April 26, 2015


I should have called this post 'biting my tongue' - so can someone please tell me when it became OK for garden centers to sell plants before the frost free date? Not all nurseries, mind you, since the good ones are smart, and care about both their customer and their plants, but the larger ones - the commercial big box garden centers like the Home Depot and Lowes around us in central Massachusetts all have their tender annuals out - salvia, tomatoes, marigolds, celosia, geraniums, impatiens - don't get me started. Our frost-free date is nearly one month away, and the soil for tomatoes, eggplant and most other warm weather crops needs to be 55º or warmer, which won't occur here until the end of May at the earliest. It's just ashamed, as it snowed this week here and the past two nights dipped into the high 20º's, which brought a long line of people complaining to out local Home Depot today. I suppose, it's one way to learn.

Tomatoes, peppers and some snapdragons await transplanting this weekend. These will be upgraded into 2.5 inch pots. No need to rush, even though nurseries are already selling tomato seedlings with blooms on them. It's far too early here.

I do understand the issue here, though. I too am eager to get gardening, but I've learned over the past 45 years or so of starting tomatoes, to wait - even later and later, sowing my seed around the end of April ( see above) and learning to keep my tomato and pepper seedlings warm (near 75º) both day and night, and I've learned from commercial growers, that even shifts in night and day temperatures can stunt tomatoes, and peppers in particular can be damages by temperature shifts ( iron deficiency = yellow leaves and stunted growth, no matter how much you feed them). The best answer is under lights, warm and safe until mid May. By doing this, I get healthier seedlings with large root systems and large leaves, and I get tomatoes about 3 weeks earlier than my neighbors - many of whom bought pre started seedlings that were much larger than mine, but they just planted them out too early.

That nice white amaryllis that I bought for Christmas bloom, had just decided to bloom. Three more are on their way.

 I can understand garden centers and nurseries loosing money with long, drawn-out colder-than-normal, or shall I say 'seasonally normal spring temperatures, as we are experiencing this year. We have only knocked on the 70º temperature once this spring, and last week it snowed a bit two days in a row. I've been delaying taking plants out of the greenhouse this year, and thankfully, it's payed off -for we've dipped below freezing for three days now, and I've had to keep the hear on in the greenhouse. Even my camellias have not been brought out yet - because their tender new shoots are just too soft.

Many of the clivia in my collection were damaged by the freeze when the greenhouse heater short circuited last January - this one, I just found today under a bench. I almost threw it out due to its damaged foliage, but I think it might be worth keeping, don't you think?

I enjoy springs like this, as most gardeners do - a slow wakening is good for the garden, but even the greenhouse is slow this year. It may be because of our long, long, cold and snowy winter, or perhaps because of the big freeze I had in January which apparently did damage many plants which did not look damaged at first (probably root damage). The clivia which always bloom in early February are just blooming, the lachenalia, amaryllis and most of the camellias are just reaching peak bloom as well.

One of my favorite crosses from ten years ago - we call it 'Muggle Drops', after our late dog, Margaret.

I wanted to share this rare, heirloom double hyacinth 'General Kohler' which was sent to me as a gift by Old House Gardens this past fall. I came home one day and found this box full of interesting bulbs sent by Scott, the owner of Old House Gardens - I have not had a chance to write about these bulbs, but as they bloom, I will share the images. Thanks Scott! That was very generous.

Back the the nurseries for a second, Joe and I always say to each other that we probably could not own a garden center this time of year, since we probably would not have many customers - as the competition would 'eat us alive'. Clearly, pansies and early veg crops would not be enough - for as we discovered last weekend at Mahoney's Garden Center near Boston, a large establishment where we saw and heard staff giving advice such as "Oh sure, those Martha Washington Geraniums will bloom all summer long as long as you keep the old flowers snipped off", or today at our local Home Depot in Auburn, MA, where a sales person was caught telling a customer that " Yes, those English Daisies will bloom all summer long and will come up for years and years". We drove to another nursery where a woman asked a sales person "Will this do well in a hanging basket?" as she held a large pot of Monarda. "Oh sure, as long as you pinch it" the sales person told her. I then watched an Indian couple who clearly were new to gardening, buy a flat of cilantro - already bolted and going to seed along with some eggplant and tomato seedlings (it was 34º outside). I stepped in an intervened.

