The great thing about winter (if you don’t like winter) is that the day it starts, it feels like the end is in sight — literally. Because even though the bitterest cold and most treacherous driving conditions are probably still ahead, the days are getting longer!
Which brings me, of course, to gardening. My favorite post-holiday pastime is ordering seeds. Seed catalogs fill me with the same excitement and hope I used to get devouring the Sears Wish Book as a child in the 1970s.
My favorites sell so much more than seeds: They are dream purveyors. When the world outside my window is 50 shades of tan, their glossy pages teem with green — and red and yellow and purple and orange, but mostly green.
Besides crisp close-up shots of mature edibles, my favorite catalogs also showcase spring and summer garden landscapes: a Peter Rabbit buffet of tiny new lettuces poking out of rich black soil, or scarlet runner beans twining up a white-washed fence post. Visions of garden beds dance in my head.
There are dozens of seed catalogs out there, and I have purchased from many of them, but my three favorite catalogs for variety, plant histories and beautiful pictures are:
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds: This Mansfield, Mo., company (45 miles east of Springfield) has a world of flavors for sale. In addition to all the traditional American heirlooms, it collects and tests seeds from around the globe to see what will grow well here. 417-924-8917, rareseeds.com.
Seed Savers Exchange: Seed Savers focuses on preserving old American plant varieties and the stories of the people who first grew them. Bucolic photos of the company’s Decorah, Iowa, headquarters warm my heart on cold days. 563-382-5990, seedsavers.org.
Territorial Seed: One of the first to target cooks with its catalog, this family-owned Oregon company is known for its winter garden selections. 800-626-0866, territorialseed.com.
Leafing through the catalogs, it is easy to get distracted by the va-va-voom summer crops, but it is too early to plant them now. Cucumbers, beans, cantaloupe and watermelon do best planted directly outdoors in warm soil. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplant perform better started indoors, but not till March.
But January is prime time for starting lettuce, chard and hipster-fave kale indoors. You can try your luck on a sunny, south-facing window sill, but seedlings grown under lights on a timer (16 hours on, 8 off) do much better.
Skip the expensive grow lights and buy a shop light with two fluorescent tubes, one warm (kitchen) and one cold (bathroom). Keep the lights just 2 inches from the tops of the plants. You can do that by either hanging the light from chains so you can move it up and down, or by mounting the light in a fixed position and moving the plant trays up and down.
If you have one shop light, you can place two plastic grow trays under it end-to-end. But the best set-up is two shop lights mounted side-by-side with four grow trays side-by-side underneath.
I’ve switched from using the 96-cell tray inserts in favor of 36-cell inserts. The larger cells let each head of lettuce develop a larger root ball, and the cells around the edges don’t dry out as quickly. Also, with the 36-cell inserts, you can grow the lettuce to full size without transplanting — just set the trays outside in March and bring them back in the house if temperatures drop below 30 degrees.
I prefer to transplant lettuce into untreated-wood pallets filled with soil, surrounded by straw bales. The straw provides some temperature buffering and on really cold nights, I lay heavy plastic sheeting across the top.
That leads me to now, the last days of the year, and the very best part: Ordering the seeds for the prettiest, ruffliest, most colorful lettuces I can find.