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The Avid Gardener: Escaping winter with spring planning

by on February 22, 2018 9:33 AM

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The Avid Gardener: Escaping winter with spring planning

 “In a way Winter is the real Spring — the time when the inner things happen, the resurgence of nature.” — Edna O’Brien

 With spring still almost a month away, I begin to get impatient with winter weather. Even though I realize that snow cover is helpful to plants by insulating them from icy drying winds, I am eager to see the spring blossoms of delicate woodland ephemerals, as well as those of the vibrant tulips, daffodils and hyacinth that will be poking up soon. Some hellebores have already emerged through the snow in my yard, which is a beginning.

Even though there may be some chilly days and an occasional snow shower, I’ll venture outside in February to prepare. I try to shrug off winter by planning.


Late winter is when it pays to walk about the yard looking at the general condition of everything from garden beds to trees to shrubs.

This all helps to prioritize what will need to be done this year.

Are some shrubs getting too big or in undesirable locations? Are trees leaning, have expanding cracks where limbs meet or have rotten or sunken wood? Decisions may need to be made about the health of some of the plantings and if they should be moved or taken out.

With decisions made, this is also a great month for calling professionals to hire them for designs, planting or major yard work during the spring and summer. I am hoping to have a black walnut tree removed from my backyard and am already on the arborist’s calendar for the spring.

Equipment should be serviced and gotten ready for use. I can clean, sharpen and oil tools that were thrown in that bucket in the shed last fall.

Stocking up on supplies is also a fine idea. Things like fertilizer, plant protectors, basket liners and items on a wish list (like that garden cart on which I’ve had my eye) might be purchased now.


Now is the time, too, when I’ll decide if I want to start annuals or perennials from purchased seeds or buy the plants later, since it is still too cold this month to plant outside.

According to George Weigel’s "Month-By-Month Gardening" book for the Mid-Atlantic, annual flower seeds can be started indoors for six to 10 weeks to allow for sprouting, growing and gradually getting used to the outside in our USDA Growing Zone 6B. That means they need to be started by late February. Perennials also can be started inside this month, because they need a longer time to germinate and grow than annuals. Easier perennials to start from seed indoors are Shasta daisies, purple coneflower, balloon flower, statice, yarrow and dianthus.

I overwintered (brought inside) some zonal geraniums in the fall, and, according to Weigel, I can clip 3- to 4-inch stems from each, leaving at least two sets of leaves. Then, I can strip off all but the top set of leaves, dip the bottom in rooting powder (available at garden centers) and plant it in a lightweight, soilless mix with the top set of leaves sticking out. If I keep the mix damp, I’ll have rooted “babies” in a few weeks. This also can work for some tropical plants, as well as coleus and begonias.


Indoor house plants may develop some insect pests such as aphids, whiteflies and fungus gnats this time of year. I find fungus gnats especially annoying. These tiny flitting insects thrive in wet soil, so the key is keeping the soil dryer between watering. This can be aided by watering deeply but more infrequently, and covering the soil with an inch of sand or some other gritty material to make it less desirable for gnat egg-laying. Other ideas for deterrents include dryer sheets laid over the soil, or yellow cards coated with petroleum jelly that can work like traps.

Outdoors, the animals are becoming hungrier as their food supplies decrease. Among the most notorious critters are deer, rabbits, voles and groundhogs. Deterrents can take the form of fencing, wire cages, traps and repellents. Squirrels love early crocuses, so it’s advisable to lay chicken wire over any beds where they are planted before the crocuses emerge, allowing the shoots to grow through the openings. Deer love tulips, so it’s helpful to apply repellent sprays before the flowers open. Some chipmunks made short work of my lily buds last year, so I suspect the rodent population continues to thrive despite my best efforts.


This is the time of year to begin to scout out places for pre-spring “therapy.” One of my favorites always occurs in the first week of March — the Philadelphia Flower Show. This is one of the premier shows on the East Coast, with lots of great ideas for gardeners and what seems like acres of beautiful displays. The energy is amazing and contagious.

There are also tons of inspiring public gardens to visit, including the U.S. National Arboretum and U.S. Botanic Garden (Washington, D.C., region), Mt. Cuba Center (Delaware), Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden (Virginia) and Ladew Topiary Garden (Maryland). Two of my personal favorites in Pennsylvania continue to be Longwood and Chanticleer.

Closer to home, the Penn State Arboretum on campus will offer a dazzling display of tulips in the coming months, then continue to evolve and impress for the entire season.

If, like me, you find yourself impatient for the beginning spring, take heart. Planning will pay off, and soon we’ll be outside again in our own favorite gardens.

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