Dear Miss Floribunda,
The past few winters have been disconcerting: blizzards two years ago, a more or less normal winter last year, an almost balmy one coming to a close. I just don’t know if all the gardening rules have changed. In one of your early columns you advised pruning roses when forsythias bloom. Well, forsythias have been blooming around Avondale since January! It seems to me I could go ahead and prune. I’ve already planted radishes and last year’s broccoli has self-seeded and sprouted. I’m wondering if I could go ahead and plant lettuce, spinach and peas, and maybe even sow some flower seeds like sweet peas and lupins. Winter seems to be over early.
Avid to Spring Forth on 40th Avenue
First of all, there are few gardening rules anyway. What you call “rules” are usually guidelines that are adjustable to circumstances such as weather. Weather even in ordinary times is notoriously capricious. These are not ordinary times.
As you are probably aware, the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map has been revised because of global warming. Using the interactive map, I learned that your zone has changed from 6b (last frost April 11 to 20) to 7b (last frost April 1 to 10). But even so, as you have pointed out, such things can change from year to year.
Second, in my March 2008 column on rose pruning I recommended that roses be pruned when the forsythia blooms in your own yard, or at least in a garden no more than a few doors down. Citizen Cane, my advisor from the American Rose Society, had impressed upon me the importance of microclimate by giving me an imperative reason to respect it. He explained that what happens when you prune a rose is that you signal it that winter is over and it can start putting forth new growth. If a hard freeze comes after it ventures to do so, the whole plant is damaged. Then you prune again and hope for the best. So you see, it is a risky proposition. By the time you see this in the newspaper, the traditional time for pruning roses has certainly come and you can spring forth all you want.
Concerning weather in general, I’ve consulted my friend Dr. Meriwether, who is not only a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) but a master gardener. He recommended two very helpful sites, not only for this spring but for the future. You will want to bookmark them, I’m sure. The first is NOAA’s Three Month Outlooks page, which gives official weather forecasts for an entire season. The second site to consult is Root Simple’s zone-based planting schedule, with interesting comments on all sorts of related topics:
In addition, Dr. Meriwether gave me a common-sense rule of thumb any farmer would give: “You know spring has come when birds return to nest.” Again, let me add that you should see them nesting in your own garden or one in your immediate neighborhood.
To be on the safe side with lettuce, spinach and peas, why not start them in containers? If you know the temperature is about to plummet, you can just bring the pots indoors. This particular year I truly doubt another hard freeze is coming, and the traditional date for planting peas and lettuce is March 17 anyway.
As it happens, March 17 is the date for the joint meeting of the Hyattsville Horticultural Society and Hyattsville Aging in Place. The guest speaker, Master Gardener Greg Dwyer, will provide a wealth of information about container gardening. In these times of climate change, container gardening is more attractive than ever. The meeting will take place at 10 a.m. at the Hyattsville Municipal Building.