Tidewater Gardening - February 2008

Waiting for Spring


K. Marc Teffeau

   Once again we experienced a warming trend the second week in January with temperatures close to 70. This is not all that unusual as we have had mild temperatures in January in the past. But as we know, this nice weather didn’t last and we were back into more seasonal cold temperatures. The couple of warm days will have no impact on woody plants as it takes much more than one or two warm days to break dormancy. Usually we get clobbered in February and March with a cold snap and snow.
    While we wait for the warmer weather of spring and the budding of the trees, there are still many activities that we can do to get ready. One activity is the ordering of the vegetable and flower seeds from the catalogs. Right after Christmas, the catalogs start to arrive, bidding us to sit down and leaf through, dreaming of the burst of color or the mouth-watering veggies we will grow.
    How do you decide what vegetable cultivars would be best for your garden? There are a couple of points to consider as you put the pen to the order sheet. These include the specific use (fresh use, canning, freezing), size at maturity. growth habit, yield and vigor, adaptability to our area and resistance to insect and disease problems and pests.
    Some cultivars are best for immediate use while others are better for preserving, either canned or frozen. Some cultivars of onions, for example, are better “keepers” than others. If you have a small garden or limited space, try growing the space saver cultivars such as bush beans or compact (non-vining) forms of cucumbers, squash, cantaloupes or watermelons.
    Hybrid cultivars, labeled F1, are usually more vigorous and produce higher yields than the standard cultivars. Of course growing conditions, water and soil fertility all play a part in the vigor and productivity of the plants.
When ordering seeds, also keep in mind the adaptability of the cultivars selected to our soil types and climate. Types that do well either in the northern or southern U.S. usually have problems in our mid-Atlantic area. Many times the catalog will tell you what zones the specific cultivars are adapted to.
    Practice the principles of IPM (Integrated Pest Management) and reduce pesticide use in the garden by growing insect and disease resistant cultivars. Cultivars of tomatoes that are wilt resistant, green beans that are resistant to mosaic and mildews and cucumbers that resistant to scab problems are all available to reduce your dependence on chemicals in the garden.
    One thing that you can do in February is to lime the lawn and garden, if there is no snow on the ground and if you didn’t already do it last fall. Lime based upon your soil test results. If the ground dries out a bit, you can still take soil samples and send them to a commercial soil test lab in February, though the results will be a little slower getting back to you because of testing backup.
    How would you like to get a jump on spring? You can brighten your winter home by forcing a number of spring-blooming shrub branches. Generally it takes two or three weeks to bring to blossom such items as pussy willow, forsythia, Japanese quince, flowering almond, azalea, magnolia, European birch and red maple.
    February is the time to start plants indoors for setting out later on in the spring. Good examples are tuberous begonias that are set outside for summer-long flowering in pots, beds, or hanging baskets.
Start the tubers indoors during late February or early March. Sprout the tubers by placing them, hollow side up, fairly close together in shallow, well-drained pans. Use a mix of equal parts perlite, sphagnum, peat moss, and vermiculite; or chopped sphagnum moss and perlite. This should be kept damp (not soggy) in a shady window with a temperature in the lower 60s.
    Transplant the tubers to pots or baskets when growth starts, normally within 3 weeks. Place outside only after all threat of frost has passed. Also start slow germinating seeds such as alyssum, coleus, dusty miller, geranium, impatiens, marigold, petunia, phlox, portulaca, salvia, vinca, and verbena in January or February.
    If you have children at home and they are going a little stir crazy during the winter, an interesting indoor gardening activity for them is to grow plants from fruit seeds. Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, tangerines, and pomegranates may have viable seed. Try germinating them in a light, potting-soil mixture containing half peat moss. Keep seeds well watered and in a warm location. If seedlings fail to appear in six weeks, try again with new seeds.
    Citrus plants grown from seeds generally will not produce flowers or fruit, but they do have attractive shiny-leaved foliage. Let’s also not forget the sweet potato vine. It is an easy tuber to sprout, but remember that some sweet potatoes are treated with sprout inhibitors to prevent the sweet potato from sprouting in storage, so it might be a little hit or miss until you can find one that will put out the vining foliage.
    If you have bramble plantings, February is a good time to do some pruning. Red, black and purple raspberries and both thorny and thornless blackberries are referred to as brambles. To understand the pruning practices for your brambles, it is first necessary to understand their growth habits.
    Brambles have perennial crowns and roots with only biennial canes (lives for two growing seasons). The vegetative shoots that come from the crowns are called primocanes during their first growing season. In the late summer, flower buds are formed on the primocanes and remain dormant through the winter. During the second growing season, these buds flower, fruit and then die.
    This two-year pattern is typical of all brambles, with the exception of the fall-fruiting raspberries such as Heritage. In fall fruiting raspberries, the cane growth and fruiting is similar, but compressed so that fruiting begins during the first growing season. The flower buds are initiated on the top third of the primocane and flower in late July and begin fruiting in August. These canes finish fruiting with the first frost.
    So, with the fall fruiting raspberries, after they have finished fruiting in the fall you can cut out all the canes because they will produce new fruiting primocanes in the spring. For the regular brambles, carefully prune out the dead canes in the plants now and leave the fruiting canes for this year’s production.
    In late February watch for signs of growth in early spring bulbs. When foliage is 1 inch high, gradually start removing mulch. Cloudy days are best for the initial exposure of the leaves to strong sunlight, which can burn tender foliage. Pinch off early buds from developing pansies to encourage plants to branch and form more buds.
    Don’t remove mulch from perennials too early. A warm day may make you think spring is almost here, but there may be more cold weather yet to come. Also remember to avoid walking on frozen grass and groundcovers during the winter. Ajuga can die back, leaving bare spots for the spring. The frozen leaves are brittle and easily damaged.
    Even though there might be rain or snow the soil dries out against a house under the eaves where rain rarely reaches. Be sure to water well during a thaw to prevent loss of plants. Remember that plants require water during the winter to replace water lost due to wind desiccation and lack of rain or snow.
    Happy Gardening!