Before the Thaw: Greening Those Winter Blues

It’s March in upstate New York. The days are chilly and the nights can still be in the single digits. It’s been a long winter and even the three feet of snow still covering the ground looks weary of its lingering residency. Despite the arctic conditions in my backyard, I see buds on the yellow birch, hear songbirds in the deceivingly warm morning light, and have even spotted a robin bouncing along the snowdrifts with an optimism that I envy. 

The garden beds are weeks away from even being visible and the greenhouse is still stacked with firewood. Inside, I struggle to keep humidity levels at 40% and all glass surfaces are coated with wood stove dust and mineralization residue from the humidifier, no matter how often I wipe them. These are the everyday woes of late winter, yet there is another smell in the air today, aside from wood stove and cooped-up dog: the earthy sweetness of soil.

My kitchen table, a scrubbed wooden thing that squeaks and sways under my movements, has been taken over with seed packets and trays, germination mix and wine corks, which I penetrate with toothpicks and use as seedling markers. I sit before it all, waiting for the loose, absorbent mix in each cell to moisten from water in the bottom of the tray below as I label each cork with the names of onions, brassicas, greens, and eggplant.

While there is not much work to be done outside just yet, there is an abundance of planning to occupy my time. The growing season up here in Zone 4 is fleeting. The rule of [green] thumb in these parts is to plant out by June 1 and harvest through September or, if we are lucky, into October. Though our season is limited, we still successfully produce a myriad of flowers, fruits, and vegetables. 

If you’re a passionate gardener, like myself, you value every moment spent germinating, cultivating, planting, maintaining, and harvesting. I spend the cold months flipping through seed catalogues and pining to dig in the dirt, so that by the time late winter comes around, I am more restless than ever to get out in the garden. 

My cabin fever is what motivates me to start most of my plants from seed. Suddenly, my growing season is extended by several months and while I may not yet be able to use hoe and shovel, my house is brightened by new growth. The sight of those verdant seedlings emerging from the soil is medicine for the soul and I cherish each sprout as a new friend. 

If you don’t have the time or space to devote to starting your garden from seed, fret not. There are still many ways to keep occupied during these early months. Garden planning is as essential as fertilizer. Knowledge of crop rotation has become invaluable to my success in the garden. For the first few years, I did not spend time learning about it, but the more I continued to read, the more I realized how important it was for the health and yield of my plants. Crop rotation and companion planting are subjects with a vast wealth of information available. It can seem a little overwhelming when you’re becoming acquainted with the practices, but I admit, I have to give a great deal of credit to technology. 

For the last three years, I have enlisted the help of a wonderful app, courtesy of Mother Earth News, Grow Planner by developer Growing Interactive. It not only helps you to customize the layout of your garden, with beautiful graphics in an easy-to-use format, but offers varietal facts from many seed companies in the extensive plant catalogue. The app also saves and logs my gardens from previous years so that when I am planning for the current year, it will alert me to incompatibility in crop rotation so that I can avoid soil discrepancies with certain plants, like tomatoes, whose health and yield could be affected if planted in last year’s pepper garden.

If you’re not technologically inclined, there are a plethora of gardening books out there. The subject matter is seemingly endless and it can be a little overwhelming to find one that is informative, yet uncomplicated. I recommend Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening: The Indispensable Green Resource for Every Gardener edited by Fern Marshall Bradley, Barbara W. Ellis, and Ellen Phillips. I find myself referring to it all year long, preferring its solid reliability to exhaustive internet searches. It’s easy to read and and I love that it focuses on organic methods, the way gardening should be. 

March may be cold and barren up here in the north, but it can be one of the most beneficial times to learn. Whether you start from seed or purchase plants at a garden center, it’s important to have a plan. A single afternoon spent reading or researching is a worthy investment when it comes to your garden practice. In gardening, we become stewards to the earth. When we spend the time to nourish our gardens with effort and knowledge, we are rewarded tenfold with beauty, food, and clean air. Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall; it’s always the right time to propagate a relationship with the earth.