Early Spring Gardening- Achieving More with Less

Buy bare root Hosta crowns now to produce your own gorgeous plants this spring

January is the perfect time of year for frugal gardeners to get a head start on spring.  As we pile on sweaters, we enjoy paging through nursery and seed catalogs and planning for the seasons ahead.   Garden magazines offer a preview of new cultivars hitting the market.  We weigh the merits of melons, tomatoes, and leafy greens, working the mental puzzle of what might fit where.  Online marketers become our best garden ‘pen pals’ with daily email temptations.

The last time I went down that rabbit-hole with the always reliable Quakin’ Grass Nursery, I discovered that the Magnolia tree I fancied, arriving in a 2 qt. pot, would cost nearly $40 before tax and postage were tacked on.  Ouch.  Nursery prices have increased quite a bit in recent years, as you have probably noticed, too.

Redbud, Cercis canadensis, and dogwood bloom in early April. Redbud is one of many flowering shrubs available bare root to plant in late winter.

These folks all need to make a living, and of course the prices of supplies, energy, and shipping continue to rise, too.  There are other costs we might not even consider.  What happens to all those plastic pots, and the shipping cartons, once we plant our new acquisitions?  What about the fuel expended in shipping plants across country?

Planning ahead and starting earlier offers opportunities to achieve more of our gardening goals with less financial investment, and perhaps lower environmental costs as well.   Beginning to work with plants at an earlier stage of their growth allows us to get to know the species better and have more control of their eventual growth.  We also have the deep satisfaction of watching bits and pieces of life grow into gorgeous plants.

Always begin with good soil. Mix your own potting soil using less expensive topsoil, compost, and shredded bark mulch to make your project even more economical.

There are several ways to begin, depending on your goals.  And there are ways to grow plants for less throughout the year.  I’m going to focus, in this post, on a few strategies for January through March.   

There are also a few things to consider that will determine the success of our efforts. Study the cultural requirements of each plant that you would like to grow. How much warmth, light, and water does it require, and when?

Cold hardy woody plants and perennials are the easiest to start off early. You may plant them now so their roots can establish, allowing them to leaf out later in spring when it is warm enough for them to grow. If you start new plants early indoors, can you provide enough light to get them off to a good start until it is warm enough for them to thrive outside?

Begonias are tender perennials, often sold as tubers that you can start at home. Tropical plants may need the weather to warm up, in early summer, before they will thrive outside.

If you want to get a head start on annuals, vegetables like tomatoes and squash, or tender perennials, it is smart to time when you start them indoors so that you can move them out to the garden as soon as they reach the best stage of growth for planting out. This may require a bit of math and a bit of faith. We’ve had some late spring cold weather in recent years. I’ve had to hold Caladiums in the garage weeks longer than planned waiting for the weather to warm. If you plant out some things, like tomatoes, too early, you can stunt their growth for the season.

Few of us are blessed with a greenhouse and we don’t all have room for a shelving unit equipped with heat mats and grow-lights.  These things can help with the process but aren’t required.  All that is needed is some space to work, a supply of good potting mix and some empty containers.  The containers can even be recycled from other purposes.

Line a plastic box with paper towels to wick water evenly, then partially fill with potting mix, before planting to get an early start on the season. Cover the box to conserve moisture until new leaves appear.

Anyone gardening on a shoestring budget will find more ways to save. Start some plants indoors in cardboard boxes lined with plastic trash bags. Fiber ‘grow bags’ filled with potting soil or compost will support potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, and many other edible or ornamental plants in a small space. Commercial bagged ‘topsoil’ is much cheaper than name brand ‘potting soil,’ and may be better for starting trees and some vegetables. Mix it with hardwood mulch to fill large containers or grow-bags that will support plants all season.

