I think gardening in January is nice. It's the time to peruse gardening catalogs to see what's new to try, or to look for oldie goldies that you have long wished to start. This research is important, and the best way to do it while your garden is sleeping in the cold outside is to eat leftover holiday goodies and drink spiced teas while you lounge in a fat easy chair and put your feet up. If anyone disturbs your concentration you can tell them to come back later as you are very busy. I get out different colored highlighters and begin my research.
Researching before you buy is very profitable. It not only helps you to avoid things that are not for our climate zone, but also you will find all sorts of new and fun things that probably will not be available in any local nurseries. I have found some of my favorite plants this way. One of those is agastache. What a wonderful little shrub this is for our climate. It is drought hardy, reseeds itself, smells wonderful, is pretty, and is a hummingbird and butterfly magnate. My favorite species is Agastache rupestris and smells like licorice. I also found African daisies, or osterospernum this way. My favorite variety are those that grow about two feet high, and are white with a blue eye. These love our climate also, and produce lots of seeds for resowing. They are biannual, which means they come back a second year all on their own. These are one of the few daisy flowers that like Texas. I miss the Shasta daisies I used to grow up north, and these fill that need, profusely. They will bloom any time in the summer when you get them started, but the second year they will bloom in early May.
Many perennials will only sprout in the dark at 40-50 F, and some will only sprout in the light. Some larger seed will need to have the outer seed coat filed, and some smaller seed need to be frozen in ice cubes for several weeks to break dormancy. Use your computer to research germination tips for each species, because they can all be different, and many seed packet directions won't tell you these things. I have used old egg cartons for sprouting seed in my refrigerator for many years, and have had great success. You will need to put the planted crates into large baggies because modern frost free refrigerators will dry them out. The small amount of soil the crates hold make it necessary to transplant the seedlings almost as soon as they sprout, which might take several weeks. As soon as the seeds pop up, transplant them into larger containers and put them in bright, but indirect light. If you don't have good natural light, you can use several lamps with florescent bulbs. A spoon or blunt knife will help you dig out the fragile seedlings. A great place to transplant them is into those disposable aluminum casserole pans that have plastic covers.
If you have room in your refrigerator, you can plant directly into the pans and save yourself the trouble of transplanting the tiny seedlings. A sunny bright window can cook your seedling babies under the clear plastic cover, so you might need to crack it open at times, but otherwise they really help keep the seedlings warm and moist. Water your seedlings with a fungicide added to it. This will prevent damping off. Damping off is caused by a fungus that attacks the seedling stems preventing them from taking up water and they quickly die. It is very contagious and easily spreads to all your seedlings, so the best cure is prevention. Perennials in our climate are frost hardy, and you can plant them outside after you harden them off. To do this put them outside in the daytime when it is cool and gradually allow them to stay out. Eventually you can plant them in the ground even when there is still the danger of a frost. The tops will die back if they get frostbit, but the plants will return. If they are started early enough, they will be blooming their first summer and have sturdy roots ready to survive the heat of a Texas summer.
You can do all this outside if you have a coldframe. This is a box built on the ground filled with potting soil and covered with clear plastic or old windows. The night temperatures are perfect for sprouting perennial seeds, and the sun will keep the coldframe warm once they sprout. Just be sure you place your coldframe where it gets full sunlight. You'll have to prop open the lid when the days are warm because the sun can quickly cook your little seedlings inside if they get too hot. If you really want to get fancy, you can buy automatic window openers that raise the windows when the temperature inside gets too warm. You can find these openers through nursery supply businesses.
Starting seeds is fun, and a very economical way to get a lot of stuff started. It's also something fun to do with kids, for what other kind of magic is there like seeing a beautiful plant grow from a tiny insignificant seed. What a life lesson there is in that!
This is a photo from a web article titled "Keep Your Plants All Winter with a Cold Frame", by Teresa Opdycke.
Click on the title to visit the site.