Seeds to Sow in Michigan in February

It’s been a long winter, hasn’t it? The ground (at least in my neck of the woods) is covered in several inches of snow, and even now, the white stuff continues to fall from a slate-gray sky.

Yet, even now, in the depths of winter, it’s time to start giving this year’s garden some serious consideration. If you haven’t planned your garden yet, now is an excellent time to do so. There’s still plenty of time to order any seeds or sets you need, and many garden centers and home stores have their seed racks out now (truly, the most wonderful time of the year!)

There aren’t a ton of things to sow indoors in February for most of us in Michigan, but you can definitely get a start on some things. Below, I have advice for each of the four hardiness zones in Michigan. If you’re unsure which zone you’re in, which roughly coincides with your last frost date, check out this map for frost dates and this one for hardiness zone. Michigan’s frost dates vary widely, with southern lower Michigan frost-free in early May, and parts of the northern lower and upper peninsula often experiencing snow well into May and not frost-free until June. The dates below are average guidelines. Check this chart to get a more exact idea of the last frost date in your specific area.

Michigan Zone 3 (Average Last Frost Date: June 15th)

This area includes a large swath of the western upper peninsula and a few small inland areas of the northern lower peninsula.

Sow in February:

  • Nothing this month.

 

Michigan Zone 4 (Average Last Frost Date: June 1st)

This includes most of the northern lower peninsula and the eastern side of the upper peninsula.

Vegetables/Herbs to Sow in February:

  • Onion seeds

Flowers to Sow in February:

  • Delphinium
  • Dianthus
  • Pansies/Violas

 

Michigan Zone 5 (Average Last Frost Date: May 15th)

This area includes almost all of the southern lower peninsula and the west coast of the lower peninsula.

Vegetables/Herbs to Sow in February:

  • Celery and Celeriac
  • Leeks
  • Mache
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Spinach

Flowers to Sow in February:

  • Delphinium
  • Dianthus
  • Foxglove
  • Lisianthus
  • Pansy/Viola
  • Verbena

 

Michigan Zone 6 (Average Last Frost Date: May 1st)

A very small area of Michigan is Zone 6. If you live near Detroit or the southern west coast of the lower peninsula, this is your zone.

Vegetables/Herbs to Sow in February:

  • Cabbage
  • Celery and Celeriac
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Lettuce
  • Mache
  • Mustard greens
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Peas
  • Spinach
  • Datura

Flowers to Sow in February:

  • Delphinium
  • Dianthus
  • Forget-Me-Not
  • Foxglove
  • Gaillardia
  • Hibiscus
  • Hollyhock
  • Impatiens
  • Lisianthus
  • Lupine
  • Pansies/Violas
  • Petunia
  • Rudbeckia
  • Salvia
  • Snapdragon
  • Stock
  • Verbena
  • Yarrow

So, depending on where you live, you may be fairly busy this month. Even those of us in the coldest areas of the state can sow a little something. Carry on, Michigan gardeners — we’ll have our hands back in the soil before we know it!

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: February

February is not exactly a flurry of activity as far as gardening is concerned, but there are definitely a few things you can do this month to prepare for spring.

1. Get Ready for Seed Starting

There are a few things you can sow indoors now if you want an early spring crop (which I’ll list below) but the bulk of our seed starting will begin in March. Either way, it’s a good idea to find all of your flats, pots, humidity domes, lights, and other seed starting equipment. In addition:
Clean flats and pots (use a tiny bit of bleach, especially if you had pest or disease issues last year)
Make sure your lights are working, and get new lights if you need them.
Buy or make some seed starting mix.
Make sure you have the seeds you need. Most nurseries and big boxes have plenty of seeds out right now.

2. Start Some Seeds!

For a spring harvest, there are a few things you can sow indoors now:

  1. Broccoli
  2. Cabbage
  3. Kale
  4. Kohlrabi
  5. Leeks

3. Do some winter sowing.

There is still plenty of time to do some winter sowing. If you don’t have the space or inclination to start seeds for perennials indoors under lights, you can sow them right now, outside. You can also sow seeds for many annual flowers, herbs, and veggies this way. More on winter sowing here.

