By Marilyn Homewood, Master Gardener in Training
Gardeners learn as much from their setbacks as from their successes. By now, I should have a prepared cutting garden partially planted with frost hardy annuals. These are plants that prefer cooler growing conditions and can withstand a light frost allowing them to be planted early in the season. The group includes snapdragons, bachelor buttons, foxglove, scabiosa and sweet peas. However, instead of plants on their way to producing beautiful blooms, I have a 40 foot trench in my lawn.
This garden was an end-of-year decision which meant a spring bed preparation, something I rarely do as the weather is not reliable and soil can be too wet to work. Working wet soil destroys the soil structure and porosity as well as wreaking havoc on soil microbial populations.
Not to be deterred, I had the sod removed both to see what I had to deal with (this part of the yard had not been turned since 1964, if then!) and to allow the area to dry more readily when the sun returns. When the soil does become workable, I intend to use a modified version of the “no till” method popularized by Charles Dowding to create the bed. A fork (or broadfork) will be inserted into the bed at close intervals and gently pried up. This will permit some aeration, rock removal and opportunities for soil amendment (compost). The amendments will be folded into the topsoil and the bed topped off with approximately 4 inches of compost. The portion of the bed slated for the hardy annuals may be planted while the remainder can continue to warm until it is time to plant the warm season varieties such as zinnia and dahlia. Lastly, a thin layer (1”) of shredded cedar mulch will protect the bed from incoming weed seed as well as help to keep the soil cool and retain moisture in the heat of the summer.
Ever hopeful, I have started to harden off plants. This is a gradual process over about a week that exposes tender plants to the outdoors and results in a thickening of the cuticle on the leaves. A thicker cuticle allows plants to retain moisture when exposed to the elements and helps to prevent transplant shock. As my seedlings are grown “cold and slow” indoors (at 55 degrees), they seem to hardened off more readily.
T posts will be placed every 8 feet along both sides of the garden and will be used to suspend the flower netting horizontally. The netting is a 6 inch square grid in plastic that will be positioned tautly about 18 inches above the ground keeping long stemmed flowers erect and preventing them from being blown over by wind and rain. Heavy, tall, floriferous plants will require a second layer of netting about 12 inches above the first.
The ranunculus will be planted using 6 inch spacings and Chantilly snapdragons will have 9 inch spacings. The delay in planting will mean limited or no bloom as these plants go dormant with the summer heat. However, the ranunculus corms can be dried and saved for next year and there are 2 other varieties of snapdragons started that tolerate the heat of summer.
Once in the ground, plants will be hooped with temporary PVC hoops so that frost cloth can be used at night in case of frost or wind and to protect the young plants from deer and rabbits.
A wise gardener remembers that Mother Nature always bats last.
“it’s never too late to start anything, except maybe being a ballerina” Wendy Liebman
Cool Flowers, Lisa Mason Ziegler, St. Lyons Press, 2014