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 January:
- Sketch out garden design
- Identify garden improvements—build more beds, source contractors
- Ensure seed-starting supplies are on hand
Sketch out your spring garden
A dark winter’s month is a good time to pick up your spirits by planning your spring garden. Start by creating a list of the crops you want to grow. Tomatoes will be first on the list, right? Know that not all crops are capable of being grown in any single climate, and you likely won’t have proper space for some things.
Consult your local county extension office for a list of crops that are best suited for your microclimate.
Once you know what crops should grow well, you’ll need to understand their spacing and sunlight requirements. These two factors are essential for proper growth. Tomatoes need as much sun as you can give them: at least three hours of direct sunlight to grow cherry tomatoes and at least seven hours to grow larger tomatoes, like beefsteaks, well. See our November guide for more specific information.
Tomatoes also need at least two feet of space all around them to flourish. If you space them too closely together, they shade each other and block airflow, a key requirement of good pollination. Other veggies have their own requirements, so look into that before sketching out your garden design and determining which crops to place where in your beds, planter boxes, pots, or other growing spaces.
Go outside and take a good long look at your growing area. Do this once at 9 a.m., once at noon, and then again at 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Note on your garden sketchpad which areas are in shade at those times. Add an hour of additional sunlight morning and afternoon to account for the sun being high in the sky in the middle of summer, but you should get a good idea of where the sunnier spots are in your garden. These are the areas where you should be planting your fruit-bearing crops.
Fruit-bearing crops are anything that puts out a flower that then turns into a fruit: tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, squash, melons, beans, peas, etc. Generally, these crops need your sunniest spots. Vegetables that do not have a flower but that do turn into an edible fruit can do without full sun: root vegetables, leaf crops, herbs.
Look at your crop list and place your chosen veggies into their beds on your sketch according to their sunlight and spacing needs. This task will help in many ways: It speeds up the process of planting when spring arrives (and when there never seem to be enough hours in a day to get garden tasks done), and perhaps identify seeds that need to be purchased now that you forgot to order last month or don’t have enough of.
Identify and plan garden improvements
Now that you’ve got your plan, do you have enough space for what you plan to grow? Consider adding another bed or large containers, like half wine barrels or even straw bales.
If you decide on lumber-sided beds, call several sources to get the best price per board foot. Redwood is generally preferred on the West Coast of the United States; on the East Coast, it’s cedar. Both are rot resistant. You’ll be surprised at how both the quality and price of lumber vary, so check prices first before trudging out to purchase it.
Check online for a video tutorial to help you understand how to easily build a wooden bed if you’re not handy. If you want to hire labor to help you, do so now before local carpenters get busy with spring projects. It may take a while to get bids in, schedule the work, finish everything, fill with soil, and have everything ready to go in the spring.
Also try to suss out tired, broken, or ineffective growing spaces. Repair or replace old boards and poorly performing or degrading pots. Check your tools: Do you have a good working wheelbarrow? Shovels, spades, forks, hand tools? Get these on order if you didn’t already. If you didn’t take a soil test last month, add that to this month’s list.
Ensure seed-starting supplies are on hand
Some folks start seeding their peppers and eggplants in late January, so now is the time to do an inventory to ensure you’ve got enough seed trays, pots, soil, and labels.
Don’t use old potting soil. If you’ve had extra bags lying on the ground, getting wet and moldy, get rid of them. And don’t use dug-up garden dirt—you’ll get poor results.
Fresh, new potting soil is best. Although there are seed-starting soil mixes available, you can just use good potting soil to achieve similar results. If you don’t already have a favorite, you might want to try a germination test on several different brands. If you can’t get a recommendation from a trusted source, why not try several brands out at once? Label three or more different seed trays with your test soil (one type of soil per tray) and sow the same type of seeds in each. Use seeds that are cheap or that you have too many of. Germinate the trays and grow them through this month to see how the soils perform. Then, when you’re ready to start your tomato sowing in the next two months, you’ll know which soil yields the best results.
Similarly, if you have old potting soil from leftover bags that you can’t stand throwing out, you can try a germination and growing-on test with that as well before dedicating your prize seeds to it. “Growing-on” just means that after successful germination, you continue to watch how your seedlings grow for several weeks to ascertain whether the soil harbors any damping-off fungus or bacteria. If it doesn’t yield healthy plants, then get rid of it and buy new soil for the seeds you’ll be sowing next month.