4. Houseplant Maintenance

I’ve noticed that my houseplants have already put on a bit of new growth in response to the lengthening days. If yours are rootbound, this is a good time to repot them into a slightly larger pot and give the fresh potting soil. You can also start fertilizing with a weak solution every week or so of compost tea now.

There isn’t a whole lot to do beyond those few tasks right now. If you have veggies growing under a low tunnel or in a cold frame, keep them watered and make sure to vent the structure on any warm, sunny days we may happen to get.

Enjoy the rest now. Next month, the real seed starting begins!(Hooray!)

How and When to Harvest Milkweed Seeds

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Milkweed is the sole food source for monarch butterfly caterpillars. Monarchs have greatly decreased in population over the years, primarily because of habitat loss. As fields and meadows have given way to parking lots and shopping centers, the places where milkweed grew naturally have started to disappear. Luckily, we as gardeners can play an important role in ensuring that monarchs have plenty of milkweed.

Here in Michigan, there are six types of native milkweed, all of which provide food for monarch caterpillars:

  • swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
  • butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  • common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
  • whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata)
  • tall milkweed (Asclepias exaltata)
  • prairie milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

Most of these milkweeds are native throughout the state, with the exception of swamp and prairie milkweeds, which are native only to the southern part of the lower peninsula.

Finding Milkweed to Harvest

Milkweed grows naturally in meadows, fields, and ditches throughout the state. You can identify milkweed in three ways: via its flower, its foliage, and its seed pods. The blossoms range in color from light pink to purple, except in the case of butterfly weed, which has bright orange flowers. The foliage is shiny, alternating up and down the stem, with long, feather-shaped leaves. Depending on which variety of milkweed it is, these leaves may be large or fairly narrow. In any case, when the leaf is snapped, a white sap should be visible; this is what gives “milkweed” its name. Be careful, though — this sap is a skin irritant, and you definitely don’t want to rub it in your eyes!

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As far as the seed pods, they usually start appearing here in Michigan in late summer. At first they are bright green and quite plump. They look like a weird, kind of spiny/bumpy fruit. As the season progresses, they’ll get a bit lighter in color, eventually turning a greenish-yellow. When they’re at this stage, they may start splitting, and that is when you know the seeds are ready to harvest. When you open the pod, the seeds should be dark brown. If they’re green or light brown, they’re not mature yet and won’t sprout when you plant them. I always look for signs of pods splitting, which is nature’s way of telling you that the seeds are ready. You might lose a few seeds this way as they’re blown away by the breeze, but believe me, there are plenty more inside the pod.

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Please note that you should always ask permission before harvesting seeds from private land, and of course seeds should never be removed from state parks or national forests.

How to Harvest and Separate Milkweed Seeds

To harvest the seeds, simply pull the entire seed pod off of the plant. You can actually store it as is in a paper bag until you’re ready to plant, or you can go ahead and clean the seed now to make it easier to store (in a cool place – preferably a refrigerator, which keeps the seed at a constant cool temperature. Milkweed needs a period of cold stratification to germinate; the refrigerator storage will provide that.)

The trickiest part of the entire process of saving milkweed seeds is separating the dark brown seeds from all of the white fluff attached to them. This fluff is essential to the milkweed’s survival. It acts as almost a parachute, and when the wind blows, it carries the milkweed seeds further away because of that fluff attached to it, dispersing the seed over a wider area. But for seed collectors, it can be a bit of a pain.

Here’s how I do it.