I am no pro when it comes to Dahlias - still learning here. I have grown them for many years, but I tend to be lazy about digging them in the autumn, but last year, after growing some very nice cut flower varieties so popular on flower farms - those with pom pom flowers or smaller blooms, and I not only didn't get sick of them by autumn, I wanted to save and divide them for the following year. Always good to save some money.

Cut with a sharp knife, I've kept many tubers together on this one, as cutting any thinner would only weaken the plant. I will trim the stems to about 3 each once the pot is underway.

Dahlias can be divided shortly after digging them, when the eyes are visible, or in the spring which is when I prefer to do it. Large clumps can be difficult to manage, especially if them have a lot of tubers connects and intertwined with each other. Most experts advise dividing them earlier. As you can see, the eyes are starting to swell - like potatoes, and it's time to cut the tubers so that each has a piece of the original stem, as this is the only place where eyes will emerge. You will have waste - tubers without a large enough piece of the original stem base, or tubers which are nice, firm and large, but with not part of the original stem. These will never form eyes, and will need to be tossed.

When you save your own tubers you can keep four or five tubers together, which will give you a much stronger plant than those grown from just a single tuber, which is what you usually get from a mail order house.

I do keep single tubers, however, as long as they have a piece of the original stem base as this one does. It has a couple of buds or eyes already emerging on it. This is about the average size one gets from a mail order nursery, so that is OK.

I never mentioned it, but the week the Fergus died, our Lydia had puppies - I know, the circle of life, right? She is just weaning them (they already have teeth!) so this may the one of the last days that she is feeding them as they have already moved onto solid food.

While we are on the subject of tubers - potatoes are being rescued from the kitchen baskets, cut up and being planted out into the garden this week.


  1. I have General Koehler and a few of Old House Garden's other double hyacinths for the first time this year and am completely in love with them. I will have to get a lot more this fall.

    Also, thanks for the explanation regarding pepper and tomato seedlings. This is not my first year growing peppers, but I was wondering why this year some of the seedlings - particularly of a very heat-loving Indian variety - just were not coming along and some were turning yellow. Back onto the seedling heat mat they go.

  2. Anonymous8:36 AM

    Matt, I totally agree on product being out too soon in nurseries and big box stores. I, too, had to intervene at Home Depot yesterday and educate a customer about the proper time for planting peppers and tomatoes.
    I do take exception to your dahlia comment, tho. "When you save your own tubers you can keep four or five tubers together, which will give you a much stronger plant than those grown from just a single tuber... ." I know you preceded your statement by telling readers you are not a dahlia expert, but your statement is simply NOT TRUE. You will get a strong plant with just one tuber and it will give plenty of flowers. In fact, all of the experts I've dealt with over the years recommend planting ONLY ONE tuber. The vigor of the plant is determined by how many root hairs are developed from the tuber. I guess you could argue that 3 tubers planted together would produce more root hairs and thus a stronger plant, but that isn't necessarily so (and the resulting mass when digging the clump at the end of the season is more difficult to divide). The plant just produces more vegetation and requires more nutrients. Can you plant several together? Yes. But, do you need to? NO. There is so much mis-information on the web and you are a respected plantsman that people follow. So, I wanted to correct that statement.
    With much admiration from The Duchess of Dahlias, Donna Lane.

    1. Hi Duchess,
      Thanks so much for you help in guiding the dahlia divisions. As I said, I have much to learn with dahlias (there is no Dahlia society near me anymore). I had heard that you could divide them to single tubers, which many of mine are - but tell me this, wouldn't it be better if I divided them in the autumn? I had read once that the eyes are noticeable them shortly after digging them, and then they disappear? I never looked this year, and since read this long after I dug mine, I waited until spring to see where the eyes would emerge again. I had planned on dividing them to single tubers (perhaps I still can tonight) but there were so many buds coming out, that it seemed difficult and wasteful to keep a single eye to each tuber at this point? I would end up with more than a pile of tubers without eyes or stems. So I kept a few bunches with three tubers, since they had very large and strong stems emerging. I think it is obvious that a single tuber will produce a strong stem, since this is what all dahlias do when one buys dahlias, but is there really any harm in leaving a few tubers together with 3 or 4 buds emerging? Thanks for your help Donna!

