Hands in the Dirt: MLT gardening tips for February — time to get outside?

Anxious to get outside? You probably can this month. Our soil is often still too cold and waterlogged to do much in the ground, so pay attention to what is going on in your planting beds. A digital kitchen thermometer can be a great way to check your particular ecosystem, just don’t forget to bring it inside before you cook your next chicken. If you don’t have one handy, you can always check online resources for average soil temperature – my favorite is AgWeatherNet, a service of WSU. There are weather stations in Seattle, Woodinville, and Snohomish that are usually pretty close to conditions in MLT, but it doesn’t hurt to do a quick check of your yard vs. the weather station to pick the right one.

If you want to start seeds in the ground a little earlier, hoop houses, cloches, and cold frames can be a great way to dry out and warm winter soil. Personally, I had a terrible time trying to manage humidity and watering in a DIY window cold frame, so I don’t bother with them anymore. If you are successful, please share your ways!

If you want to get a jump on starting seeds for later in the summer, bring on the lights! While the windowsill may work for friends in more southern climates, our winter sun can lead to weak, stringy plants that are stretching to get whatever sunlight they can. Buying a grow light can seem like a big step, but even a cheap shop light can significantly improve your starts.  Just make sure to keep the light close to but not touching the plants so they get the maximum “sunlight” available without scorching the leaves. Anything that holds soil and allows water to drain can be a suitable pot to start seeds in: plastic cups or yogurt containers with a couple holes punched out, DIY newspaper and toilet roll pots, recycled nursery pots, or propagation trays marketed for seed starting.  If you use a propagation dome, or some sort of plastic to cover the seeds to retain moisture, remember they are typically for germination only, and should be removed after the seeds sprout to allow airflow and prevent rot.

Many plants are pruned when dormant, before spring growth occurs. This list includes apples, pears, blueberries and roses. If you have roses, find a nearby forsythia and when you see the tell-tale yellow flowers blooming, grab your clippers because it’s go time! For most varieties of roses, prune the plant down to the lowest (closest to the ground) bud on each branch. Also remove the four D’s – anything that looks dead, damaged, or diseased, and anything that is going in the wrong direction – you want the plant to be open to allow for good airflow, so cut out any stems that are crossing, or heading through the center of the plant.

Dormancy is also a great time to plant perennial edibles and flowers, such as bare-root fruit trees and bushes, rhubarb and asparagus crowns, and summer-flowering bulbs. Bags of summer-flowering bulbs will start appearing on shelves soon, such as bleeding heart, iris, gladiolas, and hostas. Be sure to read the planting guide, though, as some bulbs and tubers that you can buy now shouldn’t be planted until the soil is much warmer and drier. Don’t be temped to plant those big, beautiful dahlias – they shouldn’t go in the ground until closer to Mother’s Day!

Have a question about gardening?  Ask post it on our Facebook page (facebook.com/mltbog)!

About the BOG

The Ballinger Organic Garden (BOG) is a volunteer-led effort to develop a community garden at Ballinger Park. The BOG, in partnership with MLT Recreation & Parks and the MLT Senior Center and funded by a grant from the MLT Community Foundation, is currently in “Phase 0” while larger construction activities (creek restoration and trail installation) are completed. Phase 0 includes maintenance of the existing raised beds and a garden plot on the south side of the MLT Senior Center in Ballinger Park. Phase 1 will involve installation of a larger garden with plots available for community members to maintain.  Want to volunteer, or have an idea of what you want to see in the future garden? Please let us know!

To stay up to date on what is happening at the BOG, including what’s growing, work parties, and events, follow us on Facebook (facebook.com/mltbog) or Instagram (Instagram.com/mltbog)!

— By Robyn Rice

Robyn Rice grew up in Eastern Washington, pulling weeds and picking up rotten fruit as dreaded chores assigned by her Master Gardener father. Today, Robyn is a fisheries biologist for an environmental consulting firm, and has been gardening on her own in the Seattle area since 2010. Her science background leads to endless research about the “correct” way to do things, but her enthusiasm and sense of adventure leads her to garden fearlessly because hey, what’s the worst that could happen?

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