Tidewater Gardening - February 2009

Getting the Jump on Spring


K. Marc Teffeau

   February is perhaps the slowest month for gardening activities on the Eastern Shore. This gives us time to think and plan our spring plantings and get our seeds, bulbs, tools and other resources in place. It is also a good time to get your power equipment serviced before the spring rush. I find few things as frustrating as having a spurt of grass growth in March, only to find I have a mower that will not start.
    Surprisingly, even though it is winter, there is still activity in the landscape. Watch for signs of growth in early spring bulbs. When the bulb foliage is 1 inch high, gradually start removing mulch. Cloudy days are best for the initial exposure of the leaves. Strong sunlight can burn tender foliage.
    This is not the recommendation for perennials. Do not remove the mulch too early. A warm day in February may make you think spring is almost here, but there may be more cold weather yet to come. Remember that those Alberta Clipper cold fronts have been known to come barreling through our area in early March.
    So far this winter has been seasonal and the pansy plantings in many areas, especially if they have been somewhat protected, have survived. The plantings will perk up at the arrival of warmer weather so, when this happens, pinch off early buds from developing pansies to encourage plants to branch for form more buds.
    If you happened to store summer or fall flowering bulbs this winter, check your tubers and corms for any rot or disease. If they are squishy or have an odor, discard them. There is no external fungicide treatment to control the internal rot once it starts.
    Now is a good time to purchase or order gladiolus corms for planting later in the spring, after all danger of frost has passed. Locate your planting in full sun in well-drained soil.
    Gardeners who want to have tuberous begonias for summer-long flowering in pots, beds or hanging baskets outside should 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.
    You may have a left-over supply of hay, straw or manure that you used last gardening season as mulch or fertilizer in the vegetable garden. To make old hay and manure weed free, spread them on the soil in late winter, water well and then cover with black plastic. Weed seeds will sprout after a few days of warm weather and then will be killed by frost and lack of light. This is especially important if you are using horse manure. A number of years ago I used a horse manure/straw bedding as a soil enhancer and raised the best crop of lambsquarter weed that summer.
    It’s not too early to start thinking about seeding the vegetable garden. Cool season cole crops such as broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower can be planted at the end of February. In addition, spinach, spring kale, collards and hardy lettuce can be planted.   Sometimes however, you may experience poor seed germination. Assuming that you are using fresh seed for the 2009 growing season, poor germination often results from planting in cold soil.
    Seeds pre-sprouted between layers of moist paper towels may become successfully established when dormant seeds fail. Pre-sprouted seeds are fragile to handle, however.
    A planting gel can be made by suspending pre-sprouted seeds in a mixture of 1 tablespoon of cornstarch heated to a boil in 1 cup of water. When the mixture cools, put in a plastic bag, add the pre-sprouted seeds and stir gently to distribute seeds evenly. Then cut a small hole in the bottom of the bag and squeeze the gel out along the planting furrow. You have solved the problem of poor germination as well as plant spacing.
    A good indoors February day activity is to sort seed packets by season. Put each group (transplant, early, middle and late) in its own box. In each box, group packets into early, middle and late subsections. This will help to save time when the growing season is in full swing. When sowing time comes, there will be no time lost searching for seed.
    I usually have seeds and seed packets left over from last year and I am usually reluctant to throw them away. If using last year’s I will double the seeding rate in the soil furrow. You can always go back and weed out excess vegetable seedlings that have sprouted rather than having to replant because of seed failure. Any seed left over from two years or more I toss in the compost pile and start with fresh seeds.
    When you are handling the seed packets, do it carefully. Rubbing the outside of the packet to determine how many seeds are inside can break the protective seed coats, thereby reducing germination.
    With all the gardening catalogs that you have received over the winter, now is a good time to do some ordering. I have gotten some pretty good offers through e-mail from some of the major gardening plant and supply companies trying to move both plants and produce during these sluggish times.
    If cut flowers are a gardening focus for you, order perennial plants and bulbs now for cut flowers this summer. Particularly good choices are phlox, daisy, dahlia, cosmos, aster, gladiolus and lily.
    The milder days of February are a good time to transplant deciduous native plants if the ground is not too wet or frozen. Shrubs for spring planting should be ordered now. Bare root, deciduous types should be planted while still dormant, about 1 month before the average date of the last frost in your area.
    Hardy, container-grown and balled and burlaped shrubs may be planted any time, except during severe cold weather.
    Watch for signs of heaving among your small shrubs. The freezing and thawing of the ground can force shallow-rooted plants out of the soil. Replant any that have been heaved and mulch with 2 inches of organic material to reduce soil temperature fluctuation.
    Broad leaved evergreens can be pruned before new growth begins this spring. This will enable new growth to cover the cut surfaces and exposed inner branches.
    Try forcing branches of some of the following shrubs during the drab days of late winter and early spring. Winter honeysuckle produces fragrant white flowers. Fragrant viburnum has sweet-smelling pink-to-white flowers. Japanese andromeda has white flowers in upright open panicles. Buds of native trees such as dogwood, spicebush, serviceberry and redbud will blossom indoors, as will azalea, rhododendron and mountain laurel.
    For something unique to force in winter flower arrangements consider red maple, buckeye, birch, hickory, larch or oak branches. They will soon unfurl either flowers, foliage, catkins or red leaves that change gradually to green. If your yard has none of these, try a few branches of similar trees.
    Happy Gardening!!