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Hamptons Life

Feb 19, 2018 10:48 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

The February Ramble

Feb 19, 2018 1:10 PM

A number of bits and pieces to cover this week before I begin reviewing the new plants and seeds and offering some shopping advice next week. cHints of spring are giving us a few teases, but winter isn’t over, and there are things to get done now, including indoor seeding—and, yes, there are even things that need to be done out in the yard.

The robins have been spotted, the winter aconites will pop up at any minute, chipmunks and skunks are out, and while a late winter snowstorm can still be very much in the picture, well, it’s time to at least think spring and plan for summer.

So, in this ramble, let’s start with houseplants. They are certainly tuned in to the change in day length, and I noted that my two ornamental asparagus plants have started throwing up several new shoots, while several of my orchids are showing new signs of life as well as new flower-bearing stems.

And, speaking of orchids, I couldn’t help but notice several orchids for sale at the cash registers at my CVS. Not sure if that’s a new high or a new low for orchid culture, but the plants themselves were clearly pretenders. Yes, they were orchids, but these were the types that are “infused” with color dyes to make the flowers bloom in colors that are not natural to these plants.

I noticed this a few years ago, when the first blue-flowered orchids appeared, and after doing some digging I found that dyes were being used to create these unnatural colors. So, if you were lucky enough to get these plants to rebloom, they’d do so in white. Nice enough—but white.

You may notice that your houseplants, especially those getting sun or bright light, are showing signs of richer foliage color. During the winter, we hold back feeding most of these plants, as their growth slows dramatically. But now they are coming back to life—and with that they need some nourishment.

If you’ve cut back or stopped feeding them during the winter, now you should be adding fertilizer to your watering, but just a bit. Organic fertilizers are the best, but even with these the amount used should be at half or less of the labeled rate until we get into April and May—then go full strength.

It’s also much better to add your fertilizer to each watering rather than feeding, say, once a week. Dilute the fertilizer in a manner that will provide the same amount per week but at regular intervals instead of juicing up the plant on a weekly basis.

If you kept notes or pictures from your 2017 garden, make sure you review them. Are there seeds and plants that you need to order based on these notes? Retail mail-order nurseries sell their goods on a first-come, first-served basis, even if they don’t ship for another two months. Those orders received early are more likely to be filled first, and you won’t get that last-minute email saying, “Sorry, sold out.”

Buy your seed-starting supplies now. Do you need pots? Flats? Domes to cover the flats that you’ll be germinating seeds in? Cells? Heating mats? A soil thermometer? Seed-starting soils are very different from potting soils, and it’s very important that you don’t start seeds in a potting soil that contains fertilizer, as many of these mixes do. My favorite seed-starting mix is still from Espoma, but if you use a lot of this stuff, you’ll either need to buy larger, cost-effective bags or make your own mix.

One little item that I don’t think enough gardeners take advantage of is peat pellets. These are compressed packets of peat enclosed in a fine mesh, about 1½ inches in diameter and ¼ inch tall. When the pellet is put in warm water on a plate or in a shallow bowl, it expands to about six times in height. At the top, there’s a place where you can insert a seed (or two), or a cutting of your favorite coleus or geranium that you held over from last year.

The seed germinates in the pellet, or the cutting roots in the pellet, without the need for a pot or the transplanting that can often damage or doom the fun. In many cases, the rooted pellet can simply be transplanted into the garden, or into a pot with soil for further growing in the case of rooted cuttings. The pellets cost about 15 cents each, and you also can find them pre-packaged in plastic trays, often with domes to create a small germinating or rooting greenhouse.

There’s still plenty of time to get out on days when the soil is still firm but ice free so you can safely stand at your fruit trees and do your annual pruning. This is a critical annual practice on apples and pears, as well as other fruits, to ensure fruiting on strong stems and branches. If you’ve never done this, there are plenty of fact sheets online, as well as videos on YouTube that you will find very helpful and instructive.

But don’t wait. This really needs to be done while the trees are dormant. It’s too early to do other pruning, as it’s difficult to identify winter damage and deadwood on trees and shrubs—though it’s a great time to prune and shape privet. If you’ve got a thin and spindly privet hedge, a good cutting or reduction will force new growth in the spring that will be more dense and lush than last year, though you will sacrifice some early height.

Stay away from early flowering plants, like azaleas, rhodies, lilacs and forsythia. These should all be pruned after flowering. Prune them now and you lose the dormant flower buds for the spring show.

I heard it through the grapevine: A local landscaper with a good reputation says he’s been losing business left and right over the past few years. He thinks the problem is that well-to-do homeowners have turned over the management of their properties to limited liability companies, or LLCs, that do nothing other than pay bills and count pennies.

As a result, the LLC managers seek out the best deals and not the best or ever better firms and people who do the work. For them it’s a question of the bottom line and not quality or service.

It’s a sad commentary but maybe indicative of property owners who are clueless and just want their gardens and lawns to “look nice” without concern for who’s doing the work and what their qualifications and experience may be. If it doesn’t work out, they just move on to the next low bidder and hope for the best—even if they get the worst.

And then there’s the weather. Yup, there’s always the weather.

I think the long-range winter forecasts were pretty poor this year. But, for what it’s worth, I’m seeing prognostications for a long, cold and wet spring. If this holds true, it means we should hold back a bit on early seeding and be careful how early you plant outdoors. Would you be happy in cold and wet soil? Few plants are, though perennials, trees and shrubs can cope. Annuals and vegetables, not so much.

For the first time in many, many years, I saw plants that had been heaved (pushed out of the ground) from continued freezing and thawing of the soil. One particular planting of vinca, where hundreds of plugs were planted in late August, had nearly half the plugs heaved by mid-February.

Oh, well—ya live and learn.

Keep growing!

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