In the garden, spring delayed but not denied
Now that spring is here, the urge for many is to slip on the gloves and dig in the dirt. But what of all that horrific snow? What effect has it had? Don’t throw down your rake in despair: Despite the interminable freeze, experts say that this could be a bountiful season for blooms.
“The season was long, and in some ways this was actually good,” says Suzanne Higham, who owns Georgetown’s Frog Hollow Landscapes. “There was deep drainage, and a lot of water got into the roots of the plants.”
“We’ll have a better base of sub-water that will be around a lot longer into the dry season. It’s a good thing. It’s not bad to get a lot of moisture for shrubs, trees, and perennials,” says David Fiske, garden curator at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s Horticulture Center at Elm Bank in Wellesley.
There’s a downside to all that hydration, though. Creatures that thrive in wet weather feasted during the chilly season. “We had an awfully long, cold, snowy winter that lasted almost six months,” says Fiske. “Critters like moles and shrews were having a party. They caused major damage. Sapwood got chewed off.”
When creatures gnaw on bark — a process known as girdling — it impedes nutrient flow in a plant. You’re likely to see dieback, or death of a plant’s shoots, on things like hydrangeas, which will need proper pruning to flourish again.
Higham suggests cutting your losses (literally) and pruning to where the first set of green leaves emerge, because the girdled portion will never bounce back. While it’s tempting to jump to your plants’ immediate rescue if they seem damaged, she recommends holding out for several more weeks. “The general rule of thumb for a blossoming plant is to wait until after it blooms to do the pruning,” she says.
Due to the wet winter, perennials that normally blossom by now may not have bloomed yet.
“Everything seems to be two or three weeks behind. Normally, by the beginning of May, you’d have a good sense of where your live buds are. Not this year,” says Higham. She estimates that normal rhythms will return by mid-June, resulting in a more condensed flowering season.
Speaking of moisture: Because we’ve had a cooler spring, restrain yourself from planting vegetables and annuals prematurely, even if you were already doing so last year.
“Every spring is a little bit different. This happens to be a later, colder, wetter spring — unlike last year, which was early and much drier,” Fiske warns.
Vegetables like cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant, and squash should wait until late May. Fiske recommends a soil temperature of between 60 and 70 degrees. “The old saying is, ‘You don’t plant a tomato before Memorial Day,’ despite those tempting ads in the paper,” he says. Early planting could result in rot.
However, he says that colder crops like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, greens, and early peas are safe to plant when soil temperature is roughly 50 degrees — as in, right now — so go wild.
Now is also prime time to outfit plantings with a 2-inch layer of compost. “Spring is the greatest time to add compost. It’s a crucial element to help hold water and to bring air to roots. There’s nothing better to keep plant material happy, and it’s best to get it down before things really start to grow, to get the nutrients working,” Fiske says.
Finally, if you crave a lush, rolling summertime lawn suitable for sunning and croquet, start planting now. It’s a lengthy process. Fiske says that a lawn takes about 14 days for seeds to fully germinate, then up to six weeks to mature for that less exciting summertime rite of passage — mowing.
And if you’re looking to give your garden a facelift, invest in Fiske’s favorite blooms.
He loves the prolific calibrachoa, also called million bells. “There are beautiful new ones out this year. They make a gorgeous, full pot — great for a courtyard or patio.”
Another favorite? Canna lilies. “It’s a beautiful, old-fashioned plant. The newer varieties are very short — 2 to 3 feet — and they’re grown from seed. They’re very inexpensive, potted, and they add a tropical look to a garden,” he says. They’re found in yellow, red, orange, and more recently white.
Angelonia is also newer to the market, in 10-inch and 18-inch varieties, usually in blue and violet. “It’s a nice, low, spreading plant. There’s no care after it’s potted. It continually blooms all summer, on its own,” Fiske says. It’s ideal for the lazy gardener.