February 13, 2010 in Washington Voices

Some plants, gardens not waiting for spring

Pat Munts
 

To paraphrase the real estate adage; it’s all about microclimate, microclimate, microclimate. Experts aren’t willing to say this is a record warm winter, but there are signs that the plants think it’s March in some places.

Several people in the lower elevations of Spokane’s Peaceful Valley and the Spokane Valley are reporting crocuses and daffodils poking out of the ground. A couple of miles away or a few feet higher in elevation gardeners aren’t seeing a thing.

This is the year that microclimates in our yards are going to dictate how and when we go about early garden chores. Never mind what your friend across town is experiencing or the generalized advice from local garden prognosticators. Generalized advice is just a guideline this year.

A microclimate is the specific climate found in a small area like a backyard as opposed to the general climate of the larger region. Factors such as nearby hills, low spots, sun and wind exposure, buildings and other structures nearby interact to channel air flow and heat in your garden. Every garden has them and many have more than one.

Determining your own microclimate requires observation of what happens in your yard over time. Where do the plants seem to start growing the earliest; the latest? What areas frost out first? What part of the garden do tomatoes set their fruit the earliest? Where is the last pile of snow?

Keeping your microclimate in mind, here are a few tasks you can do when conditions are right.

If we do get a late blast of winter that takes temperatures below about 20 degrees for an extended period of time, there is nothing a gardener can do to prevent damage if plants are coming out of dormancy. Once a plant starts coming alive, no human intervention can stop it. However, many plants send out growth to test conditions before fully emerging.

Leave mulches on garden beds for now even if some of the early plants are emerging. Have extra mulch on hand to cover green shoots if we get an extended cold forecast.

Be prepared to cover the south-facing main trunks of small trees, especially young ones. An extended period of warm weather may get sap moving in trunks on warm days. Very cold night temperatures freeze the sap and the expanding ice splits the bark. Shade the south side of the trunk with a board wider than the trunk or wrap it with tree wrap. Some commercial orchardists paint tree trunks with white latex paint to reflect the sun. Ugly but effective.

All you procrastinators who didn’t get your bulbs planted last fall have a reprieve. If the ground is thawed and not sopping wet, get them in. Gently firm the soil over them and hill up some soil to protect them. Don’t expect a stellar performance from them this year as they will be growing roots.

We are three inches of rain short right now, so it is important to get subsoil moisture levels up before spring arrives. If the ground is thawed, hose water new plantings, shallow-rooted rhododendron and azaleas, evergreens and any plants that are in dry spots in midsummer.

Review the recommended dormant and peach leaf curl spray schedules and application techniques by accessing Washington State University’s IPM and Pesticide Safety Education Program Web site. This site has a database of fact sheets on pesticide applications and integrated pest management options. Most are free. The web address is http:// pep.wsu.edu/hortsense/. These can also be ordered by calling the Master Gardener Hotline in Spokane at (509) 477-2181.

Clean and repair your spray equipment. Check your stock of spray so you are ready to go. Apply your sprays according to the direction on the label and timed correctly for your trees.

Begin pruning and shaping fruit trees and deciduous hedges. Again consult the information fliers from your cooperative extension office on pruning techniques as they vary between types of plants. If this is more than you want to do, this is a good time to bring in an International Society of Arboriculture-certified arborist to do the job for you.

Clean up fallen branches, blown-in leaves and pine needles now. Sack up the leaves and set them aside to make compost in the spring. Add compost to garden beds.

Watch for chickweed and shot weed, two of our earliest weeds. Rather than chopping out chickweed, gather up the mat, find the root and dig it out. Dispose of the whole plant in the garbage. Shot weed starts with a small rosette of leaves and quickly sends up a small white flower followed by a seed head that flings seed all over when touched. Pull them out completely and put in the trash. Cover the area with at least three inches of mulch immediately to prevent more seedlings.

Pat Munts can be reached by e-mail at srmunts@mindspring.com.

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