Monthly Planting Guidelines
This calendar’s monthly planting guidelines are based on USDA zone 9, but they are adaptable to most zones. To find your zone, go to the National Gardening Association’s website. If your zone is 7, 8, or 9, you can safely use this guide. If your zone is 4, 5, or 6, then add a month before beginning your spring tasks and start your fall tasks a month earlier. If your zone is 10 or 11, subtract a month to your spring tasks. Your fall and winter tasks should remain the same as the original guide if you are in zones 10 or 11. These are all general guidelines. Your specific microclimate, which depends on distance to a large body of water (like gigantic lakes or oceans) and elevation, will make your zone fluctuate. Consult your local county extension office to get more detailed zone and planting guide information.
Tasks for February:
- Sow tomatoes
- Turn in cover crop
- Start dealing with vertebrate pests, like gophers
Tomatoes take about eight weeks from seed to transplant size. If you want to plant tomatoes in the garden once the weather turns warm—in, say, April or May—then back up eight weeks from your go-to planting date to find your sowing date. For example, many gardeners in zones 7, 8, 9, and 10 will be planting mid-April. That means you’ll be sowing seeds indoors around February 15. If you live in a colder climate, then wait until March to sow your seeds and May to plant outside.
Use good, fresh potting soil. No need for fancy seed-starting mixes. Potting soil varies in quality and ability to grow plants and seeds, so try to buy a reputable brand or ask a trusted gardener friend what their favorite is.
You’ll need trays to start your seeds, or you can use small cups, compressed peat moss disks, egg cartons, half-empty egg shells, or anything else that is fairly germ-free, has holes in the bottom for adequate drainage, and won’t deteriorate during the germination process through exposure to water, heat, and light. Your seedlings will only be germinated in these initial receptacles; they will eventually be pricked out (potted up) to larger pots next month. The smaller the initial receptacle is, the sooner you will need to pot them up to give them adequate space.
Another great idea is to start your tomato seeds in six-pack containers, nesting inside a 10-inch x 20-inch plastic mesh trays that allow water to flow through. Each tray holds eight six-packs.
Fill the soil almost to the top of the tray (or receptacle of your choice), leaving a bit of headspace for more soil to be added after sowing. Don’t overfill or mound up the soil, otherwise the seeds may shift as you water them. Make sure the soil is light and fluffy in the trays. Don’t press down; it’ll make the soil more difficult for tender roots and shoots to push through. Gently level out the soil, leaving no divots or valleys.
Sow your tomato seeds on the surface of your leveled soil, spacing them apart from each other anywhere from a quarter-inch to a half-inch. This will make it easier to pull them apart when you pot them up next month. As you sow, insert a label that gives the name of the tomato variety and the date of sowing into each receptacle (for example: Brandywine 2/15/19). Designating the date of sowing will teach you over time how fast your seeds will germinate and illustrate the set of circumstances you’re exposing them to (soil, moisture, heat, air, light).
Also, add a “D” to the label if the variety is a determinate (a bush rather than a tall viner). Since most of your tomatoes will be indeterminate (requiring a tall cage or a stake), only the determinate tomatoes need be labeled as such. If you neglect to do that, make sure that at planting time you know which ones are determinate. It will be important to place these shorter-maturing plants on the south side of taller-maturing plants so they won’t be shaded by their taller garden companions. Of course, if you are in the Southern Hemisphere, you’ll reverse this. If you don’t know whether the tomato variety you are sowing is determinate or indeterminate, the seed packet should tell you, or you can look it up on the World Tomato Society Tomato Database.
Once the small receptacles are sown and properly labeled, add a quarter-inch of additional soil on top. Water the flat or receptacles several times to allow the peat moss to absorb the water adequately. Use warm (but not extremely hot) water, which will help jump-start the germination process. This is done outside so that water drains away. If you’re in snowy location, drain the flat in a bathtub or sink to catch the drips. Place a plastic cover over the seedlings to retain moisture. This can be a plastic bag, cling film, or a plastic fitted lid.
Once properly watered and covered, put the sown tomatoes on a propagation mat—a heat mat that’s the same size as “regulation” six-pack trays: 10 x 20 inches. These mats heat up the tray about 15 degrees Fahrenheit above the ambient temperature. They are useful for sowing indoors, such as in a laundry room or kitchen. If you put your tray in an extremely cold garage or greenhouse, the tray may not get warm enough, even on a propagation mat. There are more expensive, larger mats that are controlled by a thermostat; these can be set to maintain a higher temperature if you need to propagate your seedlings in an ambient temperature lower than 55 degrees.
It is possible to sprout tomato seeds in the ambient temperature of your house, but it takes longer and fewer seeds will germinate in that setting. Tomato seeds prefer a soil temperature of 75 degrees to sprout, but they will sprout at a bit lower or a bit higher temp. Soil temps deviating from the optimal 75 degrees means it will take longer for the seeds to germinate. Don’t expect much luck if the temp gets below 60 or above 85 degrees.
