It’s time to get started with seeds, but don’t get in a hurry to outdo Mother Nature. January still has a few tricks up her sleeve. Courtesy | Sandy Parrill

“Whether the weather be fine, whether the weather be not;

Whether the weather be cold, whether the weather be hot;

We’ll weather the weather, whatever the weather, whether we like it or not.”

— Author unknown

January is playing peekaboo with us. Afternoons are often warm enough for T-shirts, but nights threaten to freeze. By early evening, I’m pulling on my fleece-lined boots and jackets.

Somewhere out in the garden is an assortment of sweatshirts and light jackets I’ve started with, shucked off, hung on any handy limb or fence and forgot to retrieve on the way back as I’ve come indoors on a different path than I went out. I should go find them before (if) it rains.

Days are getting longer at the rate of about two minutes a day, with temperatures mild enough to pull ephemerals, bulbs and early wildflowers out of their leafy blankets. Corydalis, violets and false rue anemones are a green carpet through the woods garden; snow crocuses and daffodils are reaching for the sun.

Everywhere is a haze of chickweed and henbit, but nights are still cold enough for everything to keep buds clutched tightly under the covers. In spite of balmy springlike days, I doubt much of anything will be blooming too early. Regardless of our eagerness to see flowers, our souls will have to be satisfied with dandelions and hellebores for at least another month.

But if we must get our fingers into the soil, to paraphrase Helen Keller, “Life (gardening) is either a daring adventure or nothing.”

This may be a good year to take a dare with early seed sowing in hopes for a temperate summer. It’s also high time to refurbish what used to be my herb garden — a sort of gravel parterre with rock-lined paths in front of my studio, now overgrown with out-of-control perennials, way too many tiger lilies and naturalized garlic chives that have to go. Any semblance of design has dissolved into an unkempt and Chaotic welter that needs seriously sorted out.

Many perennials will stay, though in smaller increments. A clump of crocosmias comes back every year; half a dozen fancy day lilies, a few clumps of irises and a smattering of herbs still survive, along with chives, elephant garlic, winter onions, borage and saffron crocuses.

Field daisies have crept underfoot to crowd paths. Native copper irises have spread willy-nilly among hardy geraniums and infiltrated lemon balm, which has in turn entangled itself with native tall phlox and purple lyre-leaf sage. Too much togetherness will have to be separated; they can’t all be in the same bed together.

The centerpiece of the garden is (or was; it may have succumbed to last summer’s heat) a privet topiary basket planted with sweet potato vines each spring. I want to intersperse annual flowers and herbs among replanted perennials for lots of summer color and make it a feast for butterflies, bees and other pollinators.

There is plenty of room in the greenhouse for starting seeds and cuttings after the December cold spell took out begonias, geraniums and several succulents.

I’ll start with my favorite Heavenly Blue morning glories and moon vines I want clambering over the deck rail; they seldom reach blooming maturity before September when seeds are planted directly in the ground and I have had much better luck with started plants.

It is often recommended to score or nick the hard seeds with a small file or knife to speed up germination, but pouring very hot water over them in a small dish and letting them soften overnight is much simpler and does the trick. By the second day, they will be nicely sprouted and ready to be planted directly into six-packs (saved from last spring) in potting soil.

I’ll be checking seed racks for butterfly weed, zebrinas and herbs to plant now. Marigolds, zinnias, perhaps a pack or two of cosmos, snapdragons and bachelor buttons will wait until mid-March (count back six to 12 weeks between starting seeds and planting in the garden, and read backs of seed packs for germinating information).

I mostly use recycled nursery trays to plant seeds, but clear plastic boxes that once contained salad greens are also ideal. Holes are poked in the bottoms for drainage with a hot ice pick, filled about a third full with dampened seed starter potting soil, and the lids used to cover planted seeds so they don’t dry out before germination.

Cuttings of coleus and impatiens I’ve saved can be rooted simply in a glass of water on a windowsill in bright light (not sun).

We won’t be growing vegetables. While I (mostly) enjoy watching the wildlife that call our garden home, I’m not interested in supplying Agnes and her clan or any other critters that get summer munchies with corn and melons I can buy at farmers markets with much less expense than building a deer-proof fence.

But for those who like to grow their own, its time to start winter sowing — a technique that has become popular for getting an inexpensive, early start on a garden by planting seeds. It involves using plastic milk bottles as mini greenhouses, in which seeds are planted and placed outdoors, and is not only a good way to start cool-season crops such as lettuce, chard, root veggies, cabbage and broccoli, but also to start hardy herbs, perennials and wildflowers in January.

The same milk jug method can also be used to get an early start with cucumbers, melons and other warm-season crops in April, except tomatoes and peppers, which need daytime soil temperatures of 70 degrees and not less than 50 degrees at night. Those can be started indoors under a grow light or in a sunny window.

Specifics and more can be learned about winter sowing and early seed starting at

We will at least get a good start on our summer garden, whatever the weather.

Sandy and Jim Parrill garden at Chaos, their acre of the Ozarks in Joplin. Sandy is a lifelong gardener and a Missouri master gardener. Jim is a former garden center owner and landscaper; both are past members of the Missouri Landscape and Nursery Association. Email them at and follow their Facebook page, A Parrillel Universe of Wonderful Things.

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