Thursday, March 24, 2011

Getting Through March

By this time of year the gardener is usually able to report a noticeable change in the garden, but often the change is in the soul of the gardener and not the garden.  After a mild day or two we convince ourselves that it is the beginning of the New Year.  In Manhattan, daffodils are poking their noses through the soil of street-side apartment house planters, cozying up to the warmth coming from the buildings.  

If you are dreaming of a cottage in the country with a garden and you wish to be disabused of the idea, now is the time to go house hunting.  After the snow melts a March walk through a garden can be sobering.  Rhododendrons are still shrouded in burlap.  Small piles of debris are everywhere.  Anything cut and left on the ground can be cleared, but most of the larger material is still frozen.  Water has pooled and frozen in low-lying areas.  Pots the owner didn’t get around to emptying and storing in September are still there, probably frozen and cracked.  

April 1 is the real start of the gardening year, and March merely the wind-up.  With all its climatic vagaries, March does manage to offer one definitive idea: Winter is over.  If you walk in the woods you will soon hear the spring peepers.  Farmers say that after they have been heard three nights in a row, spring is here to stay.

To help you through the winter, if you have an empty corner or a small wooded swath, consider the Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis.  Garden writers love them, because it gives the author material when nothing else is going on.  Snowdrops will give you something to look for when all else is still dormant, and leave you free of worry about late frosts.  They are among the toughest of plants and if laid low by a late winter storm, they will bounce back.  

If you have been wise enough to plant snowdrops, and are down on your muddy knees admiring your handiwork at eye level where they can best be seen, you will be happy to know that you can expand your crop by dividing them now, even though they are in full bloom.  The conventional wisdom is that bulbs can be transplanted only when dormant, but that is not the case here.  If you wait until autumn there will be no trace of them above ground, and you will have forgotten where they were planted.  

Saint Patrick’s Day and Good Friday are the traditional days for sowing sweet peas.  Be forewarned, however, that the best seed and the most attentive care will not produce a single blossom if the weather is not right.  Sweet peas do best in climates where the temperatures drop at night and are seldom over 70 degrees in the daytime.

If you decide to sow sweet pea seeds, wait for a balmy day to start. Make sure you have dry conditions before you cultivate the soil; a mild day after a reasonably dry period is best.  Squeeze a handful of soil, and if it stays loose it is ready to dig.  If water seeps out or if the soil falls apart in your hand, hold off for a week or so until the soil is right.

If all this fails to cheer you, visit the annual New York Botanical Garden Orchid Show, blooming in the Bronx at 200th Street and Kazimiroff Boulevard until April 25th.  It will help you get through these weeks until spring really arrives.

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