bird on snow-covered branches

It’s… not spring time. Not by a long shot, even here in the Midwest where winter doesn’t last that long. Still, even though spring isn’t yet in our reach, any gardener will tell you that as soon as the holidays end, our thoughts turn to one thing only: the garden. It’s a bit early to think in terms of planting; some of us can’t even see our garden plots for all the snow on top. But there are things we can do to satisfy that gardening itch, in the bleak midwinter. The busier you stay, the sooner spring will get here.

1. Set up your composting area.
If you’re not composting yet, now is the time to set yourself up for one of the best things you can do as a gardener. Compost is the black gold of the gardener’s world; sure, you can purchase bags of it at the local nursery or co-op, but you can also create it yourself out of food and yard waste. You’ll be using that waste instead of dumping it in the trash can, you’ll be saving money, and you’ll be loving on your garden. There’s really no point in discussion.

So find a nice, flat area somewhere near the house or garden and enlist some help in setting up a very basic composting system, which doesn’t require much but air, fresh material, and something to hold it all in (an old trash can with holes poked in it, a three-sided structure of hay bales or cement blocks, a small area of mesh fencing).

2. Start saving containers for those seedlings.
If you’ve always been a “last-minute gardener” – purchasing your leggy seedlings and popping them in the ground right before the weather shoots up to high heat – then this is your year to get a headstart and enjoy every moment of spring gardening. Start saving small containers (egg cartons are superb) for those seedlings you can grow yourself; in many areas of the country, you’ll want to get those seeds growing in February so they’ll be ready to plant in the ground by April or May. Check this planting calendar from The Old Farmer’s Almanac for the right planting dates for your area (just type your location in the box).

3. Order your seeds.
This may be every gardener’s favorite part: browsing the seed catalogs and websites and picking out all the delicious, beautiful plants to grow this year. Order your seeds now so you’ll have them in time to start planting them indoors. There are several fabulous organic seed suppliers online. You can order from the website or request a catalog to browse at your leisure:

4. Prep your soil as much as possible.
Depending on your location, the only soil prep you may be able to do at this point is just say a little prayer for it. But in many parts of the country, days of snow and ice will be interspersed with days of warmer weather and thawed ground. On those days, get out there and do as much work as possible to break up the soil. If you have a larger garden plot, getting a tiller in there on a good day can be extremely helpful. Just digging up the soil is good, as it aerates and loosens and prepares it for planting. But you can also work in compost (well-rotted), manure (well-cured), or other additives depending on the type of soil you have. Just make sure they’re organic.

5. Get your garden tools and potting area ready.
Claim a corner in the garage, workshop, or patio as your own. Pull out that old, dusty table from the attic or spare bedroom. Give it a bright, cheery coat of paint on a sunny day, set it up, and you’ve got a brand-new potting area ready. Next find all those garden tools and get them ready for spring-time use by scrubbing them down with something a bit abrasive (a Scotchbrite or other scrubbing pad works well) to remove any caked-on dirt or rust. Give them a light coat of oil on the metal parts, then store them in a bucket of sand to keep them rust-free and sharp until planting time comes.

image: John Linwood