s easier on my elderly back, helps with succession planting and minimizes soil disturbance. During the gardening year, the soil settles below the rim of the containers. I top off the pot with compost in the fall. In January, I grab a few hours to seed things like lettuce, cole crops, carrots and radishes. I sow thickly and plan on losing some of the seedlings, although it’s surprising how many germinate and do well no matter what the weather is like.

Warm-Season Crops

For solanums, melons and squash, I use a similar approach. If you have lots of seeds, it’s easy to plant some in the late fall after you’ve had a few frosts. Where do you think volunteer seedlings come from? The cold weather and short days will stop them germinating until conditions are right. Plant several pots a couple of weeks apart. If a late frost gets one batch, the next batch may make it. All too often we humans try to tweak things to get earlier crops when we would be better off to let Ma Nature do her thing. I don’t need dozens of early tomatoes, so if even two or three make it to maturity from these early plantings, I’m ahead of the game. Not to mention that I’m selecting for plants that will germinate under harsh conditions.

Other Late Winter Strategies

You may be wondering why I don’t mention late winter strategies that involve hot beds, row covers, plastic containers full of water or cloches. First, all of these require a lot of extra work – and I’m efficient because I’m lazy. Second, I can’t get excited about using a lot of non-renewable plastic. Third, our strongest winter winds come barreling down through the canyon and straight across my garden. I have found it nearly impossible to keep such winds from wreaking havoc, especially with row covers and cloches. And finally, in the winter I leave for work before sunrise and get home after dark. If there are problems with the season extenders, I’m not going to know it unless I traipse out with a flashlight.

Let the garden do most of the work while I sit in the warm with a good book? Sounds like a plan to me.

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