Small plants that arrive like this should be unwrapped and put in a bright spot. If not potted or if they are bare root plants, they need to be potted or planted in days. But smaller potted plants can be held for several weeks if watered and given adequate light. ANDREW MESSINGER
Even trees like these maples are shipped by “mail” and should arrive in good condition. Open the boxes immediately and remove the plants. Planting can usually wait several weeks if the plants arrive in containers. ANDREW MESSINGER
Even organic fertilizers (top) can pollute ponds, lakes and wetlands if they are allowed to wash off the lawn and garden into storm drains or directly into water bodies.
Every seed packet and box or bag of lawn seed has to be dated for use this year. If you don’t see 2020 on the label (see bottom flap in picture) or if it’s not up to date, don’t buy it. ANDREW MESSINGER
Most garden centers will have their seed racks out in early March. Shop brand names like Burpee, Johnny’s, Renee’s and others. If you’re not familiar with the brand, as you may find on some discount outlets, maybe pass them up? ANDREW MESSINGER
The columbine sawfly can decimate columbines. However they can easily be controlled by picking off and weekly sprays of the organic Spinosad on both sides of the foliage. LINE SABROE/COURTESY WIKIMEDIA COMMONS CC BY 2.0
With March just around the corner and an early but wet spring creeping up on us, it’s time to get ready for the new gardening season. Hopefully, this means a move from the dull gray days of winter into the warm and sunny days of spring. But, as we’re waiting, there are things to consider, buy and read up on.
When I place my orders for plants that will be delivered by the FedEx or UPS truck, it’s important to think about where your plants are coming from and how long they might sit in a truck before they get to your front door. An important thing to consider is making sure the vendor knows where you intend to plant your goodies (in terms of hardiness zone, not geography) not simply where they get delivered. They assume it’s the zip code you have on your shipping information, but that can cause issues, especially for second-home owners.
I can plant in one of three locations. Out here, in “upstate” Westchester or at my garden up in the Catskills. But if I use a Southampton mailing address just about every vendor will ship to me thinking the plants will go into a zone 7 garden. That can be a big issue if I intend on planting up in zone 5 where it may not have even thawed out yet. Usually, plants will be sent to the same address that your credit card bills to or where you receive your catalog. But with some readers having second and even third homes, plants can get lost, delivered at the wrong time or even worse, sit on door stoop that doesn’t get checked for days and days.
I have a solution that usually works. Usually. Just about all the vendors have a space on their order forms where you can specify a shipping date or date range. So even though I may have a plant delivered to Southampton, knowing it will be planted up in the Catskills, I note on the order “Please ship for zone 5 planting time.” It usually works. You may ask, why not just have the plants shipped to the Catskills address? Simple answer, since it doesn’t warm up there until late in the season, I don’t show up there until late in the season. But if the plants are shipped here and arrive early in the season, I worry a lot less. Make sense? And no, it’s not too late to email or call your vendor to ask for a shipping date adjustment.
As a safety net, if plants arrive that you’re not ready to plant, many can be potted into large peat pots (very large ones are available) or into nursery containers. They can be held in these pots for several months, if necessary, before planting. Keep them watered, though. And if you’re not going to be around during the week, water them when you leave and leave them in a spot where the sun won’t bake them.
The seed racks are just about full and waiting for you at your local garden center. None of the seeds you buy now will go bad if you buy them early, and once you have them you don’t have to hunt all over the place come May when you need them and the variety you want is sold out. Buy your seed early and order your seed early. When you get the seed there’s no need to refrigerate it or do anything special other than keep it in a spot that’s cool and out of direct light.
One thing you should do, though, is check the date on your seed packets. All seeds sold for the 2020 growing season should have a stamp on it that says something like “packaged for 2020” or “tested for 2020.” If it doesn’t have 2020 on it, then pass them up. And just because it has 2020 on it doesn’t always mean it’s been grown for sowing this year. A few seed houses may recycle seed from a previous year, but if they do the seed has to be retested and re-dated to ensure it meets the germination criteria for the year in which it’s being sold. Same thing for grass seed. Needs to be tested and re-certified every year or pass it up.
Don’t think that because spring may be early that you can or should fertilize outside early. The law still says you can’t apply fertilizers until after April 1. Even that’s too early, though, for just about everything. Organic fertilizers won’t start to break down and become available (due to microbial activity in the soil) until the soil warms up, and this is usually late April to early May. Chemical fertilizers don’t rely on microbial activity as much as organics do, but that doesn’t mean a grass plant or shrub is able to use them. What it does mean is that the chemical fertilizers will begin to dissolve and leach down into the ground and water table shortly after you put them down, and they’ll be wasted as well as polluting.
This brings me to the issues of the long-polluted Lake Agawam in Southampton and maybe some other local water bodies. It seems there are those who believe that if Southampton Village residents were told or asked to use organic fertilizers on their lawns and gardens this might ameliorate some of Agawam’s issues. There is a very common misconception that organics don’t pollute. That just isn’t true. They can pollute less, but they still have the capacity to enter down into the shallow water table in the villages as well as being washed by irrigation and stormwater into our wetlands. In this case less is the better route, not necessarily different.
Yes, organic fertilizers can be on the expensive side. A few years ago I did a column on fertilizer prices versus fertilizer value. Along those lines I recently checked a couple of garden centers for prices on two Espoma products. One was Plant-tone and the other was Garden-tone, both in 18-pound bags. The place that was cheapest five years ago was selling the products for $21.99. A second place that has a 20 percent off February sale was selling the same products for $18.99, so with the discount they came to about $16.20 a bag. For those of us not owning banks or private equity firms, that’s a big, big savings. Shop around. And yes, the stuff does keep well for a couple of years in sealed bags stored in the garage.
And on the topic of fertilizers and seeds, when starting plants from seed there should be no fertilizer added to the water or soil until the seedlings are well established. Fertilizers can easily burn young seedling roots, and until a healthy root system is developed you can do much more harm than good. Once you do start feeding the seedlings, use an organic starter fertilizer like kelp or fish emulsion. Don’t start your seeds in potting soil. Many now have fertilizers in them. Use a soil especially labeled for seed starting.
Don’t know when to start your seeds indoors? If you want the best vegetable varieties and the more unusual flower varieties you may have to start your own. But when do you start them? Keep in mind that our frost-free date is April 24 give or take. Johnny’s Seeds has a great calculator for when to start veggies and flowers at johnnyseeds.com/growers-library/seed-planting-schedule-calculator.html that you may find very helpful.
Still some time to get out and do some late winter pruning, especially on fruit trees, but be careful on other flowering trees and shrubs. Many gardeners inadvertently will do a late-winter pruning to shape plants like azaleas and forsythia not realizing that they are removing the 2020 flower buds. As a general and safe rule, if it blooms in the spring, prune it in the summer or just after blooming is over.
Do you grow columbines (Aquilegia)? A fellow gardener told me last week that she can’t grow them anymore because something eats all the foliage. She said it was a small green caterpillar. This was new to me so I hit the books. Sure enough, the columbine sawfly has a “caterpillar” that devours the foliage of columbines. It’s been around here for only about 10 years and not everywhere. Usually, the organic and safe Bacillus thurengensis (BT) works really well on caterpillars, but this isn’t a true caterpillar (like those from butterflies and moths). This is in the wasp family, so the larvae won’t be affected by BT. An organic insecticide called spinosad will work, though, when sprayed on both sides of the foliage every week. Keep growing.
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