Though Christmas is past, we are still in for a long winters nap. A lot of our serious cold weather comes after the holidays. That is OK because a long, cool, moist winter is important for our plants. Though plants appear to be dormant, they are counting the days until they can begin growth again.
Spring flowering plants such as azalea, dogwood and camellia need cold weather before they will bloom properly. These plants begin setting flower buds in mid-July. These buds survive through the winter and bloom the next spring. You can often identify these buds since they are usually larger than leaf buds.
Flower buds on spring blooming plants (those blooming before May 1) need a certain number of hours of cold weather before they will open in the spring. Different plants require a different number of hours of cold before they will bloom. For instance, forsythia requires only a little cold weather while cherry needs a lot more hours. This explains why we cannot grow some plants here, such as edible cherries. Cherries require so many hours of cold for their buds, and they usually not receive that from our winters.
Shrubs and trees that were planted in the past year or so also can take advantage of the cooler, wetter weather to develop a strong root system. This is one reason that winter is the best time to plant trees and shrubs.
Our winters tend to be short compared with the rest of the nation. By the time we get past Christmas, vegetable gardeners are already planning to plant the spring garden. The appearance of the seed catalogs in the mail and vegetable seeds in the garden center greatly encourage our planning. There are so many different varieties of vegetables. However, they tend to come in two types: cool season and warm season vegetables.
Cool season vegetables prefer cooler temperatures. They grow slowly in very cold weather, but they make good growth in the warmer days of fall, winter and spring. In general, cool season vegetables in central Georgia are best planted in fall and grown and harvested in the winter. For instance, many gardeners planted greens in fall so they could harvest them through the winter. In fact, winter-grown greens (and carrots) can actually taste sweeter than summer greens since winter crops tend to store more sugars.
There are several cool season vegetables that we can plant soon. English peas are the small, round, green peas that look like tiny, green marbles. There are two types of English peas: starchy and sweet. Also, look for the English pea relatives, snap peas and snow peas. Snap peas fill out like snap beans and are eaten whole. Snow peas are harvested before the peas inside develop. They are flat at harvest and are often used in Chinese food.
English peas, snow peas and snap peas can be planted beginning in late January. Harsh cold weather may damage the plants, but they generally survive. Do not wait until too late to plant. They will not survive when the weather gets hot. Till half of the fertilizer into the soil before planting and put the other half out when the plants are 3 to 4 inches tall. Some English peas may need a string or simple trellis to climb.
Plant onion sets or plants now. Onions planted from seeds will probably not survive the winter though. The biggest and best onions are probably those planted in the fall and grown through the winter.
We often hear of planting Irish potatoes on Valentines Day. I think this is probably a little early. They need well-drained and fairly warm soils or the seed pieces may rot. Irish potato plants also cannot stand frost once they come up. I would suggest a late February or early March planting date.
You can also plant asparagus, carrots, collards, cabbage, lettuce, mustard, radish, spinach, turnip and a few other cool season vegetables beginning about Feb. 1. Many warm season vegetables can be planted in late March and early April. For a complete vegetable gardening planting calendar, contact your local extension office by calling (800) ASK-UGA1.
Willie Chance works with the University of Georgia Center for Urban Agriculture.