Garden Edition: February
by Linda Coyner
Okay, so the groundhog saw his shadow. Even if he hadn't, let's face it, most of the Northern Hemisphere would be mired in winter for weeks to come. We gardeners take the news hard because we're especially sensitive to short days and black-and-white landscapes.
Of course, we know spring is just around the corner, the signs are there: snowdrops emerging from the snow crust, swelling buds of forsythia, red and yellow stems osier dogwood, even the smell in the air. Outdoor gardening activities are still limited and the rays of sunshine, as weak as a kitten.
My favorite diversion for this time of year is going to flower shows. They're sprinkled through February and March. Of the two in the Northeast, my favorite is Philadelphia. One time I have a vivid recollection of descending the escalator and being aware of the hall, heavy with fragrance and the colors of spring. A short drive away is Longwood Gardens (another chance to immerse oneself, this time in a giant glass house of flowering plants) and Kennett Square, which is Andrew Wyeth territory as well as the mushroom capital of the world.
Of course, the quintessential show is said to be the Chelsea Flower Show in London, which runs May 22-25 this year. It's on my calendar for 2002. Here're the dates for a few of the major shows: Atlanta, February 21-25; Seattle, February 7-11; Boston, March 17-25; and Philadelphia, March 4-11. To view where and when the shows are scheduled, check the Garden Calendar website.
Conservatories such as Longwood Gardens are great places to escape winter. The sun pours in and you can breathe in the smells and sights of plants. One of my refuges was the Orangerie, a glass room devoted to citrus, at the New York Botanical Garden's Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. You can just imagine how heavenly it smells in February when all the orange and grapefruit trees are in flower.
Another remedy to speed up the coming of spring is to immerse yourself in the pages of garden catalogs. Pages that flip back and forth, dog-ear or flag are generally more satisfying than an Internet search. However, if you haven't received all the ones you want at this late date, About.com makes it easy to order by linking directly to the catalog-request form for a large number of nurseries. Consult the Backyardgardener.com site, which links to additional sites for catalog requests . The ones I consider essential to have on hand are Burpee, Wayside, White Flower Farm, Bluestone, Seeds of Change, and Thompson & Morgan. A new favorite is Pinetree Garden Seeds, which caters to gardeners who don't need a bushel of seed. Its smaller seed packets also cost less.
You can kick-start the gardening season by starting seeds indoors. Once the soil has warmed, a number of seeds can be sown in the garden--an almost-no-work method. With many vegetables, flowers and herbs you'll want--and need--to get a jump on the typical U.S. growing season by buying plants at nurseries or pre-starting the plants indoors a few weeks before it's time to set them outdoors.
To a beginner, starting seeds indoors may seem intimidating, but you'll be surprised at how easy it really is. My brother-in-law showed me how to do it many years ago. He'd picked up the few things we needed ahead of time: seed-starting mix, containers with drainage, a tray without drainage, plastic labels and, of course, seeds.
Later I learned you can make it as complicated as you want--fussing with temperature, heating mats, grow lights with timers, and seed that requires refrigeration, soaking, scarring, etc. It's best to keep it simple at first. If you consider the cost of the seed, you've very little to lose and a great deal to gain.
There's no shortage of web sites that tell you how to do it; I liked the information at shepard seeds.com, about.com, and greendealer.com. The hands-down easiest-way to learn is by doing it with someone who knows how. Ask a friendly gardener to let you assist the next time they start seed. My quick and dirty method is as follows:
- Fill containers with seed-starting mix.
- Fill tray with water and place containers in it.
- Add water to the tray until the soil becomes saturated (this may take a few minutes); dump any remaining water.
- Place seed in the soil according to the recommended depth and spacing on the packet. If these are seeds you've collected and/or no instructions are available, try planting the depth of the diameter of the seed.
- Insert a label.
- Mist the surface lightly.
- Cover loosely with plastic wrap.
- Place in warm location and keep a close eye on it. Keeping the soil temperature warm is critical to germination; buy a heating mat if there's any doubt. Don't worry about the light until germination; it's not needed for most seeds, but read the instructions on the seed packet.
- Check daily to monitor moisture level. Inspect by removing the plastic wrap to make sure the surface isn't getting moldy. Keep the soil mix moist but not wet and always water from the bottom. The drainage of water is very important because soil that is too damp will either cause the seeds to rot or will allow the growth of mold, fungus and other diseases. When seedlings appear, discard the plastic wrap and move to a bright location. If seedlings become tall, thin, and desperately growing toward the light, move the seed bed closer to a light source.
- Thin seedlings as needed by using a small scissors to snip the extra seedlings.
- After the seedlings have 2 to 3 true leaves, fertilize weekly with a weak solution of fertilizer.
- Before planting the seedling outdoors, harden them off by placing them in full sun for several hours a day. If you've used small packs of cells for your planting containers, you'll need to transplant them when they have a second pair of true leaves to a larger or individual pot.
It's also a good idea to start with no-fuss seeds like cosmos, gazania, nicotania, marigold, sunflower, and tomato. The Thompson & Morgan seed catalog--the granddaddy of seed companies--codes each plant to indicate ease of germination and ease of aftercare. Its catalog is much sought after and an excellent reference (www.thompson-morgan.com).
When starting seeds, timing is important, too. Consider the number of days germination takes (on the back of the seed packet), and add three or four weeks to this (long enough for the seedlings to form a second pair of true leaves). Then back up from your area's frost-free date.
Good luck and happy growing.
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