Best Seeds For Planting In Jan/Feb in Any Climate

Hello all! I got a seed order yesterday which has prompted me to create a list of the best seeds for planting outdoors right now, in January, even if you live in a sub-freezing climate. I was so excited by the email below -- I think it is great that so many of you are starting winter gardening! Here is what this couple wrote to me:

“Hi Caleb. My wife and I have just finished reading your Forgotten Skills book and would really like to start our own winter garden. I have built some cold frames out of free wood I found on and we already have a system for starting seeds in the house. We are excited to use open-pollinating seeds and garden for more than just 3 months out of the year. I don't know if starting off in the middle of winter is the best idea but we really are too excited to wait until spring. So we would like to order some seeds from you:

One packet of America spinach
One packet of Grand Rapids lettuce
One packet of Buttercrunch lettuce
One packet of Scarlet Nantes carrots”

This is Caleb again. Some of these would not all be my first choice for beginners to plant in January, so I thought it would be helpful to share my experience with what works best from seed outdoors in winter. Here is what I would recommend to any of you itching to start winter gardening today! I have all of these seeds available for order now.

1. Cascadia Peas. Why? Because they are almost unbelievably frost hardy -- more hardy than all other peas I’ve tried. And they germinate in cold soil. And, best of all, you can eat the leaves and they taste just like peas -- just like them! -- in salads, so you can start harvesting something immediately. Of course, don’t overharvest the leaves or you won’t get actual peas!

2. Mizuna. This extraordinary Asian green grows unbelievably fast. It does not seem at all fazed by bitter cold, and it has a beautiful frisee leaf. The goal of planting from seed in January is to get food to eat self-sufficiently as fast as possible, which is why Mizuna is a great choice. I just planted a bunch of this seed and it is growing very well.

3. Rutabaga. These wonderful root vegetables only sprout in cool weather, and right now they are thriving at my house, planted this month from seed. These make the very best mashed potatoes. You probably haven’t tried a rutabaga. They are like a cross between a carrot and a sugar beet in flavor. You’ll love them!

4. Red Orach. This is a relative of spinach and you eat it used just like it. It produces beautiful red-purple leaves that can be eaten raw or sauteed. I love it in an omelet! This vegetable just loves to sprout in winter. And it’s great to have a fresh winter “green” that isn’t green!

5. Basil. We can never get enough of this herb at our house. Can you even eat pasta without basil? And if you are not putting basil on your beef roasts, you are missing out! Yet basil can be finicky to sprout if the weather is not cool. It will sprout in January, and do even better in February.

6. Amsterdam Forcing Carrot. I have never been able to start carrots in January until I found this very old European winter carrot. I am one of only two seller of this seed in the U.S. -- it is extremely difficult to come by. The great thing about planting carrots in January is that it really starts you on your way to being self-sufficient year-round in carrots, like we are at our house. And it’s fun!

7. America Spinach. This is traditional spinach, and it will sprout in January, but it can be slow to grow, especially in the beginning. But once it is up and going, you’ll have spinach all spring!

8. Grand Rapids Lettuce. This is by far the fastest growing lettuce out of more than 100 varieties I have trialed -- it is just amazing. If you want self-sufficient fresh lettuce fast, this is the place to start. In a hot bed it grows an astonishing four inches A WEEK! It is cut and come again -- so to harvest, just cut it off at the soil level. It will grow right back, over and over again. 

9. Extra Dwarf Pak Choi. A fun miniature Chinese cabbage that grows very fast and loves cold weather. Tender and succulent to eat, great in salad, steam, raw, or stir-fry!

10. Osaka Purple Mustard Greens. Purple and green leaves with a spicy kick. Put a little in a salad for a burst of taste.
I’ve chosen all of these for the winter garden beginner. They are the easiest to sprout, and the most durable in bitter weather. Now a couple of quick notes on planting seed outdoors in January and February. You must at least have a cold frame made of greenhouse plastic or glass. You must place the cold frame in the garden where you want to plant for at least a few days with sun before you plant. All snow has to be melted, and the ground has to be unfrozen (which is what the cold frame will do for you). Everything on the list above will sprout faster, and grow three times faster, if you put it in a natural hot bed covered by a cold frame. Everything you need to know about hot beds and cold frames will be in my new Backyard Winter Gardening book which comes out in February. In the meantime, you can email me and I’ll try get to you, but remember I get hundreds of emails every single day, so be patient with me :) Here is the link again for buying my seeds -- and remember, all of the advice above is not from books, it from my garden. We believe we are the last family in the U.S. to grow an extensive winter garden. Join us! You won’t regret eating fresh and free in winter! -Caleb


  1. what's your recommendation for the clear part of the cold frame for 10 degrees colder than where you are- Northern Utah? Is there anything I can get locally? I'm so excited I want to get started on it now!

  2. I'm about to order seeds to plant in my cold frame. Would you give some hints for starting them since your book isn't out yet (I have pre-ordered from Amazon)?