Many of us start our own vegetables and annual flowers from seeds. Seeds are widely available in early spring. Follow the directions on the packet for how to sow the seeds. Some seeds need light to germinate and others want to be covered with a thin layer of soil. ‘Days to germination’ tells you how long it will take to see the first set of leaves appear. Plants will need good light to grow larger once they have leaves. We can begin to move them outside into the shade on warm days, bringing them back indoors on cold nights, until time to leave them out permanently.

Avacodo seedlings will grow into trees. Hardy in Zones 10-12, they need winter protection.

The same plant can vary wildly in price depending on where and how you acquire it.  The best deals come ‘bare root,’ or even ‘no-root.’  If you are looking for trees or shrubs, it pays to shop around with online bare-root nurseries.  When you join or renew your membership with the Arbor Day Foundation, you can select a set of 10 free trees.  These mostly native trees arrive bare root, wrapped well, and are ready to plant.  Membership also gives you a discount when you order from the Arbor Day online catalog, giving you access to a very large selection of trees and shrubs from a reputable source.

Pinus virginiana seedlings

The Virginia Department of Forestry sells a variety of native seedling trees to Virginia residents.  Find their catalog here.  So long as the trees are hardy to Zone 7, they can be planted at any time during the winter and early spring. You can still take hardwood cuttings to root more of trees and shrubs you already own, like figs or Japanese quince. It may take a year before they are developed enough to dig and replant where you want them, but you can get a start on those new plants now.

Once your bare root trees arrive, unwrap them, remove the packing materials, and soak them in a deep bucket of warm water for at least six hours.  They can soak overnight.  If you can’t plant them within a day, they can be ‘healed in’ in a shady spot, watered well, and held until planting.  Bare root trees can be planted in a large nursery pot in a mix of fine pine bark mulch and good compost and grown on for a year or two, or they can be planted directly into a prepared planting hole.  Plan to protect seedling trees with a protective tree tube, or with a simple chicken wire circular cage for their first year or two, if you have a problem with deer grazing in your yard.

This oak seedling I ordered from the Arbor Day Foundation has been grazed by deer several times. Protecting young trees makes a huge difference in helping them grow quickly.

A wide variety of bare-root herbaceous perennials may be ordered from online nurseries or picked up at local hardware and big-box stores.  You may find packs of six or more bare root plants packaged in a plastic bag.  If these plants are hardy to Zone 7, they can be planted outside during the winter months.  If you want them to leaf out early, then plant them in pots and shelter them in a basement or garage until their leaves emerge.  Protect an emerging plant from frost, even if you begin to move the pots outside during the day to harden them off.

Soak bare root stock in warm water for at least six hours to help the plant re-hydrate before planting it in a good potting soil, or topsoil/compost mixed with fine bark mulch.  Use 2 or 3 parts soil to one part mulch.  You can add a little organic fish emulsion, like Neptune’s Harvest, to the water as new plants soak to get them off to a strong start.

Use a nursery or clay pot large enough to accommodate the plant’s roots with an inch or two to spare.  Spread the roots out evenly on a ‘mound’ of soil in the middle of the pot, and make sure the spot where the roots meet the crown is right at, or just below, the soil level.  Instructions should be printed on the package to indicate planting depth.  Water the plant in carefully, and then mulch the pots with finely shredded bark mulch, bonsai mix, or fine gravel to help conserve moisture and keep the plant clean once it begins to grow.  This helps control the spread of plant diseases.

German hybrid Iris keep their leaves through our winter and will grow well in pots, as will most Iris.

I place pots with my newly planted perennials in a flat or shallow plastic storage box while they begin to grow.  These stay in the basement or garage where temperatures remain around 50F, until time to harden the plants off outside in early spring.

Hostas, various ferns, bleeding heart, Gladiolus, Clematis, calla and Canna lilies are common plants offered boxed and bagged in late winter, along with grape vines and berry bushes.  You may also find strawberry crowns, asparagus and rhubarb roots and potato starts.  This is a very economical way to begin the gardening season.  Most of the bare-root perennials grow very quickly once they are planted and look much like the commercial potted plants that will come to market in April and May.  Work some compost or appropriate fertilizer into the bed when planting food-producing plants.

