Ground rules and tools for February

February 5, 2004
By BOBBY AND JO ANN HOFFMAN
Victoria County Master Gardeners

Planning, preparation and timing are essential for successful gardening. Spring is just around the corner - and even though winter has us in its grip, this season can be an exciting time for gardeners.

Instead of staring outside the window and longing for sunny, warm weather ... try using this time in planning the "what, where, how and when" of your spring garden. Whether your interest is in nut and fruit production, shrub and tree landscaping, vegetable gardening, or making your flower garden the pride of the neighborhood, it all takes planning.

Bill Welch, professor and landscape horticulturist for Texas Cooperative Extension, says that the time spent in armchair planning will pay off in improved plant selection. So, make yourself a cup of hot coffee, chocolate, or tea, and grab your seed and plant catalog, gardening books and magazines. Curl up in your favorite recliner and start planning.

Now is the time to make flower and vegetable garden plans before the rush of spring planting begins. Besides, it is fun to dream about what could be. Once you have your plan firmly in mind and written down, you can begin taking action by acquiring the plants of your choice.

There are a number of great sources for information about the plants you desire. They include the County Extension Office, Master Gardener Web site, local nurseries and landscape companies, and plant supply catalogs, to name a few.

Zones based on temperature variables have been established within the United States. Make sure your plants are suited to Zone 9, which is for this part of the country. Plants should also be selected based on soil conditions. Getting your soil tested is a wise thing to do in our area since there is a wide range of soil conditions, and personal past practices of applying too much or not enough nutrients may alter your acceptance of general recommendations seen in reference materials.

Prepare your bed and garden area for spring planting as soon as possible. To prepare the bed, generally till or loosen the soil to a depth of typically 4 to 6 inches adding compost and nutrients. Place your order for the plants you have selected with your favorite nursery or supplier in case supplies are limited. If you desire to grow your own, sow seeds now in flats or containers to get a jump on plant growth before hot weather arrives. Warm temperature plants such as tomatoes, peppers, marigolds and periwinkles should be sown in early February.

Some flower seeds may be sown directly in well-prepared flowerbeds without protection from weather in February or March. Varieties include nasturtiums, annual phlox, California poppies, cone flowers and larkspur. Petunia plants may be set out in sunny, well-drained locations with little chance of cold damage. Check with your local plant supplier on the availability and variety of bulbs that can be planted now for your spring blooms.

Now is an excellent time to transplant mature or established trees and shrubs while they are dormant. Do not fertilize newly set out trees or shrubs until after they have started to grow. Wait until late April or May, and if they have started to grow, then fertilize them lightly the first year - one-half to one cup of complete fertilizer per tree - and again about 30 days later.

When buying plants, the biggest is not always the best, especially when dealing with bare root plants. Small to medium size 4 feet to 6 feet specimens establish themselves more quickly and are more successful in the landscape than larger sizes.

This is also the time to care for rose bushes. Prune them back in February or early March using good shears that will make clean cuts. Remove dead, dying and weak canes. Leave four to eight healthy canes and remove approximately half of the top growth and height of the plant. Now is also an excellent time to select and plant container-grown roses to fill in those bear spots in your rose garden.

Climbing roses should be trained but not pruned. Weave long canes through openings in trellises or arbors and tie them with jute twine or plastic wire plant ties. Securing canes now prevents damage from winter wind and contributes toward a more refined look to the garden when roses are blooming. Wait until after the spring flowering period to prune climbing or once blooming shrub roses.

Now that you have planned the "what, how and where" of your garden, it is time to give some serious thought to the "when." Proper timing is possibly the most important factor to successful spring gardening.

Regardless of variety selected or cultural practices used, if a gardener does not do the right thing at the right time, chances of success are diminished. Once your bed preparation for vegetables and bedding flowers is complete, lack of frost signals the beginning of a safe period for planting frost susceptible plants. Plants that are very sensitive to frosty conditions must not be planted until all danger of frost has passed, unless frost protection is provided.

The average length of frost-free periods is relatively stable in most areas. The problem arises in determining when these periods begin and end. Meteorological information collected for many years indicates spring's average first frost-free dates and fall's first frost date. The term "average" is misleading. Average means that date that has occurred most often as "normal." Most Texans know that "normal" weather is an unexpected occurrence. Unfortunately, extremes are also included in these averages. For instance, mid-March is the beginning of the average frost-free period in the spring for South Central Texas, and normally the first frost occurs in mid-November. Yet, many gardeners and vegetable farmers also remember when plants have frosted as late as April and as early as October. These growers also remember years when the first frost-free date occurred in early February or maybe even in January, and the first frost of the fall was in December.

You can now begin to appreciate how important timing really can be. Any time one tries to outwit Mother Nature, it is a tremendous risk, yet successful gardening and farming depend on just that. For instance, if you wait until after the average first frost-free date to ensure success with such tender crops as tomatoes and beans, a reduced crop or complete failure may result. The failure may be caused by a later bloom date due to late planting. Tomatoes blooming during hot temperatures will have improper fruit set and reduced yield.

The answer to this dilemma is to plant frost-susceptible crops and flowers in the average frost-free period but remember to protect them if a late cool period occurs. For those who are risktakers, sneak in and plant a few days earlier, especially if the soil has heated up with warm weather. Home gardeners can protect those plants several ways including with cans, blankets, a wire cage garbage bag system, or with boxes on frosty nights.

As you can see, gardening can present a challenge, and timing is a major key to success. But it is really enjoyable and good therapy for you to get out of the house and spend time with nature. With proper planning, preparation, timing, adapted varieties and a slight assist from Mother Nature, you, too, can be a successful gardener.