Sometimes, especially if you’re just harvesting one pod and it’s begun to split but hasn’t completely exploded yet, you can simply pull the wad of fluff and seeds out, run your fingers down it, and easily separate the seeds that way. The seeds fall into a container or tabletop, and the wad of fluff stays in your hand. That’s what I was able to do for these pods. You can see how they’re all still pretty self-contained below.

milkweed seeds

If you have more than just a pod or two, or you just don’t want to risk making a mess (that fluff goes EVERYWHERE…) try this: open your seed pods and empty them, fluff and all, into a paper bag, small coffee can with a lid, or a jar. Close the container and give the whole thing a good, vigorous shake. You can even add a penny or two to the bag to help agitate the contents even more. What the shaking does is shake the seeds loose from the fluff. The heavier seeds will fall to the bottom of the bag or jar, leaving the lighter fluff at the top. So after a few good shakes, all you have to do is open your container, lift out the ball of fluff that is on top, and in the bottom, you’ll see your cleaned seeds.

(If you have a huge amount of seed to process, check out this contraption from Monarch Watch: a seed separating machine for milkweed.)

Storing Milkweed Seeds

As I mentioned above, it’s best to store milkweed seeds in a cool place, any my preference is the refrigerator. I like to store my seeds in paper envelopes, which are easy to label, or in jars if I have a lot of seed.

What To Do With Extra Seeds

Often, you only really need a seed or two, especially if you have a small garden, while a milkweed pod can yield dozens of seeds. If you find yourself with more seeds than you can use, here are a few ideas:

  • Offer them to gardening friends
  • Contact your local 4-H, garden clubs, or wildlife restoration nonprofits to see if they would like to take some off your hands
  • If you’re involved in any online gardening groups or forums, offer them as part of a seed trade or for a SASE for those who want some.
  • Store them in your fridge or freezer. They’ll keep, stored this way, for a very long time. If you decide you have room for more milkweed plants, you’ll already have cleaned seed on hand.

I hope this has been helpful. There is nothing quite like sitting out in your yard or garden and watching monarch butterflies fluttering around the milkweed you lovingly planted for them. These beautiful creatures need all the help we can give them, and, in exchange, we get flowers plus the joy of seeing them in our garden.

October is Garlic Planting Time!

If you live in Michigan, October is when we usually plant our spring-flowering bulbs, and that includes garlic. I’ve written an entire post with the details about how to grow garlic, but I figured it might be fun to share some step-by-step photos of this year’s garlic planting.

This year, we ordered Red Chinook garlic. It’s a hardneck variety, which is essential here in our cold Michigan climate. One pound of garlic yielded around 60 cloves — if every clove grows into a bulb (or head) of garlic, we’ll have over a head of garlic per week after next year’s harvest.

I might need to plant more.

Most hardneck varieties of garlic provide 5 to 7 cloves per head, so if you don’t use a ton of garlic in your cooking, a pound of garlic should do it for you. We use quite a bit more than that, so I’m thinking of trying to get my hands on another pound of garlic before the month is up.

Buying Garlic for Planting

I usually order my garlic in August or whenever seed catalogs start emailing me that they have garlic available. The earlier you order, the better chance you have of getting the variety you want — certain varieties tend to sell out quickly. So I order in August or September, and then the company ships the garlic at the right time for planting, which is great — you don’t have to worry about storing your garlic before planting and it won’t dry out on you. Once you have your garlic, plant it as soon as you can so it can start getting established in your garden.

If you don’t manage to order in time, or if you, like me, just need more garlic, another good idea is to look at your local farmer’s market or grocer for locally-grown organic garlic. You can plant cloves from this garlic as well, and because it’s local, you already know that it grows well in your area.

Planting Garlic

garden bed preparation for planting garlic

As with all gardening, the most important step is prepping the soil. Here at our new place, we have the exact opposite soil we gardened in for all those years in Detroit. We had heavy clay soil at our old place, and here, our soil is very sandy (Kalkaska sand, to be specific). At our old place, we were always trying to lighten up our soil. Here, our main priority is adding nutrients and moisture retaining materials. The funny thing is that in either situation, you want to add lots and lots of compost.

That stuff is magical. Seriously.

