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GARDEN JOURNAL

Spring's arrival is imminent. Here are a few garden tasks you should be doing right now

Snowdrops

Fred Harwood, of Sheffield, sent in a photo of snowdrops in full bloom.

This has been a winter of yo-yo weather. One day the temperature is frigid and the next day it is balmy. This past weekend was a case in point. Last Saturday, the overnight low, as recorded at the Pittsfield Airport, was 5 F. On Sunday, temperature topped off at 61 F, a record high for the date. What does this mean for plants in the landscape?

On the up side, the warmer temperatures have prompted the growth of some spring flowering bulbs, notably snowdrops. A picture sent to me earlier this week by Fred Harwood of Sheffield shows snowdrops there in full bloom. At the same time, the flower buds of snowdrops in our yard here in West Stockbridge were just starting to poke through the tight fold of the plant leaves and will open soon. Snowdrops are not the only plants in bloom. Witch hazel has been flowering in many spots since the warm spells of January. Likewise the flower buds, appropriately called catkins, of pussy willow had swelled late that month as well. Fortunately, drops in temperatures to below freezing will likely have little or no effect on these early bloomers.

The downside of temperature extremes varies. If the flower buds of fruit-bearing trees and shrubs have begun to swell in response to unseasonably warm conditions, those buds are likely to be killed by sudden drops of temperatures to below freezing. Leaf buds that have begun to swell may also be injured or killed, but unlike flower buds, woody plants have enough stored energy to produce a new set of leaves.

The most visible problem in flower borders, with these variations in temperature, is the heaving of plants out of the ground. This is especially true for plants set out last fall. With the heaving, their exposed roots are subject to damage, not only from freezing temperatures but also to desiccation. It’d be wise to make routine tours of flower borders to check on any plants which may have heaved. Pushing these plants back into the ground may be difficult. Therefore, take some potting soil and place it around the crown and over the exposed roots. Next, apply a layer of mulch around the affected plants.

Though it was in a different context, perhaps the most appropriate thought for these times comes from Thomas Paine's renowned line in "The Crisis": "These are the times that try men's souls." Let's …

Regardless of temperature fluctuations, thoughts of the imminent arrival of spring have prompted gardeners to buy seeds for their flower and vegetable gardens. It is best to do this ASAP as sale of seed packets has surged. This is especially true for vegetable seeds as it seems that the interest in growing some of one’s own food, spurred by the pandemic and by inflationary food prices, has not relented. I’ve noticed that some seed varieties have already sold out, both in stores and from mail-order seed companies. At the same time seeds are purchased, don’t forget seed-starting supplies, such as containers, soil mixes and fertilizer.

A common concern among gardeners, especially those new to the pleasures and rewards of growing their own plants and food, is when to sow their seeds. Fortunately, most seed packets will state when seeds may be sown, based on average last frost date. For example, a packet may state “Sow seeds 6-8 weeks before last frost." Of course, “last frost” varies a lot, especially in Berkshire County which extends from the Connecticut to Vermont. Generally, I’ve used the last frost date to be May 15. However, a very useful website for helping decide planting times for each kind of vegetable is: almanac.com/gardening/planting-calendar. The information for planting times is specific to zip codes. Not only does the site provide dates for spring planting but also gives dates to sow seeds for fall planting.

Spring is still a little more than a week away but the gardening juices are flowing and it is time for these tasks:

  • Construct a cold frame. With a cold frame, seedling plants can be moved out of the house and grown on in conditions more conducive to healthy growth. The seedlings will be hardened or acclimated in the cold frame and will be better adapted to healthy growth.
  • Buy a rain barrel or convert a large garbage can to a rain barrel. Place the barrel or barrels beneath downspouts. With the uncertainties of climate change, it’d be wise to collect water for use in watering garden plants.
  • Rejuvenate old lilacs, deutzia, forsythia, quince, spirea, beauty bush and weigela by cutting out the oldest stems at ground level. By removing only a third of the stems each year over a three year period, there’ll still be good spring show of flowers during the renewal process.
  • Prune fruit trees, grapes, blueberries and raspberries. If allowed, burn the pruned stems and branches since some may be harboring diseases.
  • Check the hardiness zone of plants before placing mail orders. If the hardiness rating is not given in the plant catalog, shop somewhere else. Shopping at local nurseries is a better bet since they carry plants that are hardy to this area.
  • Put Epimedium on your list of plants to add to perennial borders this spring. Epimediums grow to a height of about 9 to 12 inches and make a fabulous groundcover in partially shaded areas. They produce delicate sprays of yellow, white, pink or lavender flowers in spring. Their small heart shaped leaves provide season long interest as they start out with a red tinge in spring and finish with a bronze hue in fall.

On a final note: With the trend toward warmer days, soils are thawing. So, avoid stomping around on thawing soils as much as possible. Also, keep tractor trailers, Sherman tanks, elephants and cars off lawns areas. Otherwise, soils become compacted. Compaction reduces the ability of rain water to infiltrate soil. This in turn reduces the amount of water available to plants. Furthermore, the air supply to roots is reduced, leading to death of those roots, and most likely the plants themselves. What a mess! Keep off the doggone lawn!

Garden Journal columnist Ron Kujawski began gardening at an early age on his family's onion farm in upstate New York. Although now retired, he spent most of his career teaching at the UMass Extension Service.

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