When last heard from, Inconstant Gardener was rolling up the garden and putting it away for the winter. And anticipating more time for blogging, hence more frequent posts all winter.
Guess what? Well, look at today’s date, and you’ll know. I last posted shortly after we went off daylight saving time. We’re due to go back onto it this coming weekend.
Where did the past three-four months go?
Does this ever happen to you during winter? You start out with all these ideas about how you’ll make the winter cozy and/or productive and/or b-e-a-r-a-b-l-e, and before you know it, none of that has happened and the seed catalogs have piled up and there has been no knitting, barely any pickles or chutneys made, and no chestnuts roasting by an open fire. Nor has the stack of must-read books receded by one millimeter.
For the last of those, may I say in my defense: I have been reading, but somebody who will remain nameless but sports the initials I.C.G. keeps ordering two books (or three, or four) for every one read.
But seriously, where does the winter go? Or to be more specific, where the hell did this winter go?
Spring is on the Way. Yikes!
Not to get too far ahead of myself. It is still winter out there, and I have the photo to prove it. (Okay, it’s a week old, and it was 66° a day or so ago, so most of it’s gone now, but still….)
What a weird winter it has been. I had looked forward to a chance to use my snowshoes, newly bought in 2020 and never used. But snowfall has not cooperated. On average, we get 28 inches of snow from November through February. This year, we got barely more than half of that. The snows that did fall subsided faster than usual, too.
Climate change? November was 2° above the historical average; December, 4° higher; January, about average; February, 2° higher. Those averages don’t convey the seesaw we saw, though. Daily highs in February of 52, 58, 62 and even 66°, hopscotching with highs of 32, 28, 22 and 20°—and many of the lows in single digits. Climate whiplash!
And yet, and yet. There’s that switch to daylight saving time coming, followed shortly thereafter by the Ides of March, and about a week after that, spring equinox. It will be May before I know it.
Are we there yet?
We New Englanders know all too well that winter ain’t over till it’s over, but there are harbingers outside the calendar too. My daffodils out in the north forty (feet) started poking green feelers above ground back in mid-February. Something next to the front stoop is trying hard to assert itself, and once the pile of cleared-from-driveway snow melted away, that something revealed itself as undaunted.
We can’t rest easy (ha! we can’t get too active outside, is more the point) until mid- to late April, and I dare not plant much out there until a good deal later. But I know from sad experience that if I don’t get ready well beforehand, I’ll miss the spring boat.
Do you know the last frost date for your area? (If you never get frost, don’t gloat. Remember you will never savor the joys of chilblains and frostbite.) And do you know when to get bizzzy with the spring garden tasks? Some call them chores, but that sounds, I dunno, kind of onerous, like it’s work or something.
If you’re planning on planting from seed, or putting in any tender plants, you need to anticipate what Ma Nature could toss your way unexpectedly. For that matter, even if you aren’t gardening, it’s a good thing to know that last likely frost date. Some years ago, a friend of mine in Boston, psyched for spring by a spate of March weather in the high 60s, put away all her winter clothes at the beginning of April. Whereupon of course the wind turned and she froze her tushie off all of April and into early May.
Your garden odometer
So, gardener or not, you may want to study carefully this tool from Dave’s Garden:
Look up your first and last freeze dates by zipcode
For reading the table you’ll get from your search, remember that degrees of probability matter. For my area, for example, there’s a 50% chance of light frost even after May 10; to get down to only a 10% chance, I have to wait until May 24. I might luck out with tender babies planted on May 11, but half the time I probably wouldn’t. So I will wait on those until late May.
Of course, if I’m planting the tough guys, like peas, I (and they) can afford to scoff at frost a bit. Those could go in as early as April 12. Peppers and squash, on the other hand, should only go into the ground after June 1. If you know what you’ll be planting in the veggie, herb, and annual flower department, Margaret Roach has put together a spring garden calculator that helps you figure out when to sow them outside or plant indoors. Or, if you prefer a more graphic guide, you can order the gorgeous spring planting poster from Hudson Valley Seed.
