2006-03-16 / News

The Island Garden

By Roger Marshall

It's time to start thinking about starting the seeds for your garden

vegetables and flowers.

The last frost date around here is May 1st, and you should figure on starting your seeds about 6 to 8 weeks before that. That said, there are some seeds that you might want to start earlier. Seeds such as some peppers and eggplants, impatiens, primula, and other slow to germinate seeds can be started early, but make sure you have a place to put them.

The perennial flowers that you buy in stores in spring are usually started in greenhouses late last year to give them time to grow large and come into bloom ready for you to buy. For that reason professional growers buy their seed in August and September when home gardeners are thinking about making their flowers last through the fall.

Your annual flowers can be started a little early, too, but remember that you will need a place to put them as they grow larger. Also as they grow larger, you'll need to pot them up into three or 4-inch pots, which require a lot more space than does a simple seed flat.

Now is the time to make sure that:

+ All your seeds are ordered or purchased.

+ Your seed flats are clean.

+ You have a good supply of potting soil.

+ Your germination chamber with its fluorescent lights are all in working order. Remember that fluorescent lights gradually fade, and you may want to replace old tubes. Then you'll be ready to start your seeds.

While you are waiting for your seeds there's lots to do outdoors if you want to brave the winter chill. Any time between now and when sap starts to flow you can prune trees and shrubs. I like to start early to get a jump on it, and with almost 20 fruit trees on the property, the job takes awhile. Take a look at each tree while they have no leaves. Look to see where branches cross over each other. One of the crossover branches should be pruned out. If they are left to rub on each other eventually one will be so weak that it will break or rot will get into it. Prune out the water shoots - that is, the vertical shoots that tend to grow up the middle of the tree. If you leave them, the middle of the tree will become crowded and not enough light will get in.

When pruning, never prune more than 20 to 25 percent of the tree away. If you have to do more than 25 percent, wait until next season to do the rest. One shrub you should not prune now are rhododendrons. If you prune now, you will remove flower buds. Wait until after rhododendrons have flowered before pruning.

If you have fruit trees first look at the shape of them. They should look like an upturned hand, the middle is open like your palm, with branches, your fingers, radiating from the central trunk, your wrist. This shape allows plenty of light into the middle of the tree and helps to keep the branches strong.

Soft fruit can also be pruned any time from now until bud break. Raspberries should have all of last year's old canes pruned out. The old canes look silvery gray, while new canes are a solid brown. I cut new canes to about 4 feet high. This encourages new growth at the top of the cane and gives more raspberries when they come into season. Prune red currant bushes differently than black currant bushes. Red currants should have new shoots cut back between 4 and 6 inches. Crossing shoots should be pruned away, and low branches, which allow fruit to droop on the ground, should be pruned.

For black currants, prune out any 2-year-old or older branches. They may carry some fruit, but the production will be way down, and you are best off removing it down to ground level. Gooseberries are prickly and should be pruned carefully while wearing heavy gloves. Prune out old growth to shape the bush. If your bushes get gooseberry mildew, you might want to leave the pruning until summer.

Once the trees and shrubs are pruned, I like to hit them with an organic dormant-oil spray to kill off over-wintering insects ready for a quick start in spring. Spray on a day with temperatures over 50 degrees.

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