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STILL ON A WEATHER ROLLER-COASTER

The scenes in our yards and the garden centers resembled any fine Memorial Day weekend. The casual observer, driving about town, might have seen cook-outs, people planting flowers and taking home hanging baskets for the porch. The trouble is it's still April, and we have a month ahead that will be full of temperature fluctuations, including frosty nights.

But rather than do nothing, you can start the season with a trip to the garden center. The trick is to know which plants can stand the exigencies of Mother Nature, and which ones you must baby once you own them.

Ready to go outside

There are many plants, now blooming in the garden centers, that are frost tolerant and withstand even below-freezing temperatures. Many are short, spring-blooming perennials. Notice that height is often a key to timing among herbaceous or non-woody plants, mostly because it just takes more time for taller plants to produce all that stem, leaf and flower tissue.

Here are some small but tough spring plants:

English primroses: The old-fashioned ones were single-flowering and very sweet, but the newer ones, called "doubles," have flowers that resemble miniature roses. Flowers are royal blue, deep red and rich white -- perfect for edging walkways.

Violas and pansies: Whether tiny or large blooms, whether they're called 'Icicle' or otherwise, both Violas and pansies are generally winter survivors, at least if they are planted in decent soil with good drainage.

Heucheras or Coral Bells -- along with Tiarella and Heucheralla (the hybrid from combining the other two): These are favorites of hummingbirds, and suit many gardening sites. It's hard to choose among so many Heucheras, but look at the newer ones with dramatic foliage colors.

Ground covers: These tough, short plants that spread include ivies, short Sedum species, creeping thymes and Ajugas with variable colors of cream, green and maroon. Look for the deep burgundy, crinkled leaves of Ajuga 'Dark Scallops.'

Parsley: Why not get it out there, along with the peas, lettuce and spinach, as soon as the soil permits? Most "salad greens" are very cold-hardy, and make interesting edges to a flower bed.

Many perennials: There is no reason most hardy perennials can't be planted outside, if your soil is ready. On the other hand, lots of them are in pots in a greenhouse or field and they are better off growing up a bit before going home with you. Be patient. If they are not out in your garden centers, they will be in due time.

Take care of tender plants

Perhaps you followed your heart, or have a special event coming, and filled the planters with red grasses, tropical foliage and Geraniums Pelargonium. Or maybe you took home the hanging baskets of Million-bells, petunias, and Osteospermum. I hope your seller warned you to cover them when the temperature drops below 40 degrees, or take them in and out of the house for a while. If not, you may have learned the lesson about cold hardiness the hard way. You're in good company.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and former Cornell Extension educator.

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