February is the perfect time to begin planning a garden.
With six weeks until spring, you have time to decide what you want to grow, learn how to grow it, test your soil, order seeds and start them indoors.
Be careful, however, that you do not start your seeds too early.
Always read your seed packets for instructions and plan accordingly.
Indoors, seeds for cold-season vegetables, such as broccoli, are started in mid-February; seeds for warm-season vegetables, such as tomatoes, are started at the end of March.
Starting seeds too early can make it difficult to keep your plants strong and healthy.
You might have plants ready to be taken outside, but the temperature might be too cold.
Then, while you wait for temperatures to warm, your plants grow taller and begin to look sick.
Two common problems that weaken your plants are insufficient light and excess water.
Low light results in tall plants with spindly stems. Minimize or prevent this problem by using fluorescent lights to increase the amount of light your seedlings receive.
Too much water prevents roots from gathering oxygen; similar to above-ground plant parts, roots need air to breathe. Excess moisture also creates conditions for diseases. Consider using a spray bottle with a fine mist to water your seedlings.
When seedlings are about one week from the scheduled outside planting date and the temperature is above 45 degrees, it is time to gradually change their environment and get them ready for planting.
This process is referred to as hardening off.
On nonwindy days, place plants outside in a sheltered area and then take them back inside at night. Each day, increase the amount of sunlight exposure until the plants are ready to place in the soil.
If you are looking for additional information about starting seeds or a garden, there are plenty of resources available to get you started.
Besides reading books and magazines, you can call University of Maryland Extension-Washington County for gardening information.
If you have Internet access, you should consider using the University of Maryland Extension website, “Grow It Eat It,” at www.growit.umd.edu. On the website, there are links to a variety of topics, such as “Starting Seeds Indoors,” “Starting a Vegetable Garden,” and “Container Gardening.”
It also contains videos, information on a variety of fruit and vegetables (see Vegetable Profiles) and recipes. Check it out on your computer or at one at the local library.
If you have never grown any of your own fruits and vegetables, I encourage you to try this year.
There are so many benefits associated with gardening — fresh food with more taste and nutrients, exercise and a possible cost savings.
Gardening is also a great family-time activity. It does not matter if you have a small balcony or a giant lot, you can grow a garden. All you need is the desire, a little knowledge, a few supplies and the willingness to get dirty.
What are you waiting for? Tips on having a successful garden are only a call or click away.
Karen Sechler is a horticulture educator with the University of Maryland Extension in Washington County. She can be reached by calling 301-791-1604 or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.