January 12, 2012 in Washington Voices

Too early to get jump on growing season

Pat Munts
 

This mild winter weather and lack of snow is bringing some gardeners out of hibernation early. The ground may be frozen but that won’t stop diehards. I’ve already had one note asking if it’s too early to prune fruit trees, and I spent the weekend outdoors repairing an old rail fence.

However, as much as we would like to get out and do certain things, we aren’t done with winter. Case in point: The winter of 1988-1989 started out mild. By early February 1989, the lows plummeted to minus 11. Winds gusting to 40 mph contributed to a wind chill in the minus 30s. Even the normally hardy stuff froze to the ground. So, proceed with caution.

It’s really too early to prune fruit trees. Arborists will be working on other ornamental trees, but even they will quit when a severe cold snap is predicted. Fruit trees are normally pruned between mid-February and late March after the danger of severe cold has passed. Pruning them now can expose new wood that can be damaged by severe cold. Hold off applying dormant sprays until late February or early March.

Plants will be appearing in the big box stores sooner than we think. The buyers for these stores seem to think Spokane is Seattle and send stuff out a month before the ground even thaws. The problem is, we buy them anyway.

If you can’t resist picking up that fruit tree at Costco, the pansies at Lowe’s or hauling back treasures from the upcoming garden shows in Seattle and Portland, here are some tips for keeping them alive until you can plant them:

• Any bareroot plant or tree in a pot or bag can simply be set in the garage until the ground thaws. Check them for moisture and add water as needed so they don’t dry out. If you have several bagged plants, pack them together in a large pot with some damp potting soil. When the ground thaws, plant them but put some mulch around the roots to protect them from frost heaving.

• Plants with leaves are a more of a challenge. They will need light and regular water to stay healthy. Small pots can be grouped on trays or any flat container and either put near a bright window or set under some fluorescent lights. The lights need to be right on top of the plants and set to stay on 14 to 16 hours a day. The plants will get leggy, but they will recover when they get outdoors.

If you are storing them in the house, gradually introduce them to outdoor temperatures like you do your tomatoes. Put them outside on warm days and bring them back in at night. If you do plant them early, put a layer of mulch around them and expect some leaf burn if we get a late cold snap.

Pat Munts has gardened in the Spokane Valley for more than 35 years. She can be reached at pat@inlandnwgardening.com.

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