Berkshire Garden Journal: Time to start some seeds!


With apologizes to William Shakespeare, this has been "the winter of our discontent." Who would have thought that 420 years ago Mr. Shakespeare foresaw the winter of 2013-2014? What a guy!

Now winter has gone and spring has sprung ... well, my snowdrops have sprung, but nothing else is blooming and little else is showing much inclination to spring forth. Though we have a little bit of a warm-up today, I’m not going to try and predict when persistent spring-like conditions will occur.

With piles of snow lingering in the shadows of the Berkshires and mud season being imminent, outdoor gardening tasks are limited. Here are some to tackle:

n Prune fruit trees, raspberries, blueberries, and grape vines. Do this sooner rather than later.

n Survey landscape shrubs for damage. The weight of snow and ice were particularly damaging to woody plants with brittle wood, e.g. lilacs, rhododendrons and azaleas. Broken stems will have to be pruned. Where shrubs were badly shattered or left lopsided by breakage, renewal pruning will be needed. With renewal pruning, all stems are cut back to six inches or so above ground. Most shrubs respond by producing new stems, though it will take several years to get back to original form.

n Leave be junipers, yews and other plants whose supple branches are still bent over under the weight of snow and ice. Digging, shaking or whacking branches to remove snow or ice may cause damage rather than prevent it. Trust Mother Nature to gradually melt away the snow and ice. At that time, evaluate any damage and prune as needed.

n Don’t be in a hurry to prune browned branches that look dead. Wait at least another month to see if new growth occurs. If no growth appears, prune back the brown shoots to green stems.

n Examine the base of woody stems for signs of rodent damage. Prolonged snow cover provides opportunities for rodents to gnaw on the bark of trees and shrubs. If stems are completely girdled, cut them back to just below the damaged area. That does not guarantee that the plant will recover but wait to see what happens.

n Check the trunks of smooth and thin barked trees for frost cracks. Young trees, as well as sycamores, maples, apples, crab-apples, cherries, beech, walnut, oaks, horse-chestnut, lindens and willows, are especially prone to them.

Frost cracks typically occur on the south and western side of trunks of trees on exposed sites. On cold sunny days, the bark and underlying wood warm up. As night falls and temperatures drop precipitously, tree bark and underlying wood shrink. Since the bark shrinks faster than the wood, cracks develop in the bark and in the wood immediately beneath the bark.

Is this harmful? It can be as the cracks create opportunities for entry of pests and diseases. What can you do about it? Pray! Otherwise, try to maintain the health of the tree by watering during dry periods and apply some fertilizer in late summer.

When your fingers get numb from outdoor tasks, move indoors to:

n Start seeds of broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, peppers, eggplant and annual flowers.

n Start seeds of herbs, including perennial herbs, indoors. Most herbs will germinate in seven to 10 days. A few, such as parsley, lavender, mint, sage, and thyme may take two or three weeks to germinate.

n Save some money by registering before March 31 to attend the 10th annual Gardening Symposium, put on by the Western Massachusetts Master Gardeners Association, on April 12 at the Lenox Middle and High School. Flyers with registration information are available at

n Plan to attend Project Native’s fourth annual Environmental Film Festival this weekend at the Triplex Cinema in Great Barrington tomorrow and Sunday. Information: Karen Lyness LeBlanc at 413-274-3433 or


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