Spring is knocking on our doors...
Spring is a time beloved by many. The snow melts, robins come back, you may even catch a glimpse of some bees buzzing around to test if it is warm enough to emerge from their winter abodes. Crocuses are blooming, daffodils are sprouting again, trees almost seem to shake the sleepiness from their branches. But what does this mean for gardeners?
It all depends on your climate and location, but for many, this time of year means planning. Planning what to grow and where to put it. Should you plant Beefsteak or California Gold tomatoes? Would sunflowers look good with canna lilies? (Yes, they absolutely do!) Maybe you're looking to add a pollinator garden to your property or are trying out vegetables for the first time. Or maybe you wanted to try a different style of gardening and start looking into no-till practices or English gardens. No matter what your plans are, there are some things to remember. Time to shake the cobwebs from our winter brains!
Many of us may be itching to start getting plants in the ground now and good news! There are some plants that can tolerate light frosts and even a few heavy ones. Covering them with a protective barrier like plastic or a frost blanket may be necessary for extra cold nights, but cold crops are the way to go this time of year! Cold crops are things like lettuce, chives, and brassicas, plants in Brassicaceae or the broccoli family. This includes things like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, and rutabagas. Beets and other root vegetables can fare the cold months well compared to their other garden mates. That's a lot of options already!
If you've already gotten your cold crops out in the ground you may still have an itch to start flowers, herbs, or other seeds early. There are plenty of ways to start seeds inside, ranging from DIY mini greenhouses from old cake or sandwich containers to full set ups with grow lights, heat mats, and more. No matter how you start your seeds indoors, you should know about something called hardening off. If your plants are used to a nice humid, warm environment, being pulled from their nursery to be planted straight in the ground can be stressful. If the difference is big enough, it can be enough to kill the seedling. So how can we avoid this? Slowly turning a heat mat down until it hits room temperature over the course of a few days is an easy way to fix the temperature problem. Humidity can be a bit of a tougher adjustment. Start by venting the humid air out by taking the lid off and putting it back on after a couple minutes. Gradually increase the time the lid is off over the course of a few days or a week. All the while, make sure your plants aren't showing signs of stress. If they are, slow down your adjustment rate. This will prepare your seedlings for the rough and tough life outside.
Perhaps you are looking for some plants to try this year? Something new to jazz up your gardens? My first suggestion to you will always be try a new native plant! The United States has over 18,000 native species of plants, many of those only growing in a small area naturally. Did you know Venus Fly Traps (Dionaea muscipula) are endemic to the Carolinas? Helenium autumnale also called Helen's flower, Sneezeweed, or dog-toothed daisy is native across the USA and is a gorgeous addition to any garden.
As a fall blooming flower, this brings interest and beauty to your garden long after other flowers have finished for the season. Despite its name, this plant is not connected to the aggravation of fall allergies. Its pollen is distributed by insects, not by the wind, so it doesn't often make it into our noses. Unless we take a big ole sniff, that is! If Sneezeweed isn't floating your boat, maybe Lupinus perennis will! Commonly called wild lupine, this isn't a cultivated variety. It won't have a fancy name like Hawaii Blue. This plant is the only plant the endangered Karner blue butterfly will lay its eggs on and will be fed on by caterpillars.
The damage done by caterpillars will not be enough to harm the plant in any major way. The critically endangered rusty patched bumblebee is known to feed on both Lupine and Sneezeweed. Planting this will help to keep a beautiful bumblebee in our midst.
Both of those plants require full sun to thrive to their full potential, so what about something to put in your shade loving beds? Pulmonaria spp. is a plant that will provide interest from the beginning of spring until the end of fall. Commonly called lungwort, these plants bloom in spring with both pink and purple flowers but their interest doesn't end there.
Pulmonaria sp. with an eastern bumblebee enjoying a midday snack
The leaves are splotched with lighter shades of green, sometimes bordering into white. These silvery spots are actually air pockets within the leaves. While not a native species to the US, I think this plant is a staple in shady gardens for how long it provides interest for and the beautiful leaves! My last plant suggestion for this year is one many don't think of. Its a beautiful plant that comes in quite a variety of leaf shapes and inflorescence. I'm talking about ginger! Ginger is related to canna lilies and can share leaf shape, but culinary ginger has an interesting leaf arrangement. The leaves on culinary ginger remind me of a ladder. Ginger flowers are also beautiful and interesting by themselves. Shampoo ginger makes a large amount of nectar that can be used as- you guessed it- shampoo!
Ginger requires similar care to its cousin the canna lily, lots of sun, lots of water. It should be protected from frost or treated as an annual. Even ginger from the grocery store can be grown, though it probably won't grow well. Often times foods like ginger, potatoes, garlic, etc. is treated to stunt the growth of the plant. One growing season should take care of any treatments and the next year your ginger will be even better than the first!
Spring is a season long awaited for gardeners, let's make the most of it this year by trying new things!