Spring’s Relentless Fury
Planning and Planting Around a Finicky Season
Spring for all of its beauty and wondrous renewal can be dark, often voracious. Plants have to grow at accelerated rates to please this finicky season. All the while our rapacious creditor gives no guarantee of success for their efforts. Spring takes from the delicate and quickly devours the fragile – part selection of the fittest, part only the strong surviving, with a sprinkle of Mother Nature’s twisted sense of humor.
Spring can stimulate us into a planting frenzy or disappoint us with frozen magnolia blossoms, frost-killed tender shoots, and daffodils that are beaten down by a late freeze. Surprisingly we continue to plant our tender veggies, young perennials, and juvenile evergreens into what can be the ficklest season of them all. Got to love those Greek tragedies.
Perhaps this is where we gardeners get our stubborn side. Or we, like the very season, are inspired by volatility.
A Strategy for Spring Planting Success
How do we plan a balcony vegetable garden, a new border bed, or the installation of a specimen tree when the season we are planting in may be working against us? Do we need to plan for more than just the season? Will foresight outsmart the trickery of spring? Flexibility in all planting is the answer.
1. If you want to succeed with your lettuces and kale and are being rigid about planting times, don’t. Planting spring veggies is a labor of love, and the reward of delicious homegrown leaf veggies can be an arduous task with many moving parts. If the spring weather is a bit cooler than normal and your cool-season veggie seeds were not started indoors, then turn to the garden center starter plants. They have done the work of seed planting, transplanting, and then acclimating the plants to our climate. Save the seeds for a September planting since your cool-season veggies can have a second go-around in fall. Keep in mind the number of days needed for your particular cool-season veggies and don’t become discouraged if you have to get the plants this spring instead of doing the seeds yourself. You will still care for the veggies, and your harvest will be just as delicious.
If you want to get a jump on the fall seed planting, start saving cardboard egg cartons. Fill the egg slots with a seed starter soil and your seeds and place the carton on a sunny windowsill in late August. You will have your own plants to plant into the garden in mid- to late September. If this works, keep it in mind for next spring.
2. If you are planning an ornamental garden and have not planned for the volatility of spring, do. Many a gardener has become disenchanted when the perfect weekend, with perfect temperatures, spent planting the perfect new plants, turns into the coldest Monday in weeks, freezing out all your plantings. When shopping for plants for the new garden, ask the garden center if the plants have spent a few nights acclimating. If the weather has a sudden temperature spike, resist the urge to rush out and get the garden done immediately. Take the time to use the first really nice spring days for prepping the soil, planning the layout of the plantings, or just going for a stroll and admiring the neighborhood gardens to gain inspiration.
It may be better to use the first good days of the season taking a trip to the garden center to see what’s new, and then going back home and fine-tuning the plans for the new garden. April and May are great planting months. Take the time, plan it out, and you will not have to replant in early spring due to a late freeze.
3. What if your spring project is something larger, like planting a tree? April and May are perfect for getting in that specimen tree. If the spring is too cold or too dry or too wet there is no need to rush it, because fall is just as good a time for tree planting. Some of the greatest mistakes are made in rushing into planting a tree. Do some research.
Our gardens on Capitol Hill are for the most part challenging spatially. Planting a white oak in a 15 x 20 back yard is not a good idea. Although you may enjoy the tree in its juvenile stages, you are most likely leaving a legacy of costly care and trouble. A white oak has beautiful leaves and is an attractive tree but has no place in a small back yard. Upon maturity it will tower above the house. Planting a dogwood or flowering cherry is a much better choice for the urban back yard garden. Taking the time to plan the tree planting for late April or early May can help you not be upset by a late killing frost. Our frost-fee date in this area is April 15, but spring does not get that memo.
A Look Forward
This spring I am reminded of how unpredictable the weather can be. As I pen this column the wind has been howling and the weather forecast offers more cold ahead this evening. We are having a spring this year with brown magnolia blooms, half-frozen cherry blossoms, and daffodils that look like they were dropped after a hurricane whipped them around a bit. Our wisterias for the most part have been frozen and will not bloom. Anyone who took a chance and planted anything out in late February has most likely regretted it, since March spawned a monster.
We will soon forget all this – in fact we must forget all this. I sit here closing this column, and although the wind is whipping around, I am dreaming of the flowers that have yet to bloom and the seasons yet to come. We gardeners are resilient and will go forward and plant more seeds, plan better border gardens, and install beautiful specimen trees, flowers, and shrubs because we, like our fickle friend spring, are voracious with our desire to grow and have beauty around us. Enjoy!
Derek Thomas “The Garden Guy,” principal of Thomas Landscapes, is an accomplished garden designer whose designs have appeared on HGTV’s “Curb Appeal” and the DIY Network. View his garden segments on YouTube. He has contributed garden segments to Fox Five in Washington, DC, 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.