Down and Dirty
Then, naturally, we need the seeds. Temptations in the form of seed catalogs started plopping into my mailbox in December. I resisted temptation the only way I know works: I didn’t open them. But they still whispered to me. I stashed them all with the gardening books and files, nearly a dozen of them. Johnny’s Selected. Fedco. Baker Creek Heirloom. Seed Savers Exchange, High Mowing, neseed, and a bunch of others.
That tally does not include the bulb and tuber and corm vendors. Those catalogs poured in with covers adorned with legions of irises and lilies and their sisters decked out in colors that would turn a rainbow green with envy. Some of those catalogs got saved too.
Why, I do not know. Because here’s the truth of the matter: there is no room at the inn. Well, maybe a tiny bit more. But only if I assemble the new cedar planks-and-connectors into the 3’X18’ bed I have in mind for the bottom of the stone wall. I find, however, that planting spaces are like unexpected money that rolls in. I can always think of three uses for every extra dollar. And by gum, I can always think of ten uses for every square foot of garden space.
Garden space has tricks my dollars haven’t learned, though. When it comes to veggie or annual flower plantings, I can often get two uses out of the same spot, with early and late crops. Like the late crop of beans and peas and carrots and radishes and lettuce and chard that kept me harvesting into late October last year.
Still, there are limits, unless I yield to the temptation to dig up yet another part of the lawn—a big part—and get Serious. But—no. Not this year.
Plan. Plan again.
I think I told you last year it’s best to have a plan, but you saw how that worked out. Even with a plan, I ended up way over-buying on seeds. Some of my neighbors benefited thereby.
But I may not have mentioned that I also bought all sorts of seed-starting paraphernalia. Grow lights and the chains to hang them. Heating mat. Trays and pots and a plastic-domed setup for starting the pickier seeds. None of that got used, but it beckons now, with many of last year’s leftovers labeled (last fall) START INDOORS IN MARCH or APRIL.
Meanwhile, I planned on something simple for the edible garden this year: herbs and salad, with a few bug-repelling flowers for company. How’s that for a resolution? The resolution stuck until I arrived at my local co-op market a few days ago to find confronting me, right upon entry and even before the bananas, several racks with choirs of seed packets crooning just to me. I resisted the melons and the broccoli and the cauliflower, but oh how the peas and squashes stirred my soul.
To the tune of the assemblage below.
Another happy event for the neighbors.
Well, down at least
If you haven’t nabbed your seeds yet, you can still order online or even via mail-order (yes, some companies still do that!). For readers’ convenience, I have started a Resources section on this website, where you’ll find Seeds as the first crop, emphasizing organics.
But if you have the self-control necessary to run the risk of over-buying, check the seed racks at your local garden center, not the big-box one but the co-op or mom-and-pop operation. You’ll be supporting your local economy. Many of the companies listed on the Seeds page sell through stores as well as online.
My next act with the seeds: to pull out the seed-starter equipment and get to work. Fortunately, the pandemic continues to curtail my wanderlust. Once the seeds get planted in the starter battery, I can’t leave them for more than one overnight without risking their drying out and expiring.
Up first: nicotiana, whose flowers, believe it or not for a name like that, are said to have an intoxicatingly sweet aroma.
Stay tuned. You may get to see candid shots of tiny shoots.
What got away
Here’s my admission of winter failure, though. I’d planned to plant a bevy of native wildflower seeds, the kind that require “cold stratification.” In English, that means they need to freeze their tiny buns off in cold wet outdoors for a couple of months before they’ll sprout.
Last fall I ordered Joe Pye weed, red columbine, and New England aster seeds from Maine’s Wild Seed Project. For those, you could just spread them out on the ground in fall and let them take their chances, but good luck telling them apart from the weeds when they come up. The more surefire approach requires sprinkling the seeds in a pot, watering well, and placing them outdoors in an enclosure to protect them from critters.
