The Garden Life: Northwest’s wet spring ideal for gardening



A few days ago, when the sun was shining and it was warm enough to be outside in a lightweight, long-sleeved T-shirt, I spent my first full day of the year working in the garden. All the signs of spring filled me with energy to get the season underway. The first thing I did was run my mower over the lawn, not to cut the grass but to mulch the leaves and debris that have littered the lawn in the last few weeks.

After that, I cut back any weather-beaten foliage from my hellebores and primroses so it would not detract from the first flowers of the season. Then I added a layer of compost to even out the look of the soil and to deter the growth of early weeds. I made a good start on cutting back all of my ornamental grasses but before the sun began to set, the temperature changed and I could feel a distinct chill pervade the evening air.

Anyone who has been gardening in the Pacific Northwest for any length of time knows that just because the calendar says it is spring, does not mean our moody weather will comply. Yes, we will have the occasional sunny, spring-like day but we can still expect a bout or two of inclement weather. Until at least mid-March, it is officially winter. The average last frost in Southwest Washington is April 15.

Every year at this time, I reiterate that the most common cause of disappointment when growing annuals is planting too early in the season. The soil can still be cold, muddy and wet. Most of our hardy perennials will do fine if planted at this time of year but using Mother’s Day as a planting date for tender plants and annuals will take some of the gamble out of any large plant purchases. Typically, plants put out several weeks later in the season will overtake those planted earlier.

On the other hand, if you have zone hardy trees or shrubs to plant, get them in the ground as soon as possible. These can actually be planted any time the ground is not frozen, a rarity in our region. The choice of flower type, flower color and scent among Northwest trees and shrubs is abundant. With the use of camellias, rhododendrons, viburnums, spirea and hydrangea, to name a few, a Northwest gardener can have four seasons of interest without a perennial in sight.

Spring is ideal for planting shrubs because the plant will go into soil that will stay moist from the seasonal rainfall and will continue to warm with the onset of the season. In addition, many conifers can be planted now, before new growth begins. Early spring is the preferred time to plant needled evergreens such as the Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria spp.) and False Cypress (Chamaecyparis spp.). All conifers require a good supply of water when new growth is expanding.

As you will see by the supply of packaged roses at every garden center in Vancouver and the surrounding area, it’s a good time to plant roses. Preferably, your choice of roses was made over the winter while perusing spring catalogs. It is always best to decide which plants will fit the size and situation of your garden, then go to a nursery and shop for individual plants that fill those specific requirements. I love the cheerful yellows and high pink roses that light up a garden. Only you know what colors strike the magical chord for you.

If you have not completed prespring pruning of roses already in your garden, you should do so as early as possible, before new growth expands. Although pruning is good for roses, there is a period of setback if the plant has grown too much before the first pruning takes place.

At this time, feed established roses with an organic, high phosphorus fertilizer to encourage large blooms, healthy roots and disease resistance.

If you are not quite ready to jump into the garden with both feet but want some inspiration to ease you into the gardening season, invest in a large decorative pot and fill it with a selection of early season favorites. Plant a small flowering shrub or miniature conifer in the center of the planter as a focal point. Circle the base with a mass of creamy yellow pansies. As the days continue to warm, the deliciously sweet scent will carry on the slightest breeze. Before you know it, spring will follow like a breath of fresh air.

Robb Rosser is a WSU-certified master gardener. Reach him at