For many gardeners and growers, January is a month of rest. This does not mean, however, that there is not work to do. Here are ten things you can do in your garden in the middle of winter to prepare for the growing season ahead.
1) Get your soil tested. If you have not already taken a soil sample, now is the time. Check with your local county agricultural extension agent to pick up instructions and, sometimes, a box to mail to the soil lab. You can consider sending soil to a lab that checks for organic matter in addition to the standard soil components. Ideally, any amendments to the soil will have time to soak in and get to work before you plant.
2) Clean and sharpen your tools. When is the last time you cleaned your shovels, trowels, and pruners? The winter season is an excellent time to get dirt off of your implements, brush them down with a wire brush, and sharpen them with a file. Make sure to oil wooden handles, as well. Your pruners should be cleaned and sharpened regularly as you use them so that you are not transmitting plant disease pathogens and are making clean cuts. I use isopropyl alcohol to clean my pruners between cuts when I clip my dahlias.
3) Plan out your garden. Do you know where you are growing? Have you figured out what flowers you want to grow? Do you know how many of each flower you will need? Now is the time to put pencil to paper, map out your beds, and figure out where you're going to squeeze in that extra dahlia and a few more zinnias.
4) Make a new garden bed. Are you expanding your garden this year? Consider making it no-till. Assuming the ground is not covered in 6 feet of snow, to make a new bed you would put down a layer of cardboard followed by compost. Cover all of this with landscape fabric for a few months. After your last spring frost, pull back the landscape fabric and plant annuals into the compost. Worms love cardboard and will have worked the compost into the soil below the landscape fabric, creating a perfect environment for your first-year bed. Consider broadforking and cover cropping at the end of the season to open up the bed even more and get some nitrogen-fixing plants growing.
5) Order seeds. If you haven't already ordered your seeds, go ahead and do it now. If you wait until spring, a lot of seed varieties will be sold out and your window to get seeds started will shrink considerably.
6) Figure out sowing and planting dates. Once you have figured out what kind of flowers you want to grow and have ordered them, you need to figure out when you will plant. Take a look at the seed packet. It lets you know how to start the seeds (direct seed or transplant) and when to sow the seeds. The packet also tells you how long it takes for the seed to germinate. Working from your last average frost date, you can figure out when you need to plant and when you will need to start seeds. Start more seeds than you will be planting. Put dates into your calendar or planner. Keep a spreadsheet if that will help.
7) Begin seeds that take a long time to germinate and grow. Lisianthus are renowned for their slow growth. If you want to try to plant them from seed, now is the time to start.
8) Begin hardy annual seeds. Hardy annuals are plants that like cold weather. Many need a season of cold in order to bloom in the spring. While fall is the best time to plant hardy annuals, there is another window in early spring. Depending on where you live, if your ground is workable, you can begin to sow those seeds now to have spring flowers.
9) Strategize. It is always good to think ahead as much as possible. Do you have a lot of weed pressure in the summer? Think about ways to combat that now (landscape fabric, regular passes through the garden with your collinear hoe, a soil drench that targets the soil deficiencies indicated by weeds in your garden). Do you know that you have a Japanese beetle problem? Consider putting down milky spore in the spring and being attentive to when the beetles first show up so that you can be ready the following year. Look up ways to deal with Japanese beetles that don't involve spraying insecticides. (A cup of soapy water and your fingers). Know when Japanese beetles are less active and easier to remove. Think ahead now about your garden needs and problem areas. Now is the time to do your research.
10) Read, read, read. Get your hand on as many books about plants, soil, and flower farming/gardening as possible. Check out your local library as they are a treasure trove for gardening books. Look for articles, magazines, and forums that can help you with your specific gardening issues.
Enjoy this season of planning, dreaming, and new beginnings! May your garden bring you much joy, even in the dead of winter.