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Robert Smaus

A Garden of Early Flowers for That Lack of Spring Showers

February 20, 1988|Robert Smaus

No doubt about it, spring has arrived. Fruit trees are flowering, bulbs are up and out of the ground and a few flowers are already in full bloom, most noticeably the brightly colored Iceland poppies.

A month that historically is supposedly our rainiest has turned out to be quite dry and warm, which has just a little to do with why everything is flowering so suddenly, and a lot to do with why the Iceland poppies look so good all around town.

This is their time to bloom, but in a normal year, many of those large, delicate, poppy blossoms on equally delicate, long stems don't fare so well because rain damages so many of the flowers.

The poppies flowering now were planted in October, or even September, and though you could still plant them now, don't expect the same kind of show.

Last-minute planting of spring flowers is definitely a possibility, if you are quick about it. The problem is that waiting this late causes the flowers to bloom later and that in turn postpones the spring planting of summer flowers such as marigolds and zinnias, so they also end up being planted too late. It quickly becomes a vicious circle, with spring flowers delaying summer's and summer's delaying spring's so things are never flowering when they should be.

My advice would be to wait until March or April and then plant summer's flowers at the right time, but if you can't wait and want to plant now, try planting from the larger four-inch or quart pots that have spring flowers already in bloom (though this probably won't work with Iceland poppies, because they definitely seem to grow best if started very small, from the little "pony packs").

Still another tack would be to plant perennials, because they do exceptionally well planted at this in-between time of year, and they will flower later in spring and in summer and even a few in the fall. Or, try marigolds or petunias, which are two summer flowers that seem to do best planted this early in spring. And, there are always the violas and pansies, which bloom for such a long time that planted now they will bloom all spring and partway into summer.

A few other spring flowers that could be planted from four-inch pots right now--for at least a few months of flowers--include calendulas, snapdragons, stock, and in the shade primulas, cyclamens and cinerarias.

Spring flowers already in the ground should be fertilized now and the best bet is to use a liquid fertilizer high in nitrogen. Somewhere on the label you will find a series of three numbers, such as 15-5-5, and the first of those numbers indicates the percentage of nitrogen--the most important plant food. Liquid fertilizers go to work a little faster than granular types, especially when the soil is cool.

Truly cunning gardeners use the liquid fertilizers that you have to mix yourself, usually sold for indoor plants, because they contain a high percentage of nitrogen in its nitrate or nitric form, which means it will be fast acting. Look carefully at the label and you will spot this information. Peters Professional Soluble Plant Food is one such product sitting on my shelf. The label reveals that it is highly concentrated and high in nitrogen (20-20-20) and that 5.61% of this nitrogen is in the nitrate form.

Fertilizers like these must be mixed in a watering can and each plant must be individually watered--a real pain in the back--but at this time of the year it will make a stunning difference. At other times of the year, it is far simpler and nearly as effective to just scatter granular fertilizer among the flowers and then water it in.

Before fertilizing with the watering can, be sure to thoroughly water the flower bed or the fertilizer could come as too great a shock to plants already stressed by lack of water, and it is doubtful that the fertilizer will soak into the dry soil. A shallow cultivation right after watering also helps.

If you didn't get around to pruning your fruit trees before they came into flower, you can prune them in full flower and use the trimmings in a vase. If you didn't get new roses in the ground quick enough and they leafed out too soon only to wilt or burn, don't worry. Just snap off the damaged new sprouts and more will replace them in a few weeks. If you haven't already pruned your roses, do so right away and don't worry about pruning off some new sprouts in the process--the rose will do just fine.

With all those new buds beginning to grow, this is a good time to prune back all sorts of things--fuchsias, hibiscus, hydrangeas and even azaleas and camellias once they've finished flowering. Most gardeners do, finding it impossible to stop with just the roses, moving right on through the garden with the shears looking for more subjects. Pruning at this time of the year will least affect the plant because most are just beginning to make the new year's growth.

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