Starting spring with seedlings

tomato seedling

We’ve once again passed through the darkest part of the year, and I can’t remember it ever feeling quite this good. Though the light has been growing stronger ever since the winter solstice in December, the days are now officially longer than the nights. The growing season has arrived. 

Here on the Northern Plains, the vernal equinox — aka the first day of spring — often doesn’t feel much like spring. Even if it does by chance land on a warm day, as it did this year, we all know better than to assume spring has officially sprung. 

Our last frost date isn’t until mid-May, and in the nearly 12 years since I first moved here, March and April have often been the snowiest months of all. 

In other words, though there might technically be enough light for plants to start growing, only the hardiest of hardy stems will attempt an ascent from the still-frozen soil this early. In a few months, when other regions will be at the height of spring’s fecundity, we will just be getting started. 

Ready to go

I’m not very patient with this process. By early March, I feel like a racehorse trapped behind the gate, waiting for the starting pistol to set me free. I’m ready to be gardening, hands in the soil, fingernails ragged and brown. 

My solution: start far too many seeds indoors than I technically have room to house. I’ve spent many an April blizzard tending scraggly, root-bound plants, seedlings so leggy they looked ready to walk out of the pots and put themselves into the ground — if the ground weren’t covered by a foot of snow, that is. 

A few years ago, my husband built me a small, lean-to greenhouse, and that’s helped some. 

Now, the dining room table remains a dining room table instead of transforming into a plant hospital, but an unheated greenhouse in western Dakota is only a satisfactory home for a pretty tough seedling, so the counters and window sills still get very crowded. 

This year, I waited longer than usual to start planting my starts — until last week, in fact. This feat of restraint can only be explained by the fact that I had some necessary supplies delayed by the mail, NOT because I’ve actually finally learned my lesson. 

Mud and possibilities

The day I began planting it was really warm in the greenhouse. So warm, it felt more like summer than spring. The world outside looked bleak and brown through the greenhouse walls, the grass stubbled winter gray, but inside it smelled of mud and possibilities. 

The first flies awakened and buzzed over my head, and with my sleeves rolled up past my elbows, into the dirt I tucked tomato and pepper seeds I’d saved from last year’s garden, then placing them in rows on rusted cookie sheets. They’ll be in plastic bags on top of my refrigerator until they germinate and then spread across the table in front of our south-facing picture window for a week or two after that. 

Inside the greenhouse, I seeded dirt-filled lick barrels with radishes, green onions, and leafy greens like kale and chard. If I cover them at night we might even have a few leaves to trim as garnish for deviled eggs on Easter. A week after that, we could have a small fresh salad perhaps. 

Meanwhile, the windbreaks are alive with music. The robins have returned with their coarse, shrill whistles, the redwing blackbirds as well, and a few random crows that always migrate through but never stay for long, arrived. “Caw Caw!’ They call politely down to me from the bare, gray branches, sounding nothing at all like the cacophony of crows I remember from my city days. 

Next week there might be a blizzard. The week after, sleet and ice. (And honestly, as dry as it is, no one will be sad about either of those things — we will take the moisture however we can get it!) But for now, I can pretend it’s really truly spring, and that feels fantastic.


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!



We are glad you have chosen to leave a comment. Please keep in mind that comments are moderated according to our comment policy.

Receive emails as this discussion progresses.