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Be prepared for a late gardening start

Posted: May 8, 2013 - 2:27pm

It is cold. Really cold. So as I bundled up and reminded myself that I do indeed live at latitude 59 degrees north and that I have done so for 41 years by choice. Hence, I should not be surprised, or discouraged, or disappointed, or jealous of those gardeners who do not call the Last Frontier home. Thank you, I needed to get that out of my system. Now, lets get on with what needs to be done.

There is a huge amount of intuition that goes with gardening no matter where you live. As I pulled on a wool turtleneck and hat and faced a west wind, ready to cleanup the perennial beds, I had a second thought: too soon, wait. 

I allow the spent foliage to stay in the fall, no cleanup here. My mulch of choice in the past has been spruce boughs (in addition to the plants’ own foliage) but two phenomena streaked through my life almost simultaneously. The first was a puppy, and the second the snowshoe hare population explosion. 

The puppy loved to pull the spruce boughs off the perennial beds, and the hares loved to eat the boughs. Goodness. No more boughs until all of this is settled down, perhaps next year. In the meantime, the spent foliage will have to suffice.

Earlier in the week I had tidied the iris setosa (native iris, you would think they could take it) bed, there were chunks of ice here and there but the plants were sending up green foliage and all was looking promising. Today, they look a tad withered and decidedly cold.

Another advantage to waiting is letting the soil warm and dry before you start mucking around out there. You can pull up plants that really need to be left alone for another week. I suggest that you use your hands when going about the cleanup chores, they are gentler than tools. 

So instead of working the perennial beds I moved on to the shrubs. It is too late to be pruning your trees but not shrubs. I have three red twig dogwoods that are truly spectacular all winter, and looking good now. 

Thankfully, a gardening friend suggested that I prune them to optimize their color. I resisted because the birds sheltered in them and I did not want to discourage that. But I gave it a go last year and sure enough, the new growth is vividly colored and the birds are just as happy as ever. Cut out the old canes at the base. The regrowth is rapid and rewarding.

Next I thought I would move the astilbes. Ha. As I shoved my spade into the ground it didn’t go very far. Frozen. Astilbes will need to wait along with everything else I would dearly love to move.

Pulling off my hat and turtleneck I went into the warmth of the greenhouse and was greeted by very happy plants (we are eating radishes and lettuce). This greenhouse is heated but not by much. It drops to 34 degrees most mornings, by afternoon the fan is doing its best to keep the temperature down to 85 degrees, and that is with the vents open. There is a high/low thermometer in there that I find very helpful.

This brings me to potting up your seedlings. They may have to wait around before they can be planted into their permanent growing beds and giving them enough room now will be important. I really like a three-inch container for each vegetable start. There is nothing more unhappy than a seedling that is root bound. Take a look at the root ball and see if it is crammed into its container. Does it look all white? Root bound, get it out and into a larger container.

If you have taken my advice you are going to buy your seedlings, but that will not make you immune to root bound plants. Take a look before you buy and be prepared to pot up your purchases. 

Another option is to tear up the root ball as you plant. It is somewhat unnerving, but you can do it. The roots need somewhere to go, if left in a sorry state they will take too long to adjust and we just do not have enough time in the growing season for them to sit there and think about it. Help them as much as possible.

I usually start garlic in the spring. I set individual cloves into flats. When the time comes to plant them outside I just flip the flat and gently pull them apart and set them in the ground. I have lovely garlic this way.

But no, I had to fall plant, which is the recommended procedure. This also involves mulching, which I didn’t do because of the aforementioned dog and hares. I have zero faith in the garlic coming up. So off I went to the grocery store and bought garlic and now I have it started in flats, along with onion sets. 

I’m covering my bases. If the fall planted garlic shows itself, I will be grateful because there are two varieties out there that I really want — Inchelium Red and Oregon Blue. My fingers are crossed. If you want garlic, there is still time — head for the store. Plant the fattest of the cloves — big cloves yield big heads, eat the little ones.

Our outdoor gardening may be stymied by the cold, but if you have houseplants now would be a good time to get them divided, repotted and showered. The gardening season really and truly will be upon us and your houseplants will be shunted to the wayside so now is as good a time as any to get them tended to before they languish from lack of attention due to summer madness. My houseplants are limited to African violets (albeit there are 30 of them) and they relish a shower. A trip to the kitchen sink will make a huge difference in their performance.

Buck up, my friends. Every region of the country has its gardening challenges. I have been planting the vegetable garden the middle of May for the last 15 years. Memorial Day is traditionally the date to shoot for and this year it just may be later than that. Those of us who have chosen to garden here need to be prepared for a late start.

But start we will, indeed.

Rosemary Fitzpatrick is a longtime Homer gardener.

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