For gardeners there is more to February and March than wistfully turning pages of distressingly beautiful catalogs or going compulsively through the stash of seeds or drooling shamelessly over pages of photos of tomatoes good enough to eat.

On a sunny day that would otherwise find you in the garden, consider spreading a little compost. Seriously. If the garden is small (like a border), fill the car or truck with buckets (cat sand buckets are ideal) and hasten to the city landfill. Ask for or seek the 3/8” garden quality yardwaste compost.

If there is still snow on the ground, that is perfect. Simply broadcast (by hand or with a shovel) the mulch onto the snow in the sure and certain knowledge that 1) it will not blow off, 2) it will travel into the soil with the snowmelt and 3) you will provide educational entertainment for the neighbors. You can repeat this activity as often as your state of mind demands.

If the garden is larger, and especially if all plant material was removed in the fall, compost can (and should) be added during the winter months. Spread it in thin layers and remember to stay on the paths and not compact the soil by walking on the actual beds.

While it is a bit early to start seeds, some of us want to push the season. I got out my heat mat, the watering flats, the seed flats and the spiffy plastic hood and planted the flat with spinach, various lettuces and corn salad for micro greens. Last year I was successful because I had the seed flat under lights but this year the violets have the lights. So, sadly and predictably, I grew a mass of light-starved, pale threads of plants that would never grace a salad. I let them die, mixed them back into the seed starting mix and was glad that I had not also provided a playground for fungus gnats.

I had planned to spend some time cleaning up my hastily drawn garden map, which I did in the late fall so that it could be my guide to what’s up this spring, but it is currently and I hope temporarily among the missing. That means some serious searching and cleaning, which is a fine project for the blizzard we will surely have.

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Today, Feb. 12 is President Lincoln’s birthday and we all remember the poem by Rosemary and Steven Vincent Benet that begins, “If Nancy Hanks came back as a ghost, seeking news of what she loved the most, She’d ask first “Where’s my son? What’s happened to Abe? What’s he done?”

Abe might well have asked why and how she died. The answer is that Nancy had drunk milk from a cow that had eaten the deadly white snakeroot, it was a frontier doctor, a woman, Anna Pierce Hobbs Bixby, known as Dr. Anna who made the connection between snakeroot and the deadly “milk sickness.” While Dr. Anna’s insight is remembered today, the name of the Shawnee woman who helped her is lost to history.

Cathie Draine is a South Dakota Cooperative Extension Master Gardener and a member of the Garden Writers Association. She lives and gardens in Whispering Pines. Contact her at

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