Surefire? You’re supposed to do that in November or December. Maybe January, if you’re pushing it. I intended November, really I did, and even got a 3’X3’ cedar frame set up ready. Then I intended December. Then I figured Oh well, January. And lo! it became Feb. 15, so I said Next year.
Yeah, I do that a lot.
The perennial problem
The irony here of course is that if I had started all those nifty natives, by summer I’d have faced the dilemma of where to put them (see above disquisition on space limitations). Which brings up my favorite gardening cartoon. I wish I knew what brilliant soul came up with this, because I’d like to give credit and get permission. So if you know the source, please let me know!
The moral of this story: I’m beginning to understand why Japanese gardeners came up with bonsai. But that gets us to the topic of pruning, which I’ll have to reserve for the next post.
Meanwhile: make sure your garden really is warmed up for spring before you start “cleanup,” or you may destroy some of the beneficial insects that overwinter in leaf litter and dead twigs. I’ll say more on that next post, too—before spring advances too far.
While you’re waiting for that last frost
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has created hundreds of thousands of refugees, and may mount to millions; it has also destroyed the homes and livelihoods of countless Ukrainians. If you’re looking for somewhere to donate or something to do, and aren’t sure about reliable organizations, here are a few possibilities.
Remember that in situations like this, there are rarely ironclad guarantees that your money will be used responsibly. Perfectly reliable and honest organizations may be so busy responding to urgent needs that they don’t get around to timely tracking or accounting for funds. So if you don’t feel comfortable with the assurances by particular collectors, investigate further or find organizations vetted for by a source you trust.
(NB: I’m not vetting, but I am passing on links provided by people or organizations I consider reliable. If you find the same organization/s recommended by several sites, they’re possibly that much more reliable, but they could just be more mainstream.)
- GoFundMe fundraising for Ukrainian Humanitarian Fund. According to the site: “All donations raised will be distributed to verified nonprofit organizations supporting vulnerable communities to obtain access to shelter, food, medical services, education, and psychosocial support….” Read the fine print! You can find here a listing of the organizations that have received funding so far, and those likely for future funding.
- How you can help the people of Ukraine, from the Obama Foundation.
- Want to support the people in Ukraine? Here’s how you can help, from PBS.
- How to help people in Ukraine and refugees fleeing the conflict with Russia, from NPR.
- How to Help LGBTQ+ and Black Ukrainian Refugees.
Stand with Ukraine. Provides links to places to donate, but also to some non-financial actions you can take.
Help Ukraine Win. The section up top is for supporting the “the Ukrainian tech community,” but if you scroll down there are links to other organizations and actions. Also includes link to widgets you can place on your website to link to the Help Ukraine Win site.
If you haven’t already done so, you can sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment appears after their posts, so scroll down till you find it.) I try to reply to every comment, but feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.
- What’s the first thing you do in your garden in the spring?
- How do you get your new plants started? Sowing seed indoors or out, or buying the seedlings started for you?
- What’s your favorite seed company or garden supply outlet, whether bricks-and-mortar or online? (You can provide one link per comment.)
- If you know of a good organization or action for helping Ukrainians affected by the invasion, could you post about it here? (One link per comment, please. You can post any number of comments.)
If you’re commenting for the first time using a particular email address, your comment has to wait for my clearance (spam-thwarting at work there). After your first approved comment using that address, your next should go up automatically. If you’re concerned about privacy, you don’t need to include your surname. I am the only one who sees your email address.
Wishing everyone a spring that brings peace.
Thanks, as always, for reading, and double thanks for responding!
I like to believe that one of my paintings can stop a war.
I like to believe that too, Lorna! Keep painting!
Am I the only one who sees the menacing face in the clouds of snow overtaking the brave green sprouts in the Harbingers or Foolhardies pic?
OMG, Susan, you’re right, there is a face! But I consider it curious rather than menacing.
