Spring will soon be in the air and the Northwest gardener needs no further encouragement to begin another season of gardening. Soon, primroses, pansies, daffodils and tulips in six packs, 4-inch pots or 1-gallon containers will fill the tables outside the entry door of every nursery in town. More plants arrive every day. There will be pots of herbaceous perennials including cranesbill geraniums and candy tuft (Iberis sempervirens). Today, I eye-balled a common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), which will one day flaunt heavenly scented flower clusters in purple, pink and white.
All the signs of spring fill the gardener with energy to get the season underway. But if you’re a Northwest gardener with some gardening time under your belt, you know that just because the calendar says it’s spring does not make our moody weather comply. Unless you are willing to take a chance, hold off planting annuals until at least mid-March. Until then, it’s officially winter in the Northwest. I’m going to be realistic this year and remember that the average last frost in Southwest Washington is April 15.
One of the most common causes of disappointment in our gardens 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. You might
see inexpensive packs of annuals on garden store shelves but the garden standard for planting out tender plants and annuals is not until Mother’s Day. You can try it now, but it’s a gamble, especially if you are planting a large area of the garden. Typically, plants put out several weeks later in the season will overtake those planted earlier.
On the other hand, if you have newly purchased trees or container-grown shrubs sitting around waiting to be planted, get them in the ground as soon as possible. Shrubs and trees can actually be planted any time the ground is not frozen, a rarity in our neighborhoods. The choices of flower type, flower color, and scent among Northwest trees and shrubs is awesome. With a mix of pieris, camellia, rhododendron, viburnum, spirea and hydrangea, to name only a few, a Northwest gardener can have four seasons of interest without a perennial in sight.
Spring is an ideal time to plant shrubs and trees. Seasonal rainfall almost guarantees the new plant abundant water. At the same time, the soil will continue to warm with the onset of the spring season. In addition, many conifers can be planted now, before new growth begins. Early spring is the preferred time to plant less-hardy species, such as Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria) and false cypress (Chamaecyparis). All conifers require a maximum of moisture when new growth is expanding.
As you will see at every garden center in Clark County, it’s a good time to plant out roses. Preferably, your choice of roses was made in winter while perusing spring catalogs and not a snap decision made as thousands of roses stare you in the face. Take the time to decide what you want while you’re in your garden, then go to the garden center and look for plants that fill your requirements. I love the cheerful yellows and high pinks that light up a garden. Only you know what colors strike the magic chord of your vision.
In Clark County, it’s recommended that you prune established roses in mid-February, some time around President’s Day. This year, Washington’s birthday falls on Feb. 17. You can put this chore off for some time, especially if we have a bout of freezing weather, but prune roses back before new growth gets long and rangy. Although pruning is good for your roses, the plant should not be allowed to grow late in the season before the first pruning.
If you are not quite ready to jump into the garden with both feet and want some inspiration, invest in a large wooden tub or decorative planter and fill it with your favorite plants. Or make an early focal point near the entry to your house by planting a bloom-laden Winter Daphne (Daphne odora “Marginata”) surrounded by creamy-yellow pansies, purple lobelia, lamium or sweet alyssum. As the days continue to warm, the heady scent of the Daphne will greet you at the door. Before you know it, spring will follow like a breath of fresh air.