Caladiums contain calcium oxalate crystals, causing severe mouth irritation to any creature that might take a nibble.

Tender perennials, like Caladiums, Dahlias, Begonias and Colocasia, will turn up on these same retail displays and can also be ordered online.  Order early with companies like Brent and Becky’s Bulbs to receive a substantial discount. They will ship the plants to you later in the spring.

You may pay $3 for a Caladium tuber in late winter, and then find a growing plant of the same variety for close to $10.00 in June.  Summer ‘bulbs’ are quite often tender perennials (hardy in Zones 10-12) that many folks treat like annuals.  You buy them as bulbs, corms or tubers, without any visible roots or stems. 

Start summer ‘bulbs’ indoors, in boxes of potting soil or in individual nursery pots, so they are in leaf and ready to go outside once the weather settles in mid-May.  They grow best when the weather heats up, so wait to start their growth until 4-6 weeks before you can plant them outdoors.   Like tomatoes, they don’t like cold soil.  Growers suggest waiting until the ground has warmed up to around 60F before planting Caladium tubers in the ground. 

Turmeric in bloom. A beautiful foliage plant, much like ginger, which grows from an edible tuber.

Finally, remember to shop the produce department of your grocery store for inexpensive plants.  Grow houseplants from saved avocado, date, citrus, tamarind, apple or pear seeds.  Plant fresh ginger or turmeric in a pot horizontally, just under the soil.  They are beautiful foliage plants and may bloom outside by late summer.  Both are tender but will grow indoors through the winter in bright light. 

Buy small pots of herbs to plant in late April, or root stems of most herbs in water.  Partially plant a sweet potato in potting soil to grow ‘starts’ for your garden.  New stems, gently pulled away from the potato, will root in water or moist soil.  Use these to grow a crop of sweet potatoes or to fill out hanging baskets and planters with beautiful vines.

Sweet potatoes develop ‘eyes’ in late winter that will grow into new stems. Partly bury the potato in moist sand or soil, or suspend the potato in a jar of water. Roots will develop from the potato and the stems will begin to grow.

Carrots will still grow for another season.  Their flowers look like Queen Anne’s lace, and support pollinators.  Any carrot that still has its crown can grow new roots and leaves.  Plant it vertically in a pot, or directly in the ground, and keep it well-watered while it grows back its roots. 

Carrots are biennials and bloom in their second year of growth. Plant a grocery store carrot and watch the plant grow from it and bloom.

Some grocery stores also sell yucca, horseradish, and taro roots.  They will produce beautiful plants if you plant them instead of eating them.  Cactus pads may also root and grow into cactus plants if planted in moist sand or coarse soil. Garlic cloves, separated from the head and planted just under the soil will produce a new edible flowering plant.

It may be cold and grey outside, but there are lots of enjoyable little things we can do now to get a good start on the gardening season.  With a bit of imagination and care we can produce a variety of interesting plants with very little financial investment.

Calla lilies grow easily from tubers planted in early spring


  1. Avocado trees that grow from seed are likely to exhibit some degree of genetic variability, so might generate fruit that is very different from the fruit that provided their original seed, although such variability is generally minimal, and could be imperceptible. Such trees must mature before they produce any fruit, and that may take several years. Their juvenile growth is very vigorous and very upright. Pruning them down to keep their expected fruit within reach is rather disfiguring. Most of the avocado trees that I remember from the Santa Clara Valley during the 1970s were grown from seed, and I can only remember one that made fruit that was no good. As the trees matured and developed lower and more spreading branch structure, they were more conducive to pruning, but also needed less pruning. Nursery trees are grafted with adult scions of known cultivars, so can start producing fruit of predictable quality as soon as they get established.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Tony! Wonderful to hear from you! Thank you for sharing this excellent information about growing avocados. To keep a tree long enough to produce fruit here in Virginia one needs a greenhouse or an atrium. And of course, several trees are needed for cross-pollination. We can’t keep them outside since they are so frost-sensitive, and must enjoy them indoors in the winter and outside in April through late October or early November. Last year’s trees are loving life in our sunny garage at the moment. I am amazed though, eating my way through a winter’s worth of avocados, at the amazing variety among their seeds. Happy New Year! e

