Warmer winter wakes up the garden

Springlike weather has some itching to plant

February 22, 2012|Susan Reimer

If this warm winter weather has you confused, think of the poor plants.

It has been one of the mildest winters on record and the high temperatures predicted for today would be worth commenting upon if we weren't so used to them. Another February day in the 60s. Ho-hum.

But while the humans can simply shed a couple of layers as the temperatures rise, the plants aren't so lucky. The buds on my maple tree and on my daffodils are out to stay, and if Mother Nature makes us pay for these lovely days with a nasty Arctic blast in mid-March, they can't very well un-bud.

"It's not the end of the world," Debbie Ricigliano said reassuringly. She's a horticultural consultant with the University of Maryland Home and Garden Information Center. Two years ago, she was answering questions about the snowiest winter on record.

"I just think we are going to have a really early season."

Fruit growers might be in trouble, she said, if a cold snap hits the peach and apricot blossoms that are emerging now. But most of what we have planted around our houses will recover within the season or by next spring. No harm done.

But if it isn't one thing, it's another. Without heavy snows this year, the ground could be dry going into the spring planting season. And insects and diseases may have successfully overwintered. Again, no big deal for homeowners. Big deal for farmers.

Ricigliano said she is fielding questions far ahead of the calendar from people who want to start working in their vegetable gardens. Because the ground isn't frozen or covered with snow, they can.

I'm ready to put in my tomato plants. But if it isn't spinach or lettuce, Ricigliano is telling people to hold off. February is just too early.

"I have been in this job 15 years now, and every year is a different year," she said. "It is part of living in Maryland."

Lance Frazon, known as "the seed guy" at John Scheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, which specializes in gourmet vegetables and herbs, says catalog orders are steady. This is the time of year, after all, when dedicated gardeners buy their seeds. What is different this year is he can ship potatoes, onion sets, shallots and horseradish roots — items that can be damaged if temperatures fall to 20 degrees or below in a truck — anywhere in the country.

"Even in the Plains states," he said from his Connecticut office at the foot of the Berkshire Mountains. It is warm there, too, by the way. "And that is unheard of for us."

But what about my rosebushes, which are sending out those tender purple shoots? My sedum, lamb's ear — heck, even my day lilies — are up and greening, and my husband is thinking of cutting the grass.

My hellebores, known as Lenten roses because this is their time to bloom, are faint from the heat, and my pansies, which usually take the winter off and rebloom in the spring, are exhausted. They never got a day off.

The birds were all packed up for their trip south, but they never bothered to leave town. Every morning sounds like spring outside my bedroom window. They haven't even needed my heated birdbath, which my kids call "the bird hot tub."

All the gardening experts are telling me the same thing. Roll with it.

"For the most part, I don't think human beings can protect themselves against Mother Nature's moodiness," said Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms of the Van Engelen bulb catalog, who warned me that any daffodil buds that have emerged could be damaged by a cold snap, but the foliage might only burn and turn a bit brown.

"Nature usually catches up with itself, one way or another."

True enough. But I am feeling like I will be hustling to catch up with her this season.


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