April 7, 2013

A Colder than Normal Spring

Clean-up tasks abound in my garden. Like many of you, this weekend marked the first weekend of garden clean-up.

Just in case you haven't noticed, spring is late this year. I traveled this week to Savannah, GA for work, and when I landed in Atlanta, it was 45º F. - ten degrees colder even than Providence, RI, when I left! So spring seems like it's a long way off. While flying over the eastern US, I could see that spring seems to be late most everywhere as everything seemed brown, which is fine news for us gardening types - as an early, or unseasonably warm spring such as last year, can be more damaging to plants, than a slow, gradual warm-up, as we are experiencing this year. But this cool weather should not hold us back from the necessary chores that need to be done, and I, in typical 'Matt mode' undertook far too many this weekend.

Even though spring is arriving a few weeks late, there is much to do around the garden. This weekend I struggled with tasks ( there were so many!), and I could not seem to focus on any one thing - trying to take advantage of this late season opportunity to spread mulch, rake, prune and pick-up trash before things really start growing. My much arrived Saturday morning, bright and early - 8 yards of dark, one-year old composted hemlock which is what I prefer over the dyed red form, or even the un-dyed mixes. I hate using mulch, but it's just something that I have learned to appreciate, as I hate weeding, and can't afford a full time gardener.

The sun is now so strong, that it is time to put up the shade cloth on the greenhouse as many plants are already
getting burned foliage.
 To-do lists included sowing poppy seeds (finally did it today!), sowing green onions ( I planted a red-stemmed variety), and mulching between the raised beds and boxwoods. The biggest task was trying to add wire fences to the beds and around plants-at-risk so that the puppies won't dig or chew them. The alpine bed above has bee almost destroyed (after a fight over a bone). The dwarf iris have all been broken, and most of the small bulbs have been crushed. If you have dogs, you know what I mean, there just isn't much I can do, as this is the side of the yard that is fenced in for the dogs. I don't even know if I will be able to have a vegetable garden this year.

Mulch have been spread between the boxwoods and around some of the raised beds. Since the mulch pile is far away, I only brought over about 5 loads. I felt lazy, and I just didn't want to get too sore before the real heavy work begins.

The yard is a mess, especially with two puppies who can't keep out of the garden. So far I have lost
most of my iris in the alpine garden, many spring bulbs and two tree peonies.  Since the snow just melted,
trash seems to have accumulated everywhere ( I don't know how!).

I never have enough time to clean up the garden in time before everything begins to grow, so I just try to be realistic, and focus on smaller portions of the garden ( generally, the parts you see here on this blog - I rarely show the other 75% of the garden! - It's pretty dumpy.).

I should have taken an image before, but this knee wall at the front of the greenhouse was covered with creeping
fig, and it had to go. This was the perfect time to wash the glass, and to spray the surfaces with
Physan to disinfect everything. A tidy greenhouse is essential if you are serious about growing plants, as dead blossoms and foliage on the ground will only encourage disease, bacteria and fungal spores.
 In the greenhouse, there is always a lot to do this time of year. Each week, seeds need to be sown- this week, some late parsley ( I pour boiling water over them to speed-up germination), plus some peppers, both hot ones and of course, some black pearl. These have been placed under light, and on a heating mat to encourage good germination. Peppers require soil temperatures near 80º for proper germination.

I repotted many of the pelargonium in my collection ( geranium), and took cuttings for summer displays and for containers. Pelargonium prefer to be under-potted, liking tight feet rather than extra space. Since they like dense, sandy soil, I use a loam-based soil with sand. They need lots of fertilizer this time of year, as they are heavy feeders, I use one high in phosphorus and Potash similar to what the pro's use, and never use 10-10-10.

