The Weekly Gardener 1

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Sort of Gardening

February Matters

Sweet Violets

February is not the loveliest of months, but it has one redeeming quality: it's seed starting time. Depending on your hardiness zone, the seed starting trays come out of storage right around this time. I will go get mine from the shed soon, because I'm planning to give the perennials a couple of extra weeks indoors this year.

Starting plants indoors presents a few challenges, which is why timing is essential to the success of the endeavor, albeit for the basics, like tomatoes and marigolds, it really doesn't make much of an impact, they always pick up after being transplanted.

Anything beyond the most basic annuals will benefit from properly planning the planting time: too much time indoors and the roots get stunted, the plants start getting weak and leggy and prone to every pest and disease known to science. I have often wondered how can a plant get aphids or mildew indoors, while growing in a sterile medium that is completely isolated from potential sources of infestation, but this is the state of fact that I'll take at face value.

If the seedlings spend too little time indoors, they simply die as soon as they are moved outside.

There is a precise point of equilibrium when the plants should be moved to the garden; keeping them indoors past that point makes them waste precious energy trying to adjust to conditions they are not supposed to experience, instead of using it to grow and get established. Working backwards from that point and adding the number of weeks that the plants need to germinate and grow to a healthy size should give the gardener an optimal time for starting the seeds. Easy.

Unfortunately, acting at precisely the right time is not exclusively in the gardener's control. We all watched leggy plants creep out of their case and sprawl around the room, while we waited for the unexpected May freeze to go away, or mourned the precious sprouts that got wiped into oblivion by one more cold night than they were able to tolerate. Also, the plants' growth cycles vary from year to year, mostly because of the weather, absurd as it may seem, considering they are cultivated in a conditioned environment and doted on assiduously by the anxious gardener, and these variations can add up to growth differentials measured in weeks. Gardening, definitely not an exact science. Given that the sprawling plants, however stunted and chlorotic, have much better chances of survival, I usually err on the side of caution and keep them inside until I'm sure.

The perennials don't even enter the equation, because they take so long to germinate, and even longer to develop to the point where they can be safely planted outdoors, that for them planting time is right about now.

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Groundhog Day

Veronicas

As expected, February brought back the dreary weather, because it's winter, and it's supposed to be unpleasant. You would be surprised how precisely tuned the plants' biological clocks are to the larger harmonies of nature.

You walk outside in seventy degrees weather, in the middle of January, and wonder how come there aren't buds on the trees, or plants shooting out of the ground. I wish I knew what triggered the plants to start their growing cycle, but they always seem to know exactly when it is safe for them to come out, and are so seldom wrong that you're better off guessing the weather patterns according to their growth than the other way around.

For instance, the hellebores are late this year. They have started to bud out, but they are at least a couple of weeks behind, which tells me that we are going to have more cold weather coming, and it will stretch out for a bit. Hey, it's almost Groundhog Day, so I'll make my spring prediction. What's Phil got that I don't, anyway? I cast a shadow.

There are no daffodils or hyacinths in sight either, and the spring bulbs tend to leaf out really early when they sense spring is near.

That being said, the weather has been unseasonably warm and humid so far, which makes the fact that the plants are biding their time even more peculiar.