Thursday, February 11, 2010

Rushing the season...

A question arose on one of the on-line discussion groups about when it would be safe to send tender plants through the mail to someone in the greater Washington, D.C. area. The intended recipient of the plants (I fully understand his impatience) thought sometime in early March would be safe.

That younger gardeners feel that way shouldn’t be too surprising. The traditional safe planting date for tender plants (tomatoes, eggplants for instance) used to be May 5.

In recent years, the last damaging frosts have occurred in early April, a full month before the traditional date. However, there have been years when there have been prolonged hard freezes in mid-April: I have photos of tulips and crowns-imperial in full bloom, frozen hard, and they remained that way for a full day or two.

The big box stores yearly push the planting urge earlier and earlier with truck loads of plants grown far south of here. It’s not unusual to see New Guinea Impatiens, Tagetes marigolds, Salvia splendens, ageratums, fibrous begonias, tomatoes and other extremely tender plants being sold in late March. This must make the nursery business very nerve wracking because such plants have to be moved around a lot to keep them from freezing at night, and there must be a long line of disgruntled buyers who take their plants home only to see them die in a few days in an overnight freeze. It’s crazy.

Not only is it crazy, it has trained the gardening public to ignore the potentially long season of bloom which can be gotten (at minimal expense) from truly hardy annuals. A whole season of bloom and its traditional plants have all but disappeared from our gardening experience and tradition. A whole generation of well-heeled but not well-read gardeners has supplanted the older, slow-lane gardeners who knew how to get the greatest variety and satisfaction out of their circumstances with the least cost.

I don’t want to see a Tagetes marigold in my garden blooming next to a tulip.


ChrisU said...


I couldn't agree more. I shake my head to see those tender plants going home in early April or even late March! And you know, most of them will, best case scenario, sit in suspended animation until the soil warms. For the gardener, there's not much to be gained from jump-starting the season.

I prefer to, as you suggest, enjoy the season. Every year I hear the complaint that "Washington has no spring, we just leap from winter to summer". Well we do have spring; it's just that most of spring doesn't consist of 70F degree sunny calm days!

Connie in Hartwood said...

Amen. My spring-planting day for me has always been Mother's Day. My husband would leave for the day, taking the children to his mother's house, and I had the day to myself to work in the garden. Our girls are grown now, but I still keep the tradition, if I have any annuals to plant.

I have been known to approach big-box customers and talk them out of buying tomatoes and peppers in early spring. I'm sure the stores aren't too happy with me for doing it. :)