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      • Oh my, I forgot who I was responding to. Avocado trees are nice large houseplants also. They are not as full as Ficus, but are sort of jungly. I grew one up over my desk when I was in high school. The ceiling was only eight feet high, so the tree flared out and grew over my desk.
        The butterfly ginger that you sent seems to be doing well. I have nothing to compare it to. Two rhizomes are still canned, but are technically ready to go into a garden. I only keep them canned until a garden is ready for them. The others developed a small colony on the very corner of the white garden. They will likely get relocated onto the opposite side of the sidewalk as they grow, but I am in no hurry to do that. Although the two extra beautyberry seedlings did not survive, the six originals are now in #1 cans, and ready for a landscape. My garden is not ready for them yet, but landscapes at work are.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for the update, Tony. I have wondered how everything was doing. The palms are all growing strong. I grew two surrounded by white geraniums at the Garden this summer, and the other two are beside my front porch. I filled the pots at the garden with spring blooming bulbs to come up around the palms. I finished my work there last month, so time will tell what other gardeners decide to plant around them this summer coming. Thank you again for your generosity with those beautiful palms. Looking back at photos of them when you sent them, I can see how much they have already grown!
        I gave 3 rooted Avocado pits to a friend last week and she plans to grow them together in a 3 gal. pot. I suggested that as they grow, she might braid the stems as some growers braid F. benjamina. I would have love to have seen your huge avocado over your desk! I have one on the counter by my kitchen sink nearly 3′ tall with several sets of leaves, and I’ve been wondering whether to pinch the tip or let it keep going. It is a beauty! The gingers quickly form colonies. Once you have it established, you’ll have a nearly endless supply for spreading around. Their fragrance in late summer is simply intoxicating.

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      • With all the Canna we have here, I am hesitant to intentionally acquire any more, but might like to try ‘Alaska’, which is one of only a few white Canna. Even if I did acquire some, it is not actually white, but is merely very pale yellow. The white ginger is not only a better substitute for white Canna, but is also very fragrant. So far, I am not concerned about it getting to be too prolific. I can think of many places to relocate extra rhizomes to.

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      • Canna gets too eaten up here to remain pretty for long. It takes a lot of maintenance to cut away the ruined leaves and spent blooms. I have had good luck with C. Bengal Tiger at the garden, but am not happy with Cannas planted at home. The Hedychium is a far more attractive plant, and hummingbirds love it!

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      • Canna of all sorts do very well here, and some do a bit too well. They die back to the ground for winter, which facilitates their grooming. For some, I cut canes to the ground after bloom, since there are plenty of new canes to replace them. For others, I merely prune off the deteriorating bloom, but leave the foliated cane below until winter. In milder climates, where they do not die back for winter, old canes must be groomed out. It is likely easiest to prune each cane to the ground immediately after bloom, but those that just get deadheaded can linger a bit too long as their foliage gets shabby.

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  2. I saw a variegated leaf Zantedeschia on the Brecks website today. Have you ever grown one? I don’t mean spots, which are common. This one has wavy cream patches on the leaves. The one I saw had pink spathes. Pretty and unusual.

    I will try cutting back canes after flowering on my Cannas next summer. Some insect larvae chews and rolls up some of the developing leaves. I have never figured out what type of larvae. The cane still blooms, but the plant isn’t attractive. I have just been destroying those leaves and hoping for more flowers. Ours die back to the ground after a hard frost, if I don’t cut them back before. Which tool do you use to cut back the canes?


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