2012-02-02 / Editorial

The Island Garden

Force plants for early fruits and flowers

BY ROGER MARSHALL BY ROGER MARSHALL It’s been an interesting winter with 50-degree days occurring regularly in January, ocean water temperatures staying in the mid to high 40s when normally they’d be right around freezing at this time of year, daffodils coming into bloom and rhododendrons in flower.

Not only are plants confused, animals are too. Few animals seem to have slowed down or gone into hibernation over the winter. Most are running around in my yard. According to the weatherman, this mild weather seems likely to last a while longer so I guess there’s going to be more confusion in the plant and animal kingdoms.

What does all this mean to the gardener? Well, for one thing, if the good weather stays, ground temperatures will be warmer earlier and your plants will grow that much faster. Animals that have stayed active will be waiting for you to set out your flowers and vegetables so that they can eat them. It also means that you can get out into your garden earlier and have it ready before the season begins rather than playing catch up as planting and digging chores overwhelm you in spring.

So what should you be doing on the warmer days? As we discussed last week, you should prune your trees. Winter is a great time to prune because you can see the branches and shape your tree accordingly. Secondly, you might want to look at the structure of your garden now that it has no green leaves and growing plants to obstruct it. If a shrub is growing too high or too wide, winter is a good time to cut it down to size and fit it into its surroundings again.

You might also try to remember where last year’s garden had empty spaces and fix them with new plantings. This time of year while the ground is not frozen is also the best time to transplant small bushes and shrubs while your plants are dormant. I move some of my plants so often, they think they came with wheels, but most of them are in the right spot now.

While you can work the ground, you might want to separate overcrowded plants such as hostas, which tend to grow in clumps. When the middle of the clump dies out, you get a ring of hostas. When you see the ring you know it is time to dig and separate. Dig up the clump and stick two forks in the hosta clump. Force the forks apart to separate the plants. Replant with plenty of well-rotted compost or manure.

In my garden, the primula have grown into massive clumps and I plan on digging them, separating them and spreading individual plants around the yard. There is probably enough primula to plant them one foot apart in every part of the yard – including the lawn – and still have some left over. Lilies can also be dug up and the tiny outer bulbs put into pots to increase the number of lilies that you have. After a year in the pots, they’ll grow into bulbs and you’ll have a lot more lilies.

Another winter chore is to separate your dahlia clumps. Inspect the clumps carefully and cut out each tuber with an eye. When you replant the tubers they will grow into clumps – and you’ll have to separate them again, and again, until you wonder if you should leave the tubers in the ground to kill off a few. Then you think that the flowers are so nice that you dig them up and go through the entire process again.

If you have greenhouse space, you can plant a few dahlia tubers in pots in mid-February to get early flowers. You might also want to dig up a few daffodil bulbs, re-pot them and bring them indoors for early flowers.

You can also force a number of plants and fruits. For example, I grow potatoes in black plastic grow bags, which are available from GrowRI behind 4th Street Diner in Newport. In a week or so they’ll be in bloom and a few weeks after that I’ll have fresh new potatoes. You can dig a few strawberry plants, pot them up and bring them indoors to get early strawberries. Plus, if you want to, dig up a rhubarb crown and set it in a bucket with soil. Bring it indoors to force it and get early fresh rhubarb.

As you see, there are a ton of things you can do while the weather is moderately warm. You don’t have to sit indoors and wonder how long it will take to get your yard and garden shipshape – just get out there and fix it. The more you can do now, the less you’ll have to do when spring really comes.

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