If you are reading this now, you have survived the holiday season. You might need some therapy. The nights in January and February can be cold. But on most days it is an absolute delight to be outside. Look at your yard. Is there a plot of land not dedicated to sidewalk, driveway, or building structure? Then you have you have free therapy at your fingertips. If you lack such space, look for an available plot in a community garden.
Nothing pulls a person out of a mental funk like the blisters developed from wielding a shovel and turning relatively lifeless dirt into garden soil. If you don’t have your own compost going, you can find bags of finished compost and manure at most local nurseries and garden centers.
Mix compost and manure into the soil until the color has changed to a darker shade of brown and the consistency is loose and aerated. This puts more oxygen in the soil and oxygen makes happier plants. The deeper you amend, the better. But try to get at least a foot or so down. Use composted manure as opposed to fresh when put directly into a garden bed. Most manure sold in bags at garden centers and nurseries is usually aged but if you are in doubt, wait a few weeks before you plant anything in the new bed. Fresh manure will burn plants, especially tender seedlings. This isn’t an exact science, so don’t worry about the ratios. Just amend.
Most parts of Baja Arizona experience mild winters. The cold snaps occur when the sun is down and never last long. When February approaches it begins to feel more and more like spring. The gardens thrive, aromatic flowers bloom, and there are often balmy afternoons that make you wonder if it isn’t already March or April. Set your work aside for an afternoon and give your musculoskeletal system the labor it craves.
Good tools make your job easier, helping you to enjoy the garden more; they’re also a better value since they last much longer. Ask for help when you purchase your next shovel. Tell them you want longevity. Not all tools are made the same. This even goes for watering cans. For example, once you have used a Haws watering can with its perfectly distributed and gentle release of water and balanced weight distribution, you will wonder how you ever lived without one. You might really “dig” a good hori hori soil knife, a far superior tool to the common hand trowel. Exotic, common, cheap or expensive, take care of your tools. Don’t leave them outside to rust.
If you already have your garden going, you are already closely watching the weather. January provides the sharpest of frosts. The last frost is usually late March or April (depending on your elevation).
Much of our region is part of the Sonoran Desert or heavily influenced by it. This desert is characterized by its summer and winter rains. Winter rains are gentle and slow, and soak the earth deeper than the torrential storms of summer. But like the summer rains, they are unpredictable. Sometimes all we get are clouds. Winds, prevalent in this season, can also complicate your garden by blowing over tall plants and vines.
Continue planting all the leafy greens and root crops. Depending on the crop, certain cool-season vegetables go to flower (bolt) as the weather warms up. If you have room, bolting vegetable flowers feed beneficial insects, and eventually become seed that you can collect for next year. However you may find you want to replant and not wait for flowering to finish. You may want more cilantro. Or you may want to get an early start on some warm season crops.
Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and basil are great warm season crops to start indoors. They take about 6-8 weeks to get going. Make sure they have plenty of light (you might get some grow lights). In the warmer regions of Baja Arizona you can set these outside in February through March. In the cooler regions, wait just a little longer. No matter where you live, if you start these crops early, have a plan for frost protection. Early starts like this will reward you with earlier crops and a longer fruiting season. Some of the more tropical varieties with extremely long growing season requirements (like Tahitian squash, which takes 110 days to reach maturity from seed) need all the extra time you can give them.
Most of the following crops can be planted continually in succession until May. Pay attention to how many days they take to develop; most seed packets give you the amount of days from seed to harvestable crop. Follow the instructions on seed packet for planting depth and spacing. You can space plants closer than recommended, then thin out as seedlings germinate. Save these thinned greens for your daily salad—such seedlings are sold in stores as microgreens and pack a lot of flavor and nutrition.
You can still plant most leafy greens: lettuce, cabbage, leaf chicories, like endive, radicchio, escarole, frisée, puntarelle, grumolo verde; Asian greens, like bok choy, garland greens, Chinese cabbage, tatsoi, mizuna; kale, collard greens, arugula, salad burnet, spinach, chard; cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, and rapini.
You can keep planting cilantro, parsley, dill, chervil, and fennel from seed. Now is also a good time to obtain starts of the perennial herbs: thyme, lavender, bay leaf, oregano, lemongrass, marjoram, rosemary, mint, catnip. Remember these are perennials. Wherever you plant them they will persist and spread. Avoid planting mint or oregano in a bed where they can spread out of control. Such plants are best in large containers if you lack the space to let them go haywire in the ground.
Also continue planting carrot, beet, radish, turnip, burdock, rutabaga and root chicory. Most of these crops don’t want soil that is too rich or high in nitrogen. If you get lots of leafy growth, but tubers fail to develop, this might be the problem. Avoid over-amending in these areas, especially with manure.
Now is also the time to start planting tubers of Jerusalem artichoke (a sunflower relative not related to actual artichokes) and potato tubers, if you have the extra room they both require.
Chives and green bunching onions are good examples of vegetables that don’t take up a lot of room and are easy to stuff between crops. Find starts at nurseries or order online.
If you have a large planter or a bed you can dedicate to one crop for a long time, you can plant asparagus. Obtain starts (dormant roots called crowns) from your local nursery or from an online source. Soil needs to be rich and regularly fed. Plants grow into gangly, ferny-looking masses that can shade out other crops if placed in the wrong location. Asparagus should not be harvested in the first year or so. Such a crop requires a lot of dedication from the grower. But if you really love fresh asparagus, taking a year or two to have your own backyard source is worth the trouble.
You can set out starts of artichokes now. Be mindful that young plants will eventually take up 2 – 3 feet of space. Though they love the cool weather, they are frost tender and need protection from the cold snaps. If they do suffer frost damage, they can come back from the base. Cardoon can also be started now, a relative of the artichoke with an edible leaf stem.
If you didn’t plant any last fall, you can plant them now. The sooner the better. More time between planting and summer will make your work a lot easier. Although you can plant fruit trees almost any time of the year, if you plant new trees in warmer temperatures, you will have to water much more; if the roots have not had a chance to develop before temperatures hit triple digits, forgetting to water for even a few days can have disastrous results. If you plant citrus, have a plan for frost protection. Young plants are easy to cover—cloth works best. More and more varieties of citrus are also being made available on dwarf rootstock, which is easier to protect and offers you more room to plant more trees. Sometimes bare root fruit trees like apricot, plum and apple are available this time of year. Grape vines are also available as bare root starts. When you plant these, you will need to keep them very moist while they come out of dormancy.
Half of the challenge of edible gardening is managing your bounty. All too often food is wasted. Plan ahead. If you know you have quite a few seedlings of kale, start looking up diverse ways to use this versatile vegetable before harvesting. Look up ways of pickling and preserving so you make the most of the food you grow. You can also trade with fellow gardeners who are growing slightly different crops. The internet is full of creative uses for vegetables. Explore these solutions and plan ahead.