Tablet Life & Arts

Neil Sperry: It’s a perfect time to slow down

You just knew this would happen: two months of continuously cold weather, followed by a warm spell that has done nothing but tantalize North Texas gardeners into thinking that spring has arrived.

Everywhere I’ve gone these past few days, I’ve been bombarded with questions beginning with these words: “Neil, with all this warm weather, should I go ahead and … ?” This column is going to be as much about slowing you down on the one hand as it is about getting you to put on the hustle with the other.

You see, there are very good odds that we’re not even close to springtime yet. The average date of the last killing freeze in North Central Texas is between March 15 and March 25, depending on where you live (earlier date for the urban heat pockets near downtowns, with later dates for the suburbs and beyond). That means that we probably have a 95 percent chance of at least one more killing freeze, so don’t be so fast to set out the tomatoes and start feeding the lawn grass.

Forgive me if I begin with the negatives, but if I don’t tell you what you should not yet be doing, there are good odds that you’ll have them done by the time you finish reading this column. Or so it seems from where I watch.

Look at the calendar, not the thermometer!

It’s too early to plant warm-season flowers and vegetables. That list includes tomatoes, beans, peppers, corn, squash, cucumbers, melons and okra. It also includes all of the summertime annuals (lantanas, pentas, begonias, fanflowers, moss rose, ornamental sweet potatoes, purple fountaingrass, and a big list of others). Some are actually starting to arrive in local retail stores, but you don’t want to plant them until late March into early April.

People are already buying and planting caladiums, and that’s a heartbreak waiting to happen. May 1 is amply early for them, just like it is for sowing Bermuda seed.

Are you oiling up the fertilizer spreader? Unless you have fescue (permanent turf) or ryegrass (overseeded for winter green), you’re too early. The grass just isn’t geared up and growing yet, so there’s no reason to apply the nutrients this far ahead of the game. That most certainly includes “weed-and-feed” products. While it might be timely to apply some types of weedkillers (see later), you need to do that separately.

If crabgrass and grassburs have been hallmarks of your summertime lawn, you’ll want to apply Dimension or Halts as pre-emergent granules between March 5 and 15 (not yet!). Repeat the application 90 days later (June 5 to 15).

This is the prime time …

To plant cool-season vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and Irish potatoes. If you lost your earlier onion transplants due to cold, set out new ones this weekend. Other crops to plant in the next week: beets, radishes, carrots, turnips, chard, lettuce and spinach. Plant pinks, snapdragons, English daisies, larkspurs, stocks, calendulas, sweet alyssum and even petunias. All of those will tolerate temperatures to and below freezing, so unless we get record cold weather in the near future, they should be fine.

Finish up all dormant-season pruning. You’ve been putting it off due to cold weather, but little time remains. That includes trimming Asian jasmine, liriope and mondograss beds that were burned by the cold, and it might even include frozen stalks of oleanders, gardenias and pittosporums.

Bush roses should be trimmed back by half, with each cut made directly above a bud that faces out from the center of the plant (to encourage open, spreading growth). Trim peach and plum trees in the next several days, also to remove strongly vertical growth and to encourage a bowl-shaped habit. That allows sunlight to reach the ripening fruit, and it also keeps that fruit within arm’s reach from the ground. Try to finish that pruning this weekend, as those two crops are among the first to come into bud and bloom.

If you have ice-damaged branches on shade trees, get them cleaned up before new growth begins. If it’s something you can handle yourself without climbing and taking the associated risks, do so immediately. Or if you’re unsure about how to navigate the cuts, call in a certified arborist.

Evergreens and summer-flowering shrubs and vines are shaped and pruned in late winter, so that time is rapidly passing. However, remember that topping crape myrtles is always a mistake — there is never good reason to do so. If you have a crape myrtle (or any other shrub or tree) that has grown too tall, dig and relocate it. Don’t try to trim it back to fit its surroundings. All transplanting of trees and shrubs must be completed while they’re dormant in winter.

As for those existing weeds of the winter, apply a broadleafed weedkiller spray containing 2, 4-D to any nongrassy weeds, including clover, dandelions, chickweed, dichondra, dollarweed and plantain. Read and follow label directions implicitly for desired results. If you have grassy weeds such as annual bluegrass (small leaves and multitudes of seed heads starting to form), all you can do at this point is wait them out as they blend into the greening grass in the springtime. We have no spray that will kill weed grasses within turf grass without harming lawn grass.