Fill Up Your Garden Heart: Five Crops to Start this Valentine's Day

by Doug Muller

In northern lands, February is still very much winter: cold winds, below-freezing days (and weeks), and ice-entombed soil lying dormant. This is the time of year that challenges our hearts to keep the faith: to build trust, patience, and good spirits in the face of a temporary (but seemingly e n d l e s s s s s s) condition known as winter.

One way to fill your heart this Valentine's Day is to jump straight into garden tasks. For ambitious growers with an itch to see some green, mid-February can mark the start of the gardening year.

Here are five crops to start this Valentine's Day (or anytime the rest of the month). Plus: read to the bottom for some expert tips on the special challenges of starting seeds in deep winter.

  1. Onions, Scallions, Leeks, Chives, and Garlic Chives. All alliums are happy with an early start—but especially bulbing onions, which benefit from as early a start as you can give them. Though it's possible to succeed with onions by direct sowing onion seed as soon as the soil can be worked, most gardeners have more reliable results by starting the seeds indoors anytime from early February until mid-March. Scallions, leeks, chives, and garlic chives also do well started this early, but, because they don't depend on daylength signals to initiate bulbing (as onions do), they are far more forgiving of timing. They will even do well sown straight into summer for harvest as mature scallions or young leeks in the fall.
  2. Parsley and Celery. Parsley, though extremely easy to grow, is slow to germinate. Depending on conditions, it can take up to two weeks. It also grows rather slowly for the first week or two of its life before taking off and growing steadily and strongly into big showy plants. This slow early start means that any extra days you can provide at the start of the season will mean fewer days until fresh parsley graces every summer dish. Celery is a close relative, and though it tends to germinate a little quicker, it also grows quite slowly early in life and rewards a February start with harvests in June and July.
  3. Echinacea. Like many perennial flowers, Echinacea benefits from exposure to cold (also known as stratification) before it will germinate. You can refrigerate the seed—after it has been sown in a moist seed-starting mix—but why not let nature do the work? Sow the seeds into a moist mix in a small pot. Throw the pot in a plastic bag so that it doesn't dry out, and put it somewhere outside. You can ignore it for a few weeks, then start paying attention, being sure that the strengthening sun isn't overheating the pot. Seedlings will emerge slowly as spring begins to dawn. Once they have a couple true leaves, pot them up into their own small pots.
  4. Rembrandt Snapdragons
  5. Snapdragons. Itty bitty snapdragon seedlings take their sweet time to get moving. They are also fairly cold-hardy, so giving them a start in February will give you respectably-sized seedlings by mid- to late-April, at which point (in a normal year) they are happy to move outside in most northern/temperate zones. This also means the earliest blooms! Get ready for gorgeous bouquets from mid-June on.
  6. Hot Peppers. Unlike the other crops in this list, hot peppers have no hardiness to cold. In fact, although they will grow in our warm, humid summers, they would prefer to reside in a tropical or sub-tropical location with year-round warmth. One way to ease their anguish at their short northern lives is to extend it on both ends. Getting seeds started in mid-February with as much warmth as you can provide means robust plants at transplant time (hot peppers grow more slowly than tomatoes or sweet peppers and generally demand more heat). At the end of the season, dig up your favorite plants, put them in pots, and bring them indoors for extra weeks of fresh spicy treats. When they begin to fade, harvest all the peppers and string them up to dry (or pickle them!). Hot peppers just give and give and give, especially when they get a good early start.

Some things to keep in mind when starting seeds in February:

  • Many garden centers (and certainly many big-box stores) do not yet have their spring stock of potting soils and seed-starting mixes available. Or, if they do, you may find that their stock is outside, frozen solid. So, plan a little extra time for locating and, if necessary, thawing out any mixes that you do not have on hand. (Then make a note to self for next October to set aside, in a dry place, a few big bags of compost-amended seed-starting mix at the end of this season for easy use next winter.)
  • Starting seeds indoors in February can mean some extra challenges. With solidly cold days still at hand, rooms can experience chilly drafts that slow down plant growth. Consider a heating mat, or keep the temperature in one room of your house a bit warmer (shoot for 68-74 degrees Fahrenheit) to keep plants in a state of active growth.
  • If your seed-starting setup is an outdoor cold frame, February can be especially challenging, as watering cans and hoses will all freeze repeatedly, and it can be pretty difficult to keep a cold frame above freezing on very cold nights. It's best to limit February efforts to indoors and wait until March to move to the cold frame.
  • As true in February as any time: a windowsill is not enough light for starting seeds indoors. For best results, you'll need a seed-starting setup with a fluorescent light fixture or (it's fun to dream!) a heated greenhouse. :)
  • Don't start tomatoes yet! Unless you live somewhere with a last frost date in early April, mid-February is too early to start tomatoes. You will end up with leggy plants that need potting up into giant pots before it's safe to move them outside—or they will turn yellow and diseased before you do so. Have faith: tomato time will come! But for now, just wait.

Take heart: with a community of green allies leading you out of winter, you are sure to have a season full of garden love.