The influx of seed catalogs cramming our mailboxes every January is sure to get gardeners excited for the New Year. But many long, gray weeks separate our shopper's thrill from the serious business of spring planting. How to fill the gap? Of course there is planning to be done, and if we're lucky, a stack of garden books received as holiday gifts to be read before the spring. But if you're itching to get your fingers dirty, you can start some flowers indoors as early as February. Of course, the best planting dates for where you live depend on your precise last frost date. You can look it up here on Dave's Garden. Based on my average last frost date of April 6, here are five of my favorite flowers to start in February.
delphinium

Delphinium

These beautiful classics of the English garden can be direct-sown in the fall. But if you missed your chance last autumn, you can start Delphinium seeds indoors eight to ten weeks before the last frost date. This year I'm going to try the deep blue 'Cultorum King Arthur' variety I bought on my trip to Butchardt Gardens. Allow three weeks for germination, and don't be too disappointed if your seeds fail to sprout or seedlings don't survive. Delphiniums are notoriously hard to start from seed. If your late winter Delphinium seed-starting efforts pay off, feel free to brag. Make sure you have a spot in full sun waiting for them when you plant them out after the last frost date, and don't forget they are heavy feeders.
heliotrope

Heliotrope

Beloved in the Victorian garden, Heliotrope likes more sun and a longer season than most northern gardens can provide, but their deep purple color and vanilla scent are worth a the extra effort it takes to enjoy them in cooler climates. Heliotrope seeds can be started indoors up to twelve weeks before last frost and may take a month or more to germinate. Keep the temperature of your potting mixture close to between 65-75 degrees Fahrenheit for best results. Like the Delphinium, the germination rate for Heliotrope can be very low; sow extra to ensure you have enough flowers. Unlike Delphinium, which will germinate in the dark, Heliotrope requires light to germinate. Wait until all danger of frost has passed before planting these out.
milkweed

Milkweed

The once-common Asclepias syriaca is critical for the survival of the Monarch butterfly, but has been eliminated from many habitats. There are different varieties native to different parts of the United States. The easiest way to sow milkweed is to simply scatter the seeds in fall, since they require cold stratification. But if you wrap them in a moist paper towel inside of a plastic bag now and put them in the refrigerator for about a month, you can sow the seeds outdoors in late spring.
snapdragon

Snapdragons

The Latin name, Antirrhinum, means ìlike a snout,î but the common name Snapdragon captures the appeal of these colorful flowers much better. These favorites for children's gardens can be started indoors six to eight weeks before last frost. Dwarf varieties can be started a little later. Don't cover the seeds when you plant them, and don't wait to see sprouts before using lights; like Heliotrope, snapdragon seeds need light to germinate. Allow two to three weeks for germination. Snapdragons are tender perennials, which mean that you can plant them out a little sooner than many annuals. Start plenty of seeds now and then go ahead and risk a frost to get color in your garden a week or two early.
viola

Viola

In my area, garden centers started filling up with flats of violas and pansies ready to plant out in January. But if you want to grow a very specific or unusual variety, you'll have to start yours from seed. Violas flower in cooler weather and stop when things start to heat up. To allow enough time to enjoy the blossoms before these early spring flowers give up, you should start your seeds up to twelve weeks before last frost. Germination should occur within two weeks. A hard frost or snowfall could kill them, but you can plant them out without fear of light frost--just be sure to harden off your seedlings before planting them outdoors.
Hardening off before plant outdoors is a good idea for all seedlings started indoors, even the ones that won't go outside until after all danger of frost has past. Outside of perhaps Florida or Arizona, the "sunny window" so often recommended for seedlings does not provide enough light for healthy seedling growth. Grow lights are required for plants started this early in the year.
These are just a few of my favorites, and may not work in every region at this time of year. What are your favorite flowers to start from seed in the depths of winter? What other February garden activities keep your green thumbs active?