The New Year has come once again and brought with it the traditional cold weather January is known for. While this weather is great for certain activities; skiing, snowshoeing, staying indoors and catching up on TV shows and movies. For some, this time of year is a little less than exciting. Summer loving individuals who like nothing more than being outdoors getting your hands dirty, fear not! Your greenhouse, or garden, is still calling your name despite the occasionally freezing temperatures. Sure, much of the actual growing season is reserved for when the sun is out more than roughly 2.25 hours per day (Seattle averages only 70 hours of sun for the whole month of January). But this doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done this time of year! Gardening in January may be different and perhaps a bit difficult, but it’s still a possibility.
Cold temperatures can present themselves as quite the problem for winter gardening, especially when the ground starts to freeze. Snow starts to pile up and if not that, frost covers the lawn. Garden beds are still recovering from the flooding western Washington experienced over the fall (Bellingham, WA accumulated over 14 inches of rain in the month of November). I for one really hope that the farms around here can recover and have a successful growing season. Not only commercial farms, but I hope that anyone who grows anything (or at least tries to) will be able to do so this season with no major hiccups. With that in mind, I hope to part with you some wisdom, tips and tricks on how to set yourself up for gardening success come spring and summer by starting strong in January. This is the time for you to make life easier for your future self. There may not be much visible progress to be made (unless your current gardening space is a mess) but that doesn’t mean this work is fruitless! You just might have to wait a few months for your investments to mature, but you’re into gardening so that shouldn’t be anything new.
To start, let’s make sure you’re taking care of the ground first, that is of course, if you plan to use a traditional outdoor garden plot. If you wanted to grow some bulbs but forgot to do so in the late fall, tulips could potentially save you from your own procrastination. Tulip bulbs don’t mind cold temperatures as much as other flower varieties, as long as the ground itself isn’t frozen solid. If you can successfully put some bulbs in the earth, be sure to cover the plot with an extra two to three inches of mulch to help keep the garden properly insulated. If you live in Washington, or a similarly wet climate, you likely don’t need to worry about watering your bulbs so much, Mother Nature should take care of that for you. If you plant outdoors in a dryer climate, make sure you monitor how much water you are giving your bulbs are be careful not to overwater. While too little water can kill off a batch of bulbs, too much water can cause rot which will also kill your future flowers. No one wants to put in a few months’ worth of work only for your flowers to not pop up come spring. If you have decided to start your bulbs indoors prior to moving them into an outdoor pot or perhaps greenhouse, watch your starts for signs of color. Once the coloration has begun, move the starts to a sunny spot that maintains a minimum temperature of 65°F.
Did you bring a bunch of plants inside during the fall to keep them from dying this winter? Why not start propagating them? Geraniums, fuchsias, chrysanthemums, among others are all great plants to take cuttings from in January. Cuttings, for those uninitiated, are those plants that look essentially like stems with a leaf that are often sitting in a cup of water. They are gathered by cutting a segment from a living plant that includes at least one leaf node. Cuttings can be kept in water to help streamline root system production, or be placed directly into soil if time is not an issue. If time is an issue, we’ve got something for you. Rooting hormones are a great way to jumpstart the root production process in your cuttings, which will really speed up your time frame. Rooting is an integral part of a plant’s lifecycle and therefore very important for you to ensure your cuttings are getting the proper care and attention they need. This is a great way to make sure you’re all set for the sunny seasons ahead.
Perhaps your New Year’s resolution was to eat healthier and you wanted to grow some wholesome snacks. Why not plant some grape starts? Grapes are relatively hardy when it comes to cold temperatures, so long as you can keep a minimum temperature of 45°F. Cool temperature vegetables like leafy greens, onions, leeks, carrots and cauliflower seeds can all be sewn successfully during the month of January. Make sure you keep the seedlings in proper conditions (temperature, light and water exposure). Heat mats are a great way to speed up the germination process so you can start more plants in far less time. Transplant the seedlings to soil once the roots have developed and the weather in your chosen area is hospitable for your chosen plants. Alternatively, hydroponic systems, while requiring more water have been shown to speed up the entire process of some leafy greens as well as a few smaller tomato and pepper varieties. Similarly, these systems require that they are kept at proper temperatures as well as necessary water and nutrient levels.
If you are intending on growing your plants inside of a greenhouse, naturally you will want to take some precautions to protect some of your temperature sensitive plants. Heat saver fans are a great way to keep heat in your greenhouse from congregating in the roof instead of down at plant level. If you’re looking to save some energy, you can stop trying to heat the whole greenhouse and just ensure the pots and soil stay warm enough to maintain the minimum temperature required for your chosen plants. Along that vein, while they may be few and far between, take advantage of sunny days! The sun is pretty capable of providing some warmth for your plants, for free, if it is out for extended periods of time. Open your vents in the morning if the sun is shining to prevent unnecessary moisture from generating in your greenhouse and breeding mold in and around your plants. Make sure to close your vents around midday when the temperature begins to drop to ensure as much heat as possible is trapped in your greenhouse for the impending cold night. Move any cold sensitive plants away from the walls and windows of your greenhouse at night to help keep them from freezing. While the greenhouse as a whole may not be all that cold, the walls and roof are going to be at least a few degrees colder than the ambient temperature in the room due to their direct exposure to the elements outdoors.
On the other hand, perhaps your greenhouse structure is less of a working garden and more of a hangout spot. We’ve had clients put faux fireplace heaters and lawn chairs in their solariums, there’s a few plants, but they’re outnumbered by pieces of furniture. No judgement here, imagine being able watch the snow fall all around you while you’re warm and cozy inside your (potentially) glass house. Just don’t go throwing stones, even if your walls are made of polycarbonate… Others have used our buildings to house their hot tubs and spas, doesn’t that sound nice right now? I just suggest building the structure around the tub if you look to duplicate this idea, something tells me a hot tub isn’t going to fit through the door without modifications. All this just to say, there’s options if you don’t just want to garden inside your new freestanding structure (the term for greenhouse often changes depending upon what you use it for. A pinery is a greenhouse that grows pineapples, for example).
Despite the cold weather and gray skies January brings, your greenhouse should be far from dormant during this month. This time gives you plenty of opportunity to help out your future self and make things easier come spring. Cleaning now will help you from getting discouraged when the weather gets nicer. I picture a cluttered greenhouse with neglected flower beds whose soil is far too dry and nutrient deprived to ever produce anything of substance without copious amounts of fertilizer. Starting the germination process for your seeds, coupled with appropriate rooting hormone use, can potentially lead you to two growing seasons in one year if you plan properly. If you want nothing to do with gardening this year after two years of Covid gardening (can’t say I blame you), transform your greenhouse into the ultimate outdoor getaway. It’s a great way to leave the house without having to actually leave your house. Greenhouses with proper heating and décor can pretty easily mimic an après-ski bar on a snowy day. Not snowing? No problem, you can still go have a drink in your greenhouse (don't worry, I won’t tell your significant other). With some creativity and interior design skills a greenhouse could make for a very nice place to escape without having to get in your car. In these days, everyone wants to get away from it all. Whether your escape is gardening or you just want to hang out somewhere that isn’t your house but also isn’t full of people, you can get there through a greenhouse. January marks the start of a new year and isn’t it about time we get some peace?
Hoping 2022 has been kind to you thus far. Also hoping no one’s given up on their resolutions already… As always, if you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!