It’s hard for me to keep my wits about me when it comes to planting annual flowers and vegetables this time of year. Each day a warm breath of spring wafts through the air, I am sure that I have put off planting too long. On other days, icy chills remind me that I have plenty of time to plant. Or else, the icy chill goes right to my spine, and I fear I have planted too soon.
The sun was warm but the wind was chill.
You know how it is with an April day
When the sun is out and the wind is still,
You’re one month on in the middle of May.
But if you so much as dare to speak,
A cloud comes over the sunlit arch,
A wind comes off a frozen peak,
And you’re two months back in the middle of March.
— Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”
I curb my planting whims to some degree by watching the blossoms develop on trees and shrubs. Those blossoms know what they are doing. They respond to the general, rather than day-to-day, warming trends and, therefore, are good barometers of when and what to plant. For example, although apple trees do not bloom on exactly the same date each year, when they do bloom the weather finally has warmed enough to plant snap beans.
I’ve maintained records for many plants over the past 30 years. My Liberty apple tree, for example, has blossomed as early as April 24th (in 2002) and as late as May 11th (in 2007). This study of the relationship between the climate and the cycles of plants and animals is known as “phenology.” It’s also yet another barometer of global warming trends.
Not all forsythia varieties bloom at the same time, and the timing for an individual plant depends on whether it’s in full sun or part shade and other things affecting microclimate. But generally, forsythia blooms are telling me that the hardiest seeds can be sown. Crunchy radishes, fragrant sweetpea flowers, and delicate poppies — these seeds go into the ground as soon as forsythia gives me the go-ahead to plant them.
Other vegetable seeds that can be sown to the accompaniment of forsythia blossoms are carrot, chard, and parsnips. Other flowers are calendula, allysum, cornflower, and baby’s-breath.
And, of course, garden peas. Because they are such a treat and do best before hot, summer weather arrives, I rush them into the ground just a little before those forsythia blossoms are about to burst open. Not, you may be surprised to learn, on what many gardeners believe is the perfect time for pea-planting, St.Patrick’s Day. It can’t be the same for gardeners everywhere! It’s early for here in the Hudson Valley and late for gardeners in Florida. Probably about right if you garden in North Carolina.
The next blossoms I keep an eye out for are those of the shadbushes (juneberries), and the flowering quinces and cherries. As these blossoms unfold, I start planting out cold-hardy seedlings that have been growing indoors. Vegetable transplants that will tolerate the frequent freezing nights that still occur as the shadbush blooms are cabbage, broccoli, onion, and leek. And I not to forget the flowers: snapdragons, dusty millers, salvia, pansy, and larkspur.
As early May rolls around, frosty nights become fewer. This is the time when clouds of white and pink blossoms blanket the rolling hills of local orchards. This is the one time when the common lilac earns its keep, in the form of fragrant lavender or white blossoms. Quick on the heels of apple and lilac blossoms will be the creamy-white or salmon-pink dogwood blossoms, and the blooming white spires of horsechestnut.
Apple, lilac, and dogwood blossoms herald the planting of cold tender seeds of annual flowers and vegetables. Although the air temperature might dip occasionally at this time, the ground has sufficiently warmed to remain so. This is the time when oak leaves are the “size of mouse ears,” the traditional time when Native Americans planted their corn. Besides corn, seeds of beans, okra, and the curcurbits (melons, squashes, and cucumbers) can be planted. The soil also will be warm enough to sow nasturtium, cockscomb, morning glory, sunflower, and the big three of American gardens: marigolds, zinnias, and petunias.
Finally, towards the end of May, I look along roadsides for pale blue blossoms dangling from wild black locust trees and the white mounds of Vanhoutte spireas in front yards. These blossoms are the natural signal that all danger of frost should be past and cold-tender plants can be set in the garden. Garden centers and nurseries will be overflowing with zinnias, marigolds, tomatoes, and peppers, neatly lined up in plastic trays. Squash and cucumber plants can be set out at that time.
Nature sometimes leads us momentarily astray. Even though spireas and locusts are in bloom, late frost, which could spell death for the tender transplants, is not impossible. A simple covering of practically anything – newspaper, blanket, towel – will ward off any light frosts that occur.
Then again, sometimes I fool Nature and advance the season a little. I might plant on a south slope (my garden is flat, so that “slope” is the south side of a raised bed) to gain some extra warmth from the sun, and plant seeds a bit shallower than recommended. Some parts of the garden I cover with cloches, which are much like miniature greenhouses
When catalpas burst into bloom and the fragrance of mockorange fills the air, the door finally has closed on the last vestiges of Old Man Winter. Even these late blossoms are a timely sign to sow seeds — in this case, cabbages and broccolis for the fall garden.
New Paltz writer Lee Reich, PhD, is a garden consultant specializing in edibles, including using them as ornamentals. He also hosts workshops at his New Paltz farm den and webinars, via Zoom. For more information, go to www.leereich.com/workshops.