My jungle still has the look of winter sleep, but a few plants are starting to stir. As expected, the buds are swelling on Cornelian cherry dogwood (Cornus mas) and fragrant dawn viburnum (Viburnum bodnantense 'Dawn'). Daffodils (Narcissus) and Italian arum (Arum italicum) are pushing, but unfortunately, so is the purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum). After looking closely, I noticed the hellebore (Helleborus spp.) blooms developing close to the ground but looking a bit rough around the edges. The same sub-zero temperatures that dinged up the hellebore bloom doesn't seem to have fazed the leaves of Prague viburnum (Viburnum x pragense), purple stem dwarf sweet box (Sarcococca hookeriana var. humilis 'Purple Stem'), cow's tail pine (Cephalotaxus harringtonia 'Duke Gardens') or Japanese Sacred Lily (Rohdea japonica). All add green color in a time of drab, but also texture and form beyond the standard evergreen conifers.
Regardless of what it looks like outside, the calendar tells me it is time to get prepared for planting the vegetable garden. First is knowing when the last average frost date occurs for the area, because planting dates for different groups of vegetables are based on this date. From state weather records averaged over the last 30 years, I know the median date for the last 32°F freeze for the St Louis metro east is roughly the 2nd week of April. First to be planted are the cold hardy vegetables, and as you can guess, they like the cold and are tolerant of frost. Cold hardy vegetables need to be planted in the window four to six weeks prior to the area's last average frost to mature before bolt-inducing heat. For me, February 24 through March 16 is my target window for direct seeding cold hardy vegetables like kale, kohlrabi, leaf lettuce, onion, pea, rutabaga, salsify, spinach and turnip. Soil temperature also plays a factor into early season planting. Pea for example requires a 45°F soil temperature for optimal germination, so avoid planting too early in the target window if soils have not warmed sufficiently.
A number of cold hardy vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and parsley are planted in this same window, but as transplants. For those growing their own transplants, plug trays should have been seeded roughly six weeks prior…the 2nd to 4th week of January. For the rest of us, purchasing transplants is an easy alternative. This is also the time to source vegetative material for planting horseradish (root), onion (set or plant), potato (tuber), rhubarb (crown or plant) and asparagus (crown).