It may not seem like it, but spring is actually in full swing in gardens around the Tennessee Valley region. Our neighbors up in the mountains can expect a few more weeks of cold weather, but here in the Valley the forecast is for a warming trend. With the onset of warm weather delayed this year, we are experiencing a more nearly normal progression of blooming plants. An early spring tends to cause everything to bloom at the same time. Take heart, therefore, that the cold weather means a longer bloom season.
Next Saturday, April 6, is the annual UT Gardens Spring Plant Sale. Open from 9:00 AM to 2:00 PM, the sale features many new plant varieties. Shoppers should arrive early in the day for the best selection. Among the many interesting plants to be offered is the world's largest hosta, 'Empress Wu.' Producing a huge clump of leaves almost 5 feet tall and wide after a few years, this plant would make a great focal point in a shady, moist location.
Our Plant of the Week this week is that old stand-by, Forsythia. With its fountain of long stems bearing deep golden yellow flowers every spring, this passalong shrub has been cultivated for over 100 years. It hails from Asia, but adapts to most soils, as long as it receives full sun. Dr. Sue and I both think forsythia looks best when given plenty of room and allowed to develop its natural shape. The worst thing you can do to one is give it a "crew cut."
Vegetable gardeners can plant beets, carrots, leeks, radishes and scallions between now and April 10. Later in the month is a good time to plant an early crop of beans. For best results, choose a bean variety with brown, rather than white seeds. Brown seeds seem to germinate better in cool soil. Pole or bush beans planted in April will produce a good crop before the heat of summer stresses them and invites bean beetles to lunch. Good Friday is the traditional time to plant beans in East Tennessee. I prefer to wait until around the frost date of April 15, this year more than two weeks after Good Friday.
Salad greens can be replanted in succession from now through the end of April. As the season progresses, choose more heat tolerant varieties. Black Seeded Simpson is a popular traditional lettuce cultivar. Plant it along with scallions, and in about six weeks you will have the makings of one of spring's great garden pleasures, Spring Salad with Hot Bacon Dressing. (For the recipe, visit our In The Kitchen Page.)
Broccoli and cabbage plants can go into the ground any time from now until around April 20. You want them to have time to mature before the nights get too warm. Keep caterpillars at bay with row covers and/or regular dusting with Dipel. Dipel is a harmless, all natural bacterial pesticide that can be used right up until the day before harvest. It is effective against a variety of caterpillars.
If you are planning on adding fruit trees, berry bushes, or strawberry plants, time is running out for bareroot stock. Containerized plants can be moved any time, but will do much better if transplanted early. As a general rule, if the plant is available at your local garden center, you can go ahead and place it in the garden.
Now is a good time to start your tomatoes for late spring transplants. The seeds germinate best between 75 and 85 degrees. Beware of cooler temperatures, which will delay germination, weaken the seedlings and encourage damping off. We like to sow tomatoes in 72-cell trays and transplant to small pots when they have two pairs of true leaves. One great thing about tomatoes, if you start them too early, they will hold very well in containers until you can get them in the ground. Just be sure to transplant to roomy pots so they can develop a good root system.
Peppers and eggplants should wait until the frost date, although you will see them in the markets earlier than this. In my experience, planting too early will lead to smaller pepper plants and encourage flea beetles to attack eggplant. Wait until the soil is 65 degrees or warmer before planting either of these crops.