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Great Gardening: Catching up; making changes

The White Rabbit ran frantically around Wonderland saying, “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!” Gardeners are acting just like that. The weather was cold, our yards were wet, and we couldn’t do much in the garden in the first three weeks of May. Many yards still have saturated soil, so our lawn and gardening projects are pushed back even later.

How can we catch up? Can we? Or do we need to adjust our plans?

Minor adjustments

While each gardener’s situation has its own peculiarities, a few general rules apply for growing both food and flowers.

Early season gardening is greatly dependent on the weather and, although I’m no meteorologist, I believe it’s safe to predict that we will move quickly from cold nights to bursts of hot days and warm nights. Our shorts and grills come out overnight, but plants don’t adapt that fast.

I suggest a few adjustments if you had planned a garden with a normal spring in mind.

Peas

If you didn’t plant them weeks ago, forget it. Peas need cold weather and cool soil, and will “bolt” and become tough as soon as the heat hits them. If the soil feels comfortable when you put your hand in it, plant beans instead. If you got the peas in early, pick them before they get tough.

Lettuce, spinach, other salad greens

If you missed the moment for these cool-weather crops, usually planted from seed, you could still plant some seeds in a shady spot in compost-rich soil – perhaps shaded by shrubs or tall perennials. Many are attractive as edging in an ornamental garden. Some garden centers even sell well-started lettuce plants that you could put in containers on the shaded side of the patio. Keep cutting the leaves back for salads; the plants will regrow.

Potatoes

If they rotted in the cold, wet soil – especially likely in clay – you can still plant some seed-potato pieces in raised beds. I have usually started potatoes in trenches and then “hilled up” the soil around them as they grew. But just last week I put some cut, sprouting, potatoes in a black garbage can (with holes in the bottom) that I will continue to fill with compost and soil mix as the tops rise up. (Confession: I even add some used container plant mix – not what most professors would advise.) I will have a barrel of potatoes.

Warm-weather vine crops

If you have a warmed-up, well-drained garden or raised beds, you can still plant squash and pumpkin seeds. They must have warm soil so Memorial Day weekend is not too late for them. (Do look on the packet for “Days to harvest” and choose faster varieties.) But this might be a good year to buy these plants already started, from a garden center or farmers market.

Tomatoes, peppers, eggplant

The nightshade group all require warm growing conditions – 55-degree soil and nights that stay above 55 degrees – so you are not late in planting them in June. (University tests showed that tomatoes planted in June actually caught up with plants put outside in mid-May. Also, nightshade plants in cold soil or excessive rain develop growth defects later in summer – particularly blossom-end rot, those blackened bottoms). If you have leggy seedlings inside, yearning for the outdoors, give them the best light possible but plant them only in warm soil or containers. Or go back to the farmers market and try a few of their offerings.

Mother’s Day basket of flowers

If you bought cool-weather baskets (Lobularia, Osteospermums, Scaevola, petunias, dianthus, pansies) they were probably fine unless a hard rain battered them. But if heat comes on strong, make a change: Move the basket into a little shade. Water consistently when the soil feels dry on top. You might even plant some into the garden.

Big changes

Probably this spring will not be the last soggy, cold one. Look at your landscape and garden to consider making changes.

• Fix bad drainage. Poor drainage is a killer of many trees, shrubs and perennials. Every plant has a specific tolerance level for standing in water. Poor drainage also leaves the yard soggy so you can’t mow the lawn or work in the flower beds without doing further damage.

In most cases you need a Certified Nursery & Landscape Professional or landscape architect to do the trenching, drainage basins, ditches or grading that would solve your problem.

Be especially careful that your changes don’t ruin your neighbor’s yard: Many a drainage spout or new trench has directed water into someone else’s basement or flower bed. Fixing drainage is a big deal.

• Choose plants for the site. Always use plants that suit the site – and look at the site for its year-round characteristics. Some woody plants not only live well in often-flooded sites, but also absorb excess water.

• Make a rain garden. Rain garden instructions are available from the United States Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and university websites. These plantings can be attractive, educational, nature-friendly and effective for handling excessive rainfalls as well as summer droughts.

Little adjustments and some big changes can make home gardening and landscaping more successful and much less stressful, even in extreme and changing weather.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant and author of the newly published book, “Buffalo-Style Gardens” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95), along with Jim Charlier.

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