Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Keep an eye out for harbingers of spring

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Astronomers and obsessive calendar watchers will announce the arrival of spring as the day when length of night and daylight are equal, i.e. the vernal equinox. This year, Wednesday, March 20, embraces that honor. However, given the vagaries of weather at this time of year in New England, the first official date of spring is almost meaningless to gardeners, bird watchers and other nature-lovers. I'll let the naturalists speak for themselves, but for me, spring arrives when the first "spring" bulbs burst into bloom.

The first spring bloomers in my garden are snowdrops (Galanthus) and they just poked their floral stems through a patch of leaf litter beneath an American chestnut this past Monday — what a warming sight that was. Snowdrop is such an appropriate name for this little gem as, other than that small patch, the ground was still blanketed with snow. While this may seem an early bloom, there have been years when these snowdrops flowered in late January and early February.

Though snowdrops are the earliest to bloom, they are soon followed by other early-flowering bulbs. Among these are snow crocus, Glory-of-the-Snow (Chionodoxa), Siberian squill (Scilla siberica), miniature irises (Iris reticulata and Iris danfordiae) and the golden-flowered winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis). One thing that all of these bulbs have in common is their diminutive size. Unlike their taller brethren, these bulbs are best used informally as opposed to the evenly spaced and rigid military-march appearance of tulips, hybrid daffodils and hyacinths in a flower bed. The term naturalized best fits the way in which these bulbs are incorporated in the landscape. I plant them in small bunches in various nooks and crannies around the yard, e.g., at the base of trees, in rotted stumps, among boulders and beneath shrubs. They are especially attractive in rock gardens. Once planted, they take care of themselves and spread by producing offset bulbs. Planted randomly in this way, their appearance in spring is always a pleasant surprise. One of my favorite crocus is one called "little tommies" (Crocus tommassinianus). It's a bit distinct from other spring bulbs in that it reseeds itself quite effectively. I planted little tommies once in a particular spot as bulbs and now a couple pop up each spring in random locations about the yard.

Hence, spring has sprung! My snowdrops have told me so.

                                                                                             

SPRING INTO THESE TASKS

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• Get out your seed-starting supplies. Wash containers in soap and water, and then dip them briefly into a solution of one part household bleach to nine parts water. Alternatively, use a spray bottle to apply the bleach solution to the inner surfaces of each container.

• Test old seed for viability by placing 10 seeds of each flower or vegetable on a wet paper towel. Fold the towel, put the towel in a sandwich bag labeled with seed name and place the bag(s) near a heat source. Read the seed packet for information on "days to germinate." If none is given, check the seeds every seven days for the amount of germination. If less than 50 percent of seeds have sprouted, buy fresh seed.

• Apply fertilizer to houseplants. Increasing duration and intensity of sunlight stimulates new growth and a need for additional plant nutrients. New growth also increases the requirement for more frequent watering. Use the finger test to determine watering need. Stick your finger an inch deep into the potting soil. If soil feels dry, add water to the pot.

• Get out your pruning tools. Pruning is a task that few gardeners seem to understand, much less appreciate. I know this to be true by the number of hackers I see using hedge shears to prune their apple trees. Proper pruning begins with the selection of the appropriate tools. For the vast majority of pruning jobs, all you'll need is a pair of hand pruners or shears. These are effective for cutting branches up to 1/2-inch in diameter. Larger branches, up to about 1 1/2 inches, will require the use of long-handled lopping shears. Beyond that dimension, pruning saws are to be used. Hedge shears are reserved primarily for those with an obsession for converting every tree and shrub to geometric statuary.

• Examine broadleaf and needled evergreens for symptoms of winter injury. These are the plants most susceptible to desiccation. Desiccation most often occurs in winter on warm, windy, or sunny days when water loss from plant foliage exceeds the amount of water taken up by the roots. The inability of roots to take up water may be due to frozen soils, damage to roots from deicing salts, or a poorly developed root system. The primary symptom of desiccation on needled evergreens appears as reddish-browning of the needles, starting at the tips. On broadleaf evergreens, such as rhododendrons, mountain laurel and holly, desiccation begins with browning along the midrib of the leaf and advances over time toward the leaf edges. In the worst case scenario, plants will not only lose the affected leaves, but may also experience dieback of individual branches. The best thing to do now is to do nothing. Wait until new growth begins later in spring. In less severe cases, new leaves will appear from existing buds along the branches and replace the injured leaves. If there are no apparent signs of new leave emergence by early June, prune out the dead branches.

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Gardeners celebrate by displaying their green thumbs. Non-gardeners will have to paint their thumbs green.


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