It's time to act on your spring fever

On GardeningMarch 13, 2013 

You don’t have to squash spring fever anymore; this is the week to get busy. It’s time to plant cool-season vegetables and add some instant color with early blooming perennials.

Get out your packets of peas, carrots, lettuce, onions, beets, radish, spinach and Swiss chard – those are the vegetables that do well in the cool weather.

Just keep an eye on the soil. The secret to early planting depends more on how quickly your soil drains than it does on the calendar date.

If you have slow-draining clay soil, you will need to wait another month to seed even the cool season veggies listed above. Clay soil means wet feet, and no vegetable likes to have wet feet on cold nights. Gardeners with raised beds, containers filled with potting soil, or those that have soil that has been improved with compost over the years have areas that will drain quickly. They can seed directly into the soil now and enjoy fresh greens in six to eight weeks.

If instant color is what you dream about during your spring fevers, than take thee to a nursery and choose from blooming inspirations such as primroses, hellebores, pansies, violas and the sprouted bulbs of daffodils, tulips and hyacinths. You can plant any of these flowers directly into the ground or into container gardens now and enjoy months of color before replacing these early bloomers with summer annuals or bedding plants. In our cool summer climate some of the spring bloomers will flower all summer long.

Here are a few reader questions – you might have the same quandaries.

Q. I am confused about when to plant seeds into my vegetable garden. You say to read and follow the seed pack, but what I read is “plant as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring.” I have no idea what that means! Why can’t they just print a planting date on the seed pack? P., Email

A. Gardeners have been gambling on when to plant for generations and out-guessing the weather is part of this daring game of chance. There is no exact planting date for seeds because gardening is more of an art than a science – and knowing your soil and predicting the weather determines when to plant.

The simple answer is to grab a fist full of soil and squeeze. Now open your hand. If the soil stays formed into a ball or if water drips from between your fingers then your soil drains poorly or contains a lot of clay and it cannot be “worked” or dug up. Working wet soil destroys the structure or air spaces and this will result in seeds that are more likely to rot. Well-drained soils that crumble and fall apart after a good squeeze allow air and water to pass through and seeds can more easily sprout and send down roots. In Western Washington the planting date for cool season crops (leaf crops, peas, beets and carrots) is anytime from mid-March until mid May.

Q. I would like to fill my empty porch containers with flowers that will be blooming for Easter. I would like to use the potted tulips and daffodils that I see for sale at the nursery. My question is: how long will they stay in bloom? T.S, Maple Valley

A. Hop right in and celebrate Easter early by investing in pre-sprouted tulip, daffodils and other spring-blooming bulbs. If you choose bulbs that have tight buds and no blooms you can be assured of color for the next 3 to 4 weeks. This color flash will only last if you keep the plants cool and moist.

I like to leave the bulbs in the plastic nursery pot and sink the entire pot into a larger container. Add pansies and primroses around the sides of the center pot and be sure to water both the center container and the side plantings. Then, in a few months when the spring bulbs are done you can lift the pot, spent bulbs and all right out of the container and replace with summer bloomer. You can even reuse the spent bulbs by tapping them out of the plastic nursery pot, separating the clumps of bulbs and replanting them into well-drained soil with the fading foliage still attached.

Q. I am going to replant a sunny slope using boulders to create a rock garden. I saw a photo of a spectacular display of color and the plants listed were pink and lavender creeping phlox, basket-of-gold, deep pink aubrietia and white candytuft. Will these plants survive here, where can I buy them and how easy are they to grow? N.G., Olympia

A. Yes, these rock stars will all thrive, you can find creeping phlox, candytuft, aubrietia and basket-of-gold at local nurseries now and they are simple to grow – but only if you provide them with great drainage on a sunny or partly-shaded slope and remember that even drought-resistant rock garden plants need moisture the first summer so they can establish a root system. You can tidy up these spring bloomers by shearing them back by one half once the flowers fade – often this early summer crew cut will convince these colorful characters to give a summer-long encore performance.

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