Are you tired of winter? Would you like to see colors other than black and white with the occasional flash of a small brightness in bird or sun? Well, you don’t have to answer because I know what you are going to say. Although there might me just a small percentage of you who love winter and have been in your glory this year, most of us are just ready for change. Well, come December and January, my mailbox is filled with garden catalogs that harbor the most beautiful pictures of blooming flowers and lush vegetables, succulent strawberries and bright, red tomatoes. It’s a gardener’s paradise. What better way to spend an evening in the dead of winter with winds blasting from the northeast and snow blowing straight in the wind and making drifts that will need to be moved so you can get out.

Suddenly the winds gentle to a warm breeze and the snow becomes life-giving rain as you dream about the garden yet to come. There are major decisions to make! Should I invest in the Japanese Trifele Black tomato or the sweet yellow Pineapple. Then there is the Cherokee Purple, the Green Zebra or the LongKeeper. And the word here is invest. If you want varieties that are different and may do better than the garden variety found in most garden centers, you have to spend a bit of “moola.”

This time of year my phone line is often busy talking with my sisters about this or that variety. Did she or I plant that variety, how well did it do? Have you ever tried this? Or, if I buy this and you buy that can we trade seeds or plants? We often share plants we have started ourselves, getting more variety and extra plants. All four of my sisters and sometimes my brother, start many of our own plants just for the joy of gardening. All of us have gardened since we were small children and that adds up to a lot of experience.

When thinking about tomatoes, of course, you first have to decide if you want cherry tomatoes, the smaller variety that pop so easily in a salad, a slicing tomato, a canning tomato, or a sauce/paste tomato, like Roma. You will have to decide if you want determinate , a plant that only grows so high during the season, or indeterminate, a plant that keeps growing all season. Then you need to look at maturity dates, how long before that plant will produce ripe fruit. I like to get a couple short maturity varieties so I have early tomatoes, somewhere in the 55-65 day maturity. Finally, you may want to check to see how resistant that plant may be to common diseases, or if it will do well in a container, whether it is an heirloom variety, or the size of the fruit. All of this information will be found in your garden catalog, while only the very basics can be found on the tag.

If you like some of these unusual varieties, you will also have to start your own plants for it is very difficult to find them in garden centers. Starting plants means you need to plant them about six weeks prior to when they go in the garden. For tomatoes that would be around May 15, so they need to be started the first of April. The most important thing in starting plants is simply light. A windowsill facing south or west may work, but plants that don’t get enough light will grow leggy and weak. A grow light is probably the best way to go, then an outdoor greenhouse or hot bed comes right behind. There is some expense there. Growing your own plants gives you a lot of satisfaction, may or may not be cheaper, but unless you get them marked wrong, they should be the variety that you planted. Too many times I have purchased plants that are cheap and found they have been mislabeled, That’s bad if you wanted bell peppers with their mild taste and instead get some fiery, hot pepper that stings you fingers even when you pick them. By then it is almost too late in the season to get others started.

If you start your own cole plants or Brassicas, such as cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, you need to start them the first of March. Just a look at your calendar will tell you that you better have your seeds ordered and received in February, or you won’t get them started soon enough. So that’s why those garden catalogs come so early and why it is a must to go through them dreaming of your garden before spring even makes one sign that it is on its way.

In years past I have let those seeds sprout in the warmth of the wood stove and then, after just a few days, move them to a hot bed with a heated pad underneath providing warmth, with the bed covered by blankets when the nights dip below freezing, or under grow lights for as long as the weather is harsh. Well, I’ll have to say I am wondering just what I will do this year if our weather continues on this same vein. My hot bed is in a snow drift and these cold temperatures are pretty low. We have about two weeks before I’ll have to decide what direction to take. After the blizzards in the late 70s, I remember my garden was covered with a snowdrift of gigantic proportions. I wondered if it would melt in time to start an early garden in April. Well, it did but it was April before all that snow disappeared. If you live long enough I guess you see it all. Well, almost! So, plan your garden now, even if you don’t start your own plants and you will see how those bad, winter days seem to melt into spring. And you know what? They will!


Jeannine Roediger has lived on a family farm all her life, first as a farmer’s daughter and now as a farmer’s wife. She writes weekly for the Times Bulletin and enjoys gardening, quilting, cooking, bird watching and writing.