  3. (Came here because of the link given by Radio Ecoshock.)
    Cold frames never reliably unfroze the soil for me - perhaps you get a lot more sunshine in the winter than we do here in Northern Germany, even if your temperatures drop lower. (We're 1 degree north of Calgary, Canada and have notoriously cloudly winters.)

    I have had more luck sowing greens like Mizuna or Rucola (grows very fast and can stand at least short freezes without problem) quite late (October) into long balcony planters (the kind you hang off the railing), and then carry those inside in the deep-freezing nights. Later, when the soil really starts freezing solid so water-access becomes a problem, the planters go into the unheated greenhouse, where I manage to maintain temperatures around the freezing point during most winters. The salads don't really grow enough to harvest more than once over the course of the winter in our dim light, but the already established plants get a huge head start in the spring compared to new sowings. The Mizuna tripled its size in the same time as the snow drops bloomed, and the Rucola (which I couldn't use up early enough) is starting to form blossoms right now. Even some experimental fall-sown basic cutting-leaf salad ("Salad Bowl") survived the winter in the greenhouse, but now that it's got enough light to actually continue growing, it's also getting aphids. I didn't know that was even possible in March...

    About half of the Rucola that I planted outside in massive, wardrobe-sized raised bed (covered with a protective fleece, but the soil was still frozen solid for some 2 months straight) survived as well, though it's taking a lot longer to get its spring growth spurt. The supposedly so frost-hardy winter endives ("Green Escariol") in the same bed also partly survived, but only their hearts.
    I've also found that the heart/root of swiss chard ("Lucullus") will survive the winter, if it gets a thick blanket of dry leaves. (Though only in ground plantings in a bed that gets a lot of afternoon light; the plants in the less warmth-retaining raised bed mostly died.) Then they form new leaves as soon as the soil thawes and the sun is strong enough.
    (For comparison to your local climate, our minimum air temperature this winter was -13.5°C / 7.7°F, with general nighttime temperatures dropping below -10°C / 14°F only occasionally, but with little to no insulating snow cover. Daytime temperatures often went above freezing, though not enough to thaw the soil until late February.)

    I didn't grow it this year, because the plant doesn't taste particularly interesting nor grows nearly as big as other salads, but corn salad / lamb's lettuce is easy to grow if sown in the fall, and it's amazingly frost-hardy. Not only does it survive in soil that's frozen solid for months (even in pots!) and with no protection from freezing air, but I've had plants that were literally encased in ice from rainwater accumulating on frozen pots, and they were perfectly fine once they thawed out again weeks later.

    1. Also, if you can manage to thaw out your soil enough to sow Mizuna in January, then you probably could start with the most hardy, fast-growing radishes just as early. (We have a variety called "Saxa" that germinates at 8°C / 46°F and can take the occasional night freeze. I usually start sowing it in mid March, outside without any protection, but the package says it can be sown in February under glass. I bet you could sow it even earlier in areas that have more sunlight hours during winter than we do. For me, it takes 8-10 weeks to harvest if sown in February/March, and 6 weeks if sown in April/May, since the plants just get that much more energy when the sun stands higher in the sky. So it doesn't make much sense for me to start earlier.) Radishes are the easiest thing to grow that I can think of, especially for kids. Just make sure it's a sunny spot, fertilize the soil a little (otherwise they take 2-4 weeks longer), sow, and leave. Even the slugs leave them in peace.

      Another thing that was popular as a "hungry gap" vegetable from the Romans to my grandparents' time is ground elder / goutweed / snow-in-the-mountain (Aegopodium podagraria). That's the reason it exists as such a persistent 'weed' in old farmers' gardens and cloisters. It's not actually a weed - it only thrives on nutrient-rich soil, though it's one of the few edible plants that does well in shade, so it doesn't have to take up space that's otherwise needed. You have to put a root barrier around it, though, since it propagates through even tiny bits of root. (Personally, I don't bother. I don't try to maintain a mono-culture lawn, and the roots don't seem to survive even a basic, cold composting process, so I haven't managed to infect my vegetable beds yet.) The advantage to having ground elder in the garden is that, given appropriate soil and moisture, you can pretty much leave it to its own devices. It grows as perennial, fast-spreading ground-cover and it sprouts quite early each year - here it does in March. The young, not quite unfurled leaves are best to eat (tastes like a cross between spinach, parsley and carrot greens), even raw in small amounts (i.e. use to season potatoes or root vegetale stews), though you can also stir-fry the leaves when they're larger if you want more mass. But don't eat the plant once it's started blooming (early summer), since then it starts tasting pungent and working as a laxative. Supposedly, it has a high vitamin C content and saved quite a few people here from scurvy during the famine after the war.

  4. I can’t wait to read your new book! I am wanting to plant a garden now in Southern Utah. Would these same recommendations work to plant now and “winter over” in a less cool to sometimes cold winter?