Early Spring marks a watershed in the garden. Instead of shutting down more and more, the world is moving toward new growth. This is the time to plant or prune trees and shrubs before they come out of dormancy and start to grow.
What's growing outdoors now is mostly perennials, bulbs, or biennials—established plants that have stored-up energy from last year. Kale, carrots, daffodils, onions, beets, turnips, foxgloves, mullein, and asparagus are all getting ready to make a flower stalk and set seed before summer. You can harvest leaves and flower shoots from kale, collards, turnips, and Asian greens that have overwintered in they garden. The trick is to get some new seeds started and producing by the time they all quit.
In our gardens, climates from around the globe collide. The gardener works with several very different kinds of seeds this time of year, with very different life cycles.
Most of the seed-starting information out there lists plants one by one. All that detail quickly blurs into a mountain of confusing instructions and fussy details. Instead, let's look at the patterns, so you can go beyond those you already know and get more use from the land available to you.
Our beloved tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants (tropical perennials grown as summer annuals) need a long, warm season. Frost will kill them. We start these indoors from February through April, for transplant 6-8 weeks later. We make artificial tropics with grow lights, heat mats, and indoor sowing. We water them to reproduce the summer rain of their homelands.
Beans, squash, melons, sunflowers, okra, zinnias, and marigolds grow so fast they can be direct-sown in warm soil, (or started indoors 3-4 weeks early.) Frost will kill them, so their strategy is to grow and make seeds quickly before cold stops them. We won't plant them yet, but dry-summer gardeners will need to make provision for irrigating them.
Our traditional spring and fall crops--cultivated for centuries in Europe and Western Asia--are the opposite. Biennials like cabbage, Brussels sprouts, carrots, parsnips, onions beets, chard, kale, rutabagas, and so on, make leaves and roots in late summer, live over the winter, and set seed in spring. Their seeds fall and sprout in summer, they make a rosette of leaves that feed the root until frost, and they are adapted to survive winter so they can bloom and make seed the next spring when warmth returns. Many are mainstays of the spring and fall garden.
Italy, Spain, and the Middle East--as well as much of the Pacific Coast--have a winter rain/summer dry pattern. Lettuce, spinach, peas, broccoli, radishes, chick peas, favas, mustard (including the Asian Greens,) barley, oats, and wheat are all hardwired for growing during the rainy seasons of fall, winter, and spring. Most like spring planting and mature quickly, so we plant them several times for successive harvests.
Spinach, California Wildflowers, Mustard, Poppies and Wheat are all examples of adaptation to this climate type. They will sprout with the first rains and snatch at chances to make some growth whenever the soil is 40 degrees or more. Once the weather starts to warm, they race to mature while there is still moisture in the soil. To them, warmth is a signal of impending death. We artificially prolong their life with irrigation and selective breeding, but none of these are really summer plants.
Those of us who live in areas without summer rain and want to be prepared for a future with less electricity, less water, and less plastic would do well to learn how to grow and store wheat, peas, barley, favas, mustards, scallions, endives, and other traditional fall/winter/spring crops.
All four types of vegetable are familiar to anyone who gardens. After centuries as farm crops, they sprout and grow quickly when planted. To grow more kinds of things, and use more niches on your land, you need different seed-starting skills. You need to work with wilder seeds.
A shady corner under fruit trees is no place for annual vegetables, but it could host many temperate perennials that are beautiful and useful: lemon balm for tea; wild strawberries; Good King Henry (a perennial vegetable); self-heal and skullcap (flowering medicinal herbs) currant bushes or berries. All of them are from temperate climates with freezing winters, and all of them need cold-conditioning before they will sprout.
Just like trees and perennials, seeds can go dormant, (which means “sleep.”) Besides tropical seeds and annual seeds, there is another kind—seeds that need to sleep in cold, moist soil before spring wakes them. They sprout when the soil warms up, but if you plant them in warm soil, they won't sprout. Where they come from, a seed that sprouts as soon as it ripens in summer will be doomed—the young plant wouldn't survive winter. So they have developed coatings that keep them from sprouting until they have experienced winter and then spring. Sitting out the winter in a seed packet doesn't count—they have to be in moist soil. See the seeds you cold-condition here.
I encourage you to explore the world of these perennial flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and even trees. You can plant them now in pots outdoors, or you can give them an artificial winter in a bag of soil in the fridge. Herbs like Lavender, Valerian, Nettle, Meadowsweet, and Catnip; popular flowers like Milkweed, Catmint, and Bee Balm; perennial vegetables like Lovage, Alexanders and Good King Henry--all need a period of moist cold before sprouting.
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range of Northern California. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin, commercial fishing, and working with seeds. She is the proprietor of Quail Seeds.