So to this bed, which we just dug last month, we added plenty of compost, composted manure, and peat. Garlic likes well-drained, nutrient-rich soil, so all of that composted manure will be appreciated. To up the nutrients in our sandy soil, I also added a slow-release organic fertilizer to the soil and mixed it in. In this case, I added Espoma Garden-Tone. This bed is dug about a foot deep. Garlic likes deep roots, so it will get off to a good start if you take the time to dig the bed deeply.

head of garlic, garlic bulb, planting garlic

When you receive your planting garlic, it will look just like it does when you buy garlic at the grocery store — in heads (or bulbs).

As an aside, how pretty is that Red Chinook garlic? I just love the color of this variety.

So once you have your bed ready, go ahead and separate these heads into individual cloves.

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A quick note: don’t do this too far in advance. A day or two at most, otherwise the cloves might dry out and they won’t be any good for planting. I always divide my garlic heads right before I’m ready to plant them.

Once you have them divided, it’s time to plant. Dig holes or trenches two to three inches deep. If you have heavy clay, as I did in my old garden, sometimes it’s easier to just dig a long trench, plunk the cloves in, and cover it all over. However, if you have nice, loose soil, it’s very easy to either just poke the cloves into the soil with your fingers, or use a small trowel to pull the soil aside, pop a clove in, and cover it over.

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When you plant garlic, make sure you’re planting it right side up. There’s a root end and stem end. The stem end is pointy, and you want that pointing up.

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I like to set my cloves out into the bed first, so I can make sure I’m getting the spacing right. Garlic should be planted about four inches apart.

What’s Next?

Once you have all of  your garlic planted, it’s a great idea to cover the area with four to six inches of mulch. Autumn leaves work (chop them first with a lawnmower), as does straw or shredded bark. The reason we mulch it is to not only keep the soil moist, but also because in areas where we have issues with the ground freezing and thawing during the season, having the mulch in place helps prevent frost heaving. (Frost heaving happens when the ground freezes and thaws and ends up pushing the bulbs, or even entire plants, right out of the soil. Definitely not what we want!)

And with that, you’re done. Next spring, you’ll start seeing the garlic foliage and scapes popping up in the garden, and then you’ll know you’re only a few months away from harvesting your own home-grown garlic.

I hope this was helpful. If you have any questions about growing garlic, don’t be shy — go ahead and ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer. Thanks for reading!

Michigan Gardening To-Do List: October

October Raspberries

Here’s a quick list of what needs to get done in your garden in October:

Herb/Vegetable Garden

  • Plant garlic for harvest next summer.
  • Keep watering and weeding.
  • Harvest regularly to keep plants producing well.
  • Reduce the numbers of overwintering pests and diseases by cleaning up garden debris.
  • Sow more fall crops directly into your garden, including mesclun, spinach, mache, radishes, and carrots.

Annuals

  • Keep deadheading to keep plants looking their best.
  • Water regularly.
  • Remove summer annuals that may be looking ragged and replace with fall flowers, such as mums, asters, ornamental kale, or pansies.

Perennials

  • October is a great time to dig and divide any perennials that look overgrown to you. To protect against a sudden freeze mulch the newly divided plants heavily with fall leaves. Check out our Michigan Frost Dates to find your frost dates.
  • You can usually get good deals on many plants this month, when garden centers and nurseries start running their “fall planting” sales. As above, make sure you protect these new plants with a thick layer of mulch.

Bulbs

  • You can continue planting spring-blooming bulbs, such as tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, muscari, and snowdrops.
  • If squirrels or other wildlife dig up your bulbs, place a section of chicken wire or metal hardware cloth over the area. Pin it down and cover it with mulch. This should protect it from those pesky critters.

Trees and Shrubs

  • Trees and shrubs will need an inch of water per week to stay healthy, either from rain or from the hose.

