The New Climate Challenges in Our Washington Gardens

Garden Spot

Choosing perennials wisely and from a good grower will ensure spectacular results in mid-summer. 

Over the past decade spring has been anything but predictable. How does an avid gardener adjust? This new, unpredictable climate seems to be the norm. How do we as gardeners decide what to plant and when to plant it? Do we dig everything up and create a Colorado-inspired rock garden? Do we make weekly trips to the garden center to buy plants only to have them freeze, fry, or die because they have come from a warm cozy greenhouse into a volatile climate? 

It seems as though sometimes the only folks winning this climate roller coaster challenge are the garden centers. Don’t get me wrong. I love a trip to Gingko Gardens on the Hill! However, the challenge is what to plant and when to plant it. 

Traditionally we had pretty good timelines. February 15 for planting seeds indoors. March 15 for putting out your cool season hardened-off vegetables. April 15 was our frost-free date. 

If we look at the last few years, none of these dates seems to be in line with traditional thinking. Last spring our cool seasonal veggies had to endure six weeks of daily rain with results less than favorable. Leafy vegetables like lettuce flourished, but many spring vegetables like broccoli, carrots, and peas were not happy in the wet mushy soil. Warm-season vegetables and herbs had similar fates and either didn’t make it in the cooler than average spring or overgrew with excessive amounts of leaf and not so much fruit. Remember our giant mutant tomato plants with few or no tomatoes? 

Finding the Norm 

Adjusting to instability is something that gardeners have always done. We’ve always planted a seed with hopes of it being a prizewinner, yet been happy to settle for moderate or even mediocre results. Let’s not lose sight of that in our tumultuous climate. Acceptance that there is no norm and a well-thought-out Plan B will take a bit of the edge off the angst that arises when our large-leafed hostas look like Swiss cheese after a freakish hailstorm. Plan B includes smart thinking. Make plans to be patient. Don’t buy basil in early March; the plant will not make it through our Washington April. Read about the growth and requirements of your plants and plan accordingly.

A Plan 

Here is a list of some common garden plants and safe planting times that will ensure you gain your harvest, or flowers, while not getting upset by Nature’s recent revolt on our demands that the weather fit our planting timelines.

Feb. 15-March 1. Plant seeds indoors: warm season veggies and any early flowers you want to have for planting outside in mid-April.

March 15. Plants can be planted outside if hardened off. Hardening off is the process of acclimating a plant to the local environment. One way, before planting, is to place the plant in its pot for a week at the foundation of the home, keep it well watered, and if the temps are going to drop below freezing bring it indoors into an unheated porch or garage. After the week, place the plant in its garden home and monitor the weather for the next two weeks. If freeing temps are predicted, cover with wet newspaper for the evening.

The plants in this category are:

  • Lettuce
  • Arugula
  • Kale
  • Parsley
  • Chives
  • Cilantro
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Mint
  • Onions (short season)

April 1. Plants to be planted outside if hardened off are:

  • Broccoli
  • Peas
  • Cauliflower
  • Kale, succession planting
  • Lettuce, succession planting
  • Perennial flowers if hardened off
  • Lily bulbs
  • Potted roses, locally grown
  • Hardier, frost-resistant annuals like geraniums and petunias

Succession planting is the process of planting veggies and flowers in stages. For example, every week to 10 days for several weeks, plant new lettuce seedlings so the harvest happens in succession and not all at once.

April 15. This is the traditional frost-free date. Continue to roll out cool season veggies and flowers if hardened off and continue with succession plantings of cool season veggies. 

May 1. Plant annual flowers, if hardened off. Plant summer bulbs like caladium and begonia in pots indoors. Once you see new growth about two inches tall, transplant outdoors. This growth should be seen in about two weeks, and soil must be kept moist, not wet, during a two-week time. Temps must not dip below 70 degrees F at night. 

  • Plant remaining late cool-season veggies
  • Plant early warm-season veggies

May 15. Plant the following:

  • Basil
  • Tomatoes
  • Peppers
  • Squash
  • Potatoes
  • Bean seeds
  • Succession seed planting of radish (if you like them spicy)
  • Watercress seeds
  • Cucumber plants
  • Corn seeds
  • Okra plants
  • Remaining warm season veggie plants
  • All annual flower plants

What’s Next

The weather in Washington has been unpredictable, but we shall continue to have garden success if we are willing to adjust to the unusual norms of late springs, hot springs, dry summers, and polar-inspired or non-existent winters. What we can do to help ease our angst is: 

  1. Follow common sense when planting. Know the likes and dislikes of your plants.
  2. Go to a trusted garden center and create a relationship with them for your planting needs and advice.
  3. Prepare yourself for a bumpy ride. It is natural that your success or failure has little or nothing to do with your will or desire.
  4. And ALWAYS enjoy! 

Derek Thomas, principal of Thomas Landscapes, is an accomplished garden designer whose work has appeared on HGTV’s “Curb Appeal” and the “DIY Network.” As the Garden Guy his segments can be seen on YouTube. He has contributed segments to Fox 5 in Washington and is a contributor to the Smithsonian’s garden programs. He can be reached at www.thomaslandscapes.com or 301-642-5182.

You can find and friend us on Facebook at Facebook/Thomas Landscapes. Follow us on Twitter @ThomasGardenGuy for great garden tips.


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