Well, this has been quite a winter we’ve just been through, hasn’t it! This would be a good time to step back, take a look around, jot down some notes and make a few plans. Where are we? Why are we here? And how can we get back to where we really wanted to be?
About the cold…
Many of us saw temperatures in single digits one or more times in the past couple of months. That was especially true outside the urban heat pockets of the big cities. By the time you got out into the suburbs and rural regions, you saw temperatures of 7 degrees and 8 degrees fairly widespread.
The USDA released a new Hardiness Zone Map back in 2012. Over the decades, those maps have shown the average lowest temperatures that might be expected county by county, and in 2012 we got pushed into a warmer ranking – Zone 8. Those single-digit temperatures theoretically shouldn’t happen in Zone 8, but they did, and plants that are known to be tender in areas colder than Zone 8 were damaged by this winter’s cold.
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The takeaway from that experience: Stick with plants listed for Zone 7 and colder. If you’re going to gamble with Zone 8 plants like pittosporums, oleanders, star jasmine, cast iron plants and gardenias, among many others, use small quantities.
About the rain…
We might have entered February deficient in rainfall, but we certainly came out of the month on the plus side. Most of our reservoirs are filled to the brim and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers hydrologists are busily working to conserve every possible drop while preventing flood damage concurrently.
To a home gardener, water is also a concern. If you saw water ponding around your foundation during the sustained rains, it might be time to call in a drainage specialist to see how you might handle the excess. French drains can be installed below grade to accept water into perforated PVC pipe, then taken to lower spots and emptied into conventional drainage waterways. Surface drains with grates may be a solution, or you might hire a landscape contractor to cut in shallow swales to allow rainfall runoff to flow off-site quickly and efficiently.
Your plants won’t grow well in waterlogged soils, so raising their planting beds by as little as 3 to 5 inches may make a huge difference in how they perform. It may mean nothing more than a small berm, or you might want to use a low retaining enclosure like landscaping timbers, edging or river rock.
Planting times are absolutely critical to your vegetable crops’ successes, and if you get a couple of weeks of wet weather that keep soils soaked, you might have to forgo some crops entirely. As an example, it’s prime time right now to plant lettuce, spinach, chard, radishes, carrots and beets. Hurry to get broccoli and cabbage planted, and you’re on the edge with Irish potatoes. Of all the crops that I’ve mentioned, they must have perfect drainage.
Five critical tasks
Time can really get away from us quickly at this time of the year, and if we miss gardening deadlines, we may be paying the price for months to come. Here are five things that absolutely cannot wait past the next week or two.
• Scalp your lawn. Before I go any further, I admit that this one is mainly aesthetic. It does remove a lot of the broadleafed weeds, but you don’t have to do it. Scalping involves setting the mower blade down one or two notches and removing the winter-killed brown stubble. You’ll allow the sun’s warming rays to reach the soil, so the ground will warm up more quickly. That means the grass will green up more rapidly. And all of that means that you’ll have a neater, more beautiful yard earlier than if you choose not to scalp. But it’s a nasty job, so be sure you wear goggles and a high-quality respirator.
• Apply a pre-emergent herbicide. These are granules you apply the first 10 days of March, before weed seeds (primarily crabgrass and grassburs) start to germinate. Put in simpler terms, if you can see actual weeds, you’ve blown it for another year with the pre-emergents. Common brands sold: Team, Dimension, Halts. Repeat the application 90 days later (first week of June).
• Finish all dormant-season transplanting. Woody plants (trees, shrubs and vines) must be dug and transplanted while they are dormant. That time is quickly drawing to a close. Either do it now or wait until next winter
• Finish all dormant-season pruning. This list includes fruit trees, primarily peaches and plums (which are probably beginning to bud out already), shade trees, summer-flowering shrubs such as althaeas and crape myrtles (but do not “top” them) and evergreens. Wait to prune spring-flowering shrubs and vines until immediately after they finish blooming.
• Plant frost-tolerant annual color. These plants can withstand frosts and light freezes much better than they will tolerate the heat of late May and June. The list includes petunias, snapdragons, wallflowers, alyssum, Iceland poppies, ornamental Swiss chard, larkspurs and English daisies. But wait to plant the warm-weather flowers and foliage that will carry you through spring and perhaps even summer. Planting time for those frost-sensitive crops won’t come until late March or April.