10 Ways to Recycle a Jack O’ Lantern

It’s the day after Halloween. No sign of the Great Pumpkin yet again, and I’m doing my best to resist the 4 huge buckets of candy in the kitchen. Mmmm….Snickers….

The other sign that Halloween has passed us by is the sight of dozens of carved, soggy, perhaps squirrel-chewed Jack O’ Lanterns sitting on the curb. Much like my obsession with leaves, I confess to wanting to give people who throw pumpkins away a good talking-to. Nearly half of all U.S. households carve a pumpkin every year (at least one!) That’s a lot of waste if even some of us just toss them in the garbage. So rather than raving like a lunatic, I’ll post some constructive ideas here, instead.

10 Ideas for Recycling Your Jack O’Lantern

  1. Chop them up (I just use a shovel) and toss them in your compost bin.
  2. If you like squirrels, leave the pumpkin out and let the squirrels devour it.
  3. If you have a worm bin, cut your Jack O’Lantern into smaller pieces and give it to the worms. They LOVE pumpkin, in my experience.
  4. Via my About.com colleague Melissa Mayntz, cut it in half and use it as a bird feeder.
  5. Chop ’em up a little and place them at the bottom of a lasagna garden or new raised bed. (I think just about every raised bed in my garden was started on a foundation of old Jack O’Lanterns and fall leaves.)
  6. If your Jack O’ Lantern is still pretty fresh (not moldy, soft, or smelly – meaning you just carved it in the last day or so) you can turn what’s left into pumpkin puree. Just remove any soft spots, wax or soot from candles. {You can also turn your puree into pumpkin butter — yum!}
  7. Pamper yourself with a pumpkin puree pedicure.
  8. Puree the flesh, and make your own pumpkin body moisturizer.
  9. Bury it. If you’re not starting a new garden bed, you can dig a hole in an existing bed (perhaps you’re planting some trees, shrubs, or perennials anyway?) and place pieces of the pumpkin in the bottom. Instant boost of nitrogen and organic matter!
  10. Science experiment. If you have curious kids, just let the Jack O’ Lantern sit in your yard for as long as you can stand it. Let them note all of the fun, gross things that happen to a pumpkin as it decays: the mold, the sogginess, the eventual collapse into itself. If you think ahead and happen to set your Jack O’ Lantern on top of your compost pile, you won’t have any slimy clean-up to do afterwards!

So, no more Jack O’ Lanterns on the curb after Halloween, right? Right.

Michigan Gardening To Do List for May

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Planting time is here! We made it through another long, cold winter, Michigan!

Now, it’s time to get growing.

 

It’s time to get those transplants outside and time for more direct sowing in the garden. Just be sure to keep an eye on the weather forecast and those night time temps. A late freeze can zap your young plants, ruining all of your hard work. Check out our Michigan Frost Dates page to find the average date of the last frost in your area.

Be sure to harden off your transplants by setting them outdoors during the day and bringing them back inside at night for a week or two before you intend to plant them. And keep an eye on the soil moisture to ensure that your transplants do not wilt.

Also, now is a great time to plan out any succession planting you want to do this year. Johnny’s Select Seeds has an excellent succession planting calculator to help you plan ahead and stay on track.

Here is a quick list of sowing dates for many common vegetables:

Sow Indoors

  • Corn – Through May 21 (This usually does better sown directly into the garden, but if you’re trying to get a jump on your planting, you can certainly give it a try. Just try not to disturb the roots too much during transplanting.)
  • Cucumber – Through May 21
  • Melons – May 1 – May 21
  •  Pumpkins – Through May 21

Sow Outdoors

All of the following cool season crops can be sown outdoors during the month of May. Warmer season crops like cucumbers, melons, squash, and tomatoes can be direct sown toward the end of May (or early June) after soil temps rise a bit and the danger of frost passes.

  • Beets
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leaf Lettuces
  • Mustard Greens
  • Onions
  • Parsnips
  • Peas
  • Radish
  • Spinach
  • Swiss Chard
  • Turnips
  •