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Ask a Master Gardener: When to start planting seeds

by Anakin Bush | December 31, 2022 at 4:00 a.m.

Although we've had some bitter cold weather, spring gardening is just around the corner. Here is some timely advice from James Quinn (retired) horticulture specialist to help get ready.

Fruits

The last half of February is the ideal time to prune fruit trees and grapes and if it stays cold, early March is excellent as well. Ideally, one wants to wait until all damaging winter weather has passed, that being weather where ice accumulation or heavy wet snow might damage woody tissue. An exception to this is if one had fire blight on apple or pear trees the previous spring/summer.

Fire blight bacterium is in remission during very cold weather, thus pruning during this period reduces the chance of spreading the disease. However, one should still sterilize pruning tools with one part bleach and nine parts water in between cuts (dry tools at end of day). One can also try to snap off diseased twigs during the winter cold. (For gardeners struggling with fire blight, the most critical time for prevention is applying streptomycin at flowering.)

Watch for rodent damage on fruit tree bark or for numerous holes at the base of the tree. Use baits or traps for control. Established fruit trees can be fertilized once the frost leaves the ground, typically at the end of February. And consider keeping any grape vine prunings to make into wreaths or other crafts, or give them to someone who would use them.

Anytime during these cold months is a good time to order bare root plants to establish in early spring. The companies will generally hold your order until the weather has warmed for safe shipping. With early establishment, less pampering is needed when dry hot weather hits.

Vegetables

Indoor winter seeding can be a good way to use a bit of gardening energy. A good start is to sprout a test sample of leftover seeds you plan to use in the spring. Roll up 10 seeds in a moist paper towel, keep moist (like in a ziplock bag) and at a warmish room temperature for a week. If at least half have not germinated, order new seed.

The first vegetable normally seeded is onions, which can be started anytime in February, the earlier the better. Bottom heat and supplementing with artificial light will reduce the time for producing nice transplants. Starting in the second week of February, celery can be seeded. In the last two weeks, the Cole crops can be seeded (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and Brussels sprouts) as well as lettuce; these should then be ready to transplant at the end of March.

If weather and soil conditions allow, you can try direct seeding a few items outside, like lettuce, peas, radish and spinach. This is easier if you tilled the soil in the fall. For early spring tillage, make sure the ground isn't too wet (or frozen). To test, squeeze a handful of soil and it should form a ball that crumbles easily. If it is sticky, then it is too wet and you should wait to work it; working wet soil damages the soil structure for the upcoming growing season and should be avoided if at all possible.

Flowers

Inspect summer flower bulbs to make sure they are not drying out. Remove any that show signs of rot. Geranium cuttings can be taken in February. In the last half of February, flowers like snapdragon, larkspur, sweet peas, and Shirley poppies can be planted where they are to grow. These plants need to start growing well before any warm weather starts. Tuberous begonias can also be started at this time, with "non-stop" varieties doing well in Missouri.

Other slow growing flower seed can be started indoors in the latter half of February, such as petunias, coleus, ageratum, geraniums, verbena, impatiens, and salvia. Again, bottom heat and supplementing with artificial light will reduce the time for producing nice transplants, and should improve the quality.

Trees and woody plants

Removing snow and ice from trees and shrubs is different. For snow, brush off heavy snow from branches and limbs to reduce damage, but for ice, let it melt away naturally. Trying to knock it off may damage the plant further.

Want a natural way to use your Christmas tree and reduce the spread of needles when removing from the house? Try cutting up the branches into 12- to 18-inch pieces, putting in a yard bag, and then use as mulch. The final trunk can be cut up and used in a fireplace once it dries.

As discussed in the fruit section, the end of February is a good time for pruning. For ornamentals, planting is a primary interest in the balance and shape of the plant; this is easier evaluated with no leaves.

Anytime in January and February, one can water evergreens if soil is dry and unfrozen, the latter condition more likely as February advances. At the end of February, dormant oils may be applied to ornamental trees and shrubs, if we have a mild day.

Lawns

One can frost seed in February, the idea being late snow and frost heaving will provide good seed-to-soil contact. The seed will lay there and wait for the soil to reach suitable temperature to germinate.

Happy gardening.

Peter Sutter is a lifelong gardening enthusiast and a participant in the MU Extension's Master Gardener program. Gardening questions can be sent to [email protected]

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