  3. I'm growing dahlia's for the very first time this year, I just planted them yesterday. So excited! I bought some Maarn too, because that's a town close to my home ;-)

    1. Hi Pauline - I think that you will really like Maarn, it was my favorite last year. The color is incredible and it's a very sturdy and floriferous plant. Wishing you lots of luck and rain this summer!

  4. Matt, when will you plant the dahlia tubers in the garden? Do you get them started in pots, let the root systems develop along with some top growth and then plant out when the soil is much warmer? We had temps in the 30s on Long Island this past weekend. Thanks, Alicia

    1. Alicia, they are in pots now - I guess I should have shown that, but the shot would have been pretty icky - as I used all sorts of recycled nursery pots. They will go into the garden around June 1 I think (unless it snows more!). Good loch with yours!

  5. Great information and fun to see what's up in a different zone! I have the opposite problem here with my wholesale suppliers....they were not really ready for spring. I guess after a few winters with deep freezes and years of drought they are being careful. I am sure the box stores did whatever but they sell plants that don't even like Houston. I feel bad for the people that think they don't have a green thumb. The locally owned nurseries do a much better job. I as a designer have to take it a step further. My clients are not gardeners for the most part and they want bullet proof plants. That limits the palette. They don't even want low maintenance they want NO maintenance and don't even mention plants resting. My garden can be a bit bleak in the winter......but I love hosta, ferns and lily's of every variety. I am curious about your clivas. I can't get mine to grow but they don't die either. They just sort of sit in their pot with their filtered light on the north side of my porch. Happy spring!

    1. So, I can't seem to get this concern out of my head - the idea that some big box stores focus on the wrong plants for the wrong zone. I don't know if the problem is simply in finding good, knowledgeable employees or it is just that they don't care? Lowes here in the US does seem to have made many improvements with their stores, but I know that it all depends on regional managers and those at the store level, as I've seen stores which are terrible in keeping plants alive, or in turning around stock. At least they have the right licenses (Proven Winners, Monrovia) at a few of the Lowes near me, which helps. Home Depot for some reason, seems to be relying on Vigoro brand. I can only imagine how fast all those southern grown carts of heather will die in our New England winter next year. Let alone all of the tomato plants in our sub-freezing temperatures this week. On a positive note, at least there is white-space for improvement once they hire smart and innovative leadership at the Atlanta headquarters level. I'm not being snarky, because I really care, and you are right - so many consumers will be discouraged once they realize that those icelandic poppies pass in a few weeks. A few, good educational guides would help, be they in video, handouts or in person - there are so many ways to change the ROI and profit models in these garden centers. That said, go local - most are a better option, especially if they raise the plants their own, or from young plugs. I have a secret source near me in Rhode Island who raised all his plants without root stimulants, who starts rare annuals and veggies out in the cold, and who sells the complete line of Proven Winners for $2.50 a pot. Yay!

  6. Anonymous9:02 PM

    dear matt
    i felt much better when i read that your hippeastrum was late. mine are only now blooming, and not all that well either. must have gotten colder than they like in my plant space during the unending frigid spells. i carry over about six or seven cultivars--easy, dependable ones--and they have been with me for years. i pot up the offsets and give them as christmas presents when they approach blooming size, since i can accommodate only so many in my space. (when they are small it is a good use for some of the mini terra-cotta pots that were my father's, back in the day, before plastic.) 'apple blossom' is usually very reliable but only one stem this year in a container with multiple bulbs in it.
    all best,

    1. Dear 02568, Well, you do much better than I do with Hippeastrum - although, I should try keeping a few over the summer - I am able to do it well with other amaryllids such as Nerine. I will try this year. I am so impressed that you actually get offsets to share, clearly you are doing something right! Keep growing!

  7. I always say that nurseries that sell plants at this time of year love to do it, because they get to sell them twice: Now and after frost gets the first ones. Our master gardener organization has a huge sale (15,000 plants in three hours) every Memorial Day weekend and we continue to get pressure from people to hold the sale earlier, despite the fact that it's usually not even warm enough to plant most of the things we sell outside yet (customers hate it when we tell them they have to harden them off and can't go straight home and plant them). For the most part I stopped going to big box stores for plants because I couldn't handle overhearing the "advice" employees were sharing with customers.


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