 Pelargoniums ( Geraniums) all start to grow with force in early spring. I keep many miniature and dwarf forms, scented geranium ( ahh, lemon!) and many rare species - most want to bloom in April, May and June, so this is the time to repot and refresh their soil. Geraniums are heavy feeders, and the best results will come with weekly drenches with a water soluble fertilizer. The professionals use Peter's 15-16-17 Peat Lite, which is what I use. The problem is all geraniums are sensitive to salts and salt buildup in container grown plants is always a problem with commercial crops. One can avoid this buildup with a bi weekly flush of fresh water. I use trace elements, as geraniums are susceptible to boron deficiency and I must be careful to not use the same fertilizer that I use for snapdragons, our citrus trees or petunias, which I augment with iron - all geraniums are susceptible to iron and manganese toxicity.

Lemon scented geraniums are a fav of mine, these two rooted cuttings are just beginning to grow with vigor.
The one on the left I will train as a standard topiary, and the one on the right, as a long, thin conical form.

Zonal types, which includes many of the types I grow, as I can't help but collect the colored-leaf forms, all require a tight pH zone of 5.5 to 6.5,, and anything lower will affect blooming. Careful pinching is all that is needed from April on, as one wants dense, lush growth, especially with the more difficult types such as the lemon-scented geraniums, which I like to train into topiary forms. The trick here is a loamy, sandy soil, a pot three sizes too small, warm temperatures and weekly feeding.

A tender fragrant shrub such as Cystus multiflorus must be grown in a cool greenhouse in New England, but if you live
in northern California, you are in luck - there, it is a common landscape plant. I love it's scent on these early spring days.
I keep this small shrub in a clay tub, which I bring outdoors after frost danger has passed. It usually blooms before that.
Cyrtanthus mackenii 'Hobgoblin', is an heirloom South African bulb for cold greenhouses and pit houses. But like many plants, it can be grown outdoors in California.

Outside everything is late, but starting to open. This Daphne mezereum var. alba typically blooms in January or February, but with out deep snow fall this year, it is now sharing its fragrant blossoms with us.
 Outside things, as I said, are slow, but I am not complaining, and a long, slow spring is far better for plants, than one where hot days arrive quickly. This is one of those years in which there is a lot of cross-over. Late winter blooming shrubs, bloom at the same time as mid-spring blooming shrubs. Daphne and cornel's blooming together, oh my! Many plants are emerging quickly, where there was snow last weekend, now stands clumps of helleborus with their nodding, globular flower heads just emerging in the ever-strengthenin spring sunshine.

Cornus mas, or Cornelian Cherry offers an option for forsythia. This early-blooming shrub is often the first shrub ( or more like a small tree) to bloom  with force. A dogwood, this is about as un-dogwoody looking as a cornus can get.

I've been concerned about my Hellebores this year, as the puppies are tearing up the garden. I've decided to use my
tomato cages as protective barriers.

Bean cages double as Hellebore guards - anything to keep the puppies out of the beds.
Look what arrived today! There may be no better sign of spring than the arrival of baby chicks.
Tonight the nap under a heat lamp as it is still too cold outside to place them in the coop.


  1. Looking at your pictures full of greenness I miss spring even more. In Poland it's still snowing :/

  2. Matt,

    I am so envious of your greenhouse...maybe some day I will have the space.

    Last week I too was down south, in Charlotteville, VA however, and found it in the same cold and dormant place.

    I looked up Growing Degree Days(GDD) and found we are not that far behind, just when compared to last year's crazy spring. If you are interested check out my post on GDD.

  3. I was able to get most of my repotting done before another rainstorm hit. Thanks for sharing about your garden cleanup process!

  4. Here in Italy it's cold too...more than usually in this period...
    Night, Rosi

  5. Hi Rosi, thanks for joining us! I never knew that it was cold in Italy this spring too. Are you in Northern Italy? I love the Dolimiti!

  6. Hey Reed, I did check you your post at http://reedsgardenramblings.blogspot.com/2013/04/growing-degree-days-explain-why-this.html I know, right? But we all know that spring will come eventually.


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