Garden Life: Fill limbo between winter, spring with valuable tasks




With the upcoming garden shows heralding the arrival of spring, I’m beginning to feel the urge to get back out in the garden. I consider this the onset of my annual bout with spring fever. This feeling is commonly associated with the upcoming change of seasons. It’s the time of year when we want to venture back out into the garden but we’re not quite ready for the heady pace of spring gardening.

Nothing feels more like being in limbo than the weeks between early February and late March in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a long stretch of unpredictable weather. We can’t be sure we have seen the last of winter and we know it’s too early to trust in the fleeting signs of impending spring. Spring fever has its ups and downs; it comes and goes.

It’s as if our days are choreographed to the tempo of the variable Northwest weather. The sun shines clearly once or twice a week just to get the gardening juices flowing. We take one step forward and give the lawn its first feeding. Then we find ourselves two steps back with a week of rain and gray skies. Before the lawn is dry enough to mow, it’s grown six inches.

I find that imagining the garden through the eyes of a garden visitor to be helpful at this time of year. Think of seeing your garden from the perspective of a visitor coming up the driveway, parking, getting out of their car and coming to your front door. Your list of things to do can begin with spring cleaning the front porch. Sweep it down and make sure any pots or planters give the first impression you would like them to give. It’s all about new growth now, fresh seasonal color, not what’s left over from fall and winter.

By the time we warm up to the idea of spring, the “to do” list grows as quickly as the dandelions in our lawns. The ardent gardener decides to plant a petunia and ends up on hands and knees for three hours, pulling weeds. Once again, we stumble into the garden and the garden shows us what needs to be done. Carry pruners with you and when you see a shrub with dead twigs and branches, get in there and prune them back to good wood. If a vine is taking off, get out the twine and give it the direction and support it needs to reach a destination that you and the vine can agree upon.

While you’re doing these odds and ends, you’ll be getting a good overview of your garden and come to see what else needs to be done. If you’re doing a kitchen garden this year, begin by applying composted manure to all your vegetable beds. Plant out vegetable seedlings and plant seeds of early beans or sugar snap peas. As soon as the soil is friable, you can put out herbaceous perennials and fertilize beds and borders. Then, plant any summer-blooming bulbs you have already purchased and cut back all ornamental grasses before the new growth gets under way.

Hold off planting annuals until after Mother’s day, when the danger of frost is less likely. You can use this wait time to plan your 2013 garden color palette. As existing perennials emerge, fill in large gaps with complimentary-colored annuals. Create a mood with this year’s color scheme. Take a chance. Go for a combination of colors that you have always wanted to try. Combine pinks and blues with a hint of cool, mellow yellow, or mix hot reds with confident yellows and oranges for a cheerful spring display.

This year I’m going to plant large pots and planters with structural foundation plants such as choice evergreen shrubs, dwarf conifers and a few of my favorite small Japanese maples. I’m considering a future move from my hilltop home and hope to have a selection of my favorite plants ready and waiting to make the move with me. For now, I’m simply looking forward to the chance of getting my fingers dirty and the knees of my pants muddy.

So what’s a gardener supposed to do when the Snowdrops are blooming but the abundance of spring holds back? I look forward to gardening vicariously. I’m going to visit every Home and Garden Show that comes to town. On cold days, I suggest we all look through that stack of catalogs we have accumulated over the winter months. If you can weed through the verbiage and choose between the superlatives, you may still have time to order plants before the arrival of spring.

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