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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: It’s spring, not summer

Those summerlike days were so exhilarating! Who didn’t get giddy upon feeling warm breezes on bare arms – no boots, no layers, no stopping? The plants were shooting up and budding – beautiful, yes? But was it great for the garden and landscape? Well, not so much.

No matter what the beach and barbecue crowds prefer, everything alive and growing benefits from more normal spring weather. That would be cool and wet. It is not time for 80-degree temperatures. Premature warm temperatures confuse gardeners and homeowners – we can get downright silly – so that we do some things too soon and neglect more important jobs completely. Some plants and animals even get a little mixed up, although mother nature keeps checks and balances in place so a bluebird or a magnolia can’t get too far out of control just because the meteorologist says: “Warm and dry; high pressure area continues.”

Let’s review what’s happening in the plant world in this abnormal situation, and what (if anything) we can do about it.

Last year’s new plants

In all the excitement of plant shopping during those summerlike days, did you forget to check on the condition of the shrubs and trees you planted last year? I am betting their surrounding soil and roots are extremely dry. In many parts of the region rainfall is approximately 6 inches below average for the period from November until now. Remembering the November storm and 4 feet of snow for extended periods, you might think we had ample precipitation reaching the ground water. That is not so. Snow is not the equivalent of rain. Water tables are low. There was even a red alert for all regional counties last week, indicating a risk of fire because forests and fields have such dry undergrowth.

What that means for our landscape plants: If you planted anything within the last two or even three years, you should check whether the root ball area is moist. Use a shovel in the vicinity of the plant, digging at least a foot deep, where the roots are. Normally spring rains help those plants to rehydrate after winter dormancy, a period when they dry out severely. There is a critical window of opportunity, when they start to grow roots and produce leaves and buds. If they do not receive ample water on time, they can die quite quickly. Do not assume that sporadic thunderstorms make up for weeks of the famed April showers. Water those plants generously, yesterday.

Mother’s Day baskets

I hope that every garden center in the region sold a record number of flowering hanging baskets for Mother’s Day, as it is a crucial holiday for growers and garden centers in the weather-challenged plant business. Those stalwart plant growers in Eden, Hamburg, West Seneca, Niagara County and beyond have done what they could to recover from the winter of 2014-15, but many took a huge hit – losing greenhouses, plants or both. It’s a really good thing if you stopped by for your first round of plant shopping.

And what did you buy? One of the surprises, because of the heat-induced plant shopping euphoria, was that people didn’t just shop for the usual, pretty, single-plant baskets. Several business owners told me that what’s different is that customers are buying everything – across the spectrum.

Some of you took home cool-weather pansies, violas and fragrant Lobularia but many also chose hot-weather plants such as coleus, begonias and mandevillas, as well as flowering trees, roses and perennials. I’m sure that in many places nursery or garden center professionals warned you about tender plants, but just in case nobody mentioned it ...

If the temperature is predicted to drop below about 45 degrees (which is normal throughout May), move tender plants inside, nearer the house or cover them with a cloth. If they are already flowering abundantly or the basket is filled with delicate buds and new leaves, even if they are hardy plants, protect them from a frost, hard rain or high winds. Those babies were grown with tender loving care. Just look at them, and act accordingly.

Your vegetable garden

Like flower gardeners, vegetable gardeners were unstoppable. Normally we stick with peas, greens, onions, potatoes and cole crops (cabbage, broccoli family) while the nights and soil are cool. But even experienced gardeners had a hard time holding back; they planted tomatoes and squash already. The problem is that some vegetables require warm soil and warm nights, not just warm days, to grow properly. Tomatoes often develop growth defects that show up late in the season if they were planted in cold soil or experience cold nights. Beans and squashes can rot in the soil or just don’t grow yet. Wait until the soil is warmer than 55 degrees. Find a thermometer or learn to feel it with your hands. When experts suggest waiting until Memorial Day to plant tomatoes and beans, it’s not just because there is risk of frost. Although it felt like July 4 last week, you have time.

Flowering trees

Flowering trees and bulbs proclaim it is spring. The native serviceberries, flowering cherries and ornamental pears have been exquisite, along with daffodils and tulips, but many were rushed through their glory days. In cool weather the blooming periods can last for several weeks, but heat hurries everything along. I’m personally so sad to see my expanses of daffodils done. (See, you who cheer for summer, 80 degrees is not all wonderful.) My redbud and a pink-flowering lilac are both flowering now (an exquisite combination). We can still look forward to flowering magnolias and many kinds of crabapples and dogwoods. They will be prettier, for longer, when nights are cool. My suggestion: Note what you have admired on city streets or country landscapes, choose a tree or shrubs with multiseason beauty. These are fine weeks for planting all perennials or woody plants.

And while you’re out there, pull or smother the weeds that are quickly winning in the great race toward summer.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.