After yesterday’s 2″ snowfall, of course, the shoots are back under snowcover. Won’t be surprised if they’re popping up again by tomorrow, though.
How can I order new plants for growing in the woods? Is there a cheap place? I’m thinking of trees, bushes etc. When do I plant?
All good questions, Ute!
Some of the experts say that you can plant trees and bushes as early as April. I’ve done it occasionally, and they have survived. The thing to be careful about is that you don’t want to be digging and planting when the ground is really wet or sodden, because that can compact the soil badly. You want it to be moist, but it shouldn’t make mudballs.
If you’re going to be really really scientific about it, you could also do a soil test, at least for acidity/alkalinity. You can get little test kits at a garden center or order online, say from Gardener’s Supply (https://www.gardeners.com), which I’ve found a great source for all kinds of gardening supplies. But I have to confess, not being scientific enough, I’ve yet to do a soil test myself, and most plants I’ve put in survive.
Now, for the plants themselves. First, I highly recommend that you look for plants native to the region, and I happen to know that for you that means New England. There are a couple of western Mass. outfits that sell native plants: one is at Nasami Farm in Whately MA, which is part of the Native Plant Trust (if you join Native Plant Trust, you get a discount on plant purchases, and some lovely bulletins too). Another is Wing and a Prayer in Cummington MA, which I know carries plenty of flowers but also some shrubs. I’m betting that both are probably closed for business at least until we get to April. I’ll put links for both of those into the Seed and Plant Sources page as soon as I can get to it. You can also look at some of the less exclusively native garden centers, and look for plants labeled Native, or ask one of the staff for help.
Second, it sounds like you’re looking for shade-loving plants, if you’re thinking of planting in the woods. So you’ll need to pay attention to what the labels (or the online writeups) say about sun/shade preferences, including whether they prefer full or partial shade (also check the water needs, so you can suit the selections to the wetness or dryness of particular spots). With shrubs, lucky you; there are some real beauties among the natives! One of my major favorites is mountain laurel (kalmia latifolia), which in its original state has faintly pink flowers turning to white, but some new varieties have flowers from pink to deep dark rose. A mature mountain laurel is pure joy when the blooms come out. Elderberry is another good option–not so fancy when it flowers, but produces berries that the birds love, and you can harvest them yourself in you can get to them before the birds do.
For trees that are good in shade and that are native, I’d buttonhole the staff at a good local garden center and ask away.
Finally, one thing we’re all going to have to pay closer attention to when buying plants now. The invasive jumping worm has now spread so much it even infests some garden centers’ offerings. I’ll include some notes about that in the next blog post, which I guess had better be pretty soon. I know firsthand that Wing and a Prayer is being extra careful to avoid providing any infested plants (you’ll see some photos I took of the control methods they used last fall). You could ask at other garden centers, before buying, what they do to prevent infestation.
Thanks for this!. You had pretty much the same winter I did, and it’s encouraging to know that. We CAN have a mostly covid-free spring.. YAY. And let’s hear it for sunflowers.. grow all we can for our own joy and to support Ukrainians.. I love your list .. it’s the 4th one I haven’t looked at yet, but now I can stare at all of them and see which groups are more widely endorsed.
You may have gotten more snow, Helen–at least in the last couple of rounds, when the Boston area seemed to get 18-24 inches for every 6 inches here. But yes, we’re almost through it. And sunflowers seem like an especially good in-your-face response to the world’s troubles this year. Rise up and shine!
Sunflowers are in everywhere here. Oughta be up soon. All different kinds from all over the world. Peace.
Can’t wait for the pictures of those, Teague!
What a pleasure to find a new post from you, Kateri! Several nights of frost on a visit to Northern California two weeks ago–for me, that was a surprise.
Brrrr, what a shock to get frost in California! Hope you had enough cold-weather stuff to get you through that trial, Susan. And the poppies must be just about ready to pop out there, right?