If you’re using bottom heat, start peeking under the plastic wrap two days after sowing and each day thereafter until you see some sprouting. Once you see ANY sprouts, remove the plastic immediately. If you are not using any supplemental heat, the seeds will take longer to germinate—from seven to 10 days. They will sprout at different rates, and the cherries will sprout sooner. Sometimes you have to wait a whole extra week for some late arrivals.
Once you have your first few sprouts and you’ve removed the cover, you’ll need to water the non-germinated cells every day until they sprout. If only one or two seeds in a cell have sprouted, and you have other seeds in that cell still to pop up, you can water that cell too. Avoid overwatering the seedlings, which will result in damping off (a rot of the stem at the soil level).
Once you see sprouts and have removed the cover and watered again, put the tray outside in direct sunlight. If it’s overcast, that’s fine. If it’s raining lightly and you expect the rain to end soon, that’s okay too—just don’t put them outside in a driving rain.
On super-rainy days (or days colder than 50 degrees), put the flat right up against a sunny, south-facing window. If your south-facing window is shaded by trees or a building, go for a west-facing window (afternoon light). Do not simply leave them inside all the time—they don’t like that and will become long and weak, and then, when you do put them outside, they will get horribly sunburned because they’re not used to it. So try to get them outside each morning, and then bring them inside each evening and put them back on the heating mat.
Once your seedlings show several sets of leaves, transplant them into bigger containers. That’s a task for next month, so see March’s calendar for tips on that process.
Turn in cover crop
If you sowed a cover crop last November, now is the time to cut it down and turn it into the soil. If your cover crop is very thick or tall, take a string trimmer to it, but that will leave a lot of debris in your paths and not on your beds. That’s okay—just rake up the debris and lay it back on your beds, evenly spaced.
If you don’t have a string trimmer or want a tidier area to work with, you can hack down the taller cover crops with hedge trimmers or clippers. This will take more time; however, you’re a gardener, and gardeners get physical, right?
If you have a tall cover crop such as fava beans, harvest those beans first, of course; as you cut them down, clip the tough stalks up with your clippers. If you find that the amount of cover crop lying on your bed after you’ve finished is more than a foot, well, take heart. Remove some of the cut crop and use it as the nitrogen layer in a compost pile.
Once the cover crop has been cut and spread on the beds, and it’s less than a foot high, leave it be for a week or two. It’s good to have this drying period to reduce the size and mass of the crop for ease of digging in. When you’re ready to dig in the crop, wait for a day that has had several dry days before it so that the soil is not too wet to work. Muddy, gooey soils should not be disturbed; wait until things dry out a bit.
When your soil is workable and the cover crop has been cut for a week or so, the method for digging in is quite simple: Using a spade fork or a spade shovel, start from one end of the bed, insert your spade fork as deeply as you can get it into the soil below, and turn over the entire mass. You’ll see roots now rather than solely green matter. If you feel like it, poke the mounds a couple of times with your fork, and then move on to the next area. A 50-square-foot bed should take about 30 minutes to do.
Two weeks later, turn the bed again using a spade fork or shovel. Poke the mounds some more to break up the root balls. Leave all this be to further break down, until you amend your beds a couple of weeks before your planting date, which should be in April or May (for those of you in the Northern Hemisphere in most climates).
Start trapping gophers or other vertebrate pests
February is a very active time for gophers, and it’s best to start ridding your growing spaces from these highly destructive pests now rather than trying to battle them after you’ve planted. Mice, rats, woodchucks, raccoons, and other mammals can impact your growing space too.
If you don’t have sturdy gopher wire under your growing beds, then you’ll want to start identifying the gophers’ burrowing holes. You may still want to get rid of your gophers if you do have gopher wire, as gophers are very wily at being able to crawl up the sides of your beds and getting into them, regardless of the wire below.
Gophers can decimate your fruit trees, perennial areas, and lawns. They can also leave huge underground tunnel systems beneath structures and driveways. These tunnels are conduits for underground rainwater flows, making the tunnels larger and larger until the soil above them is no longer stable and collapses.
Gophers are no joking matter and need to be dealt with.
A healthy female adult gopher can have three litters a year, with five to six pups per litter. The gestation period is only a month long, so an infestation is not something to take lightly.
If you do not have the heart or skill to deal with them yourself, there should be a local service who you can hire to do it for you. This may be worth it for those of you with rampant infestations.
If your issue is rats or mice in the garden, please don’t spread out poison. Helpful predators like owls, hawks, coyotes, and other carnivores will eat the poisoned vermin, killing them too. This reduces the number of predators who help control these garden pests and creates more work for us, not less. It’s best to trap them using humane methods.
Squirrels and birds can also be very destructive. Both species are adept invaders and can get into caged and fenced areas easily. If these are your issues, you’ll need to build a caging system on all sides, including above, to deter them. Using separate feeders for the squirrels and birds might help; these creatures may leave your prized tomatoes alone if they have plenty of seeds and nuts to feast on. Also, a water source like a birdbath is important too; the birds in your area may just be looking for water in dry environments. A nice ripe tomato has plenty of juicy water for them to enjoy. In short, feed and water these animals with their preferred goodies so they leave your veggies alone.