Nebraska Weather Effects on Plants

Crazy Weather blog

This year the weather has been crazy. We saw 70’s in February followed by 30’s and snow in the middle of March. The warm weather was great, but it got all of us in the mood for spring, including our plants. Now that we have seen such a cool down, our plants may be the ones most affected.

We have seen early budding in many of our shade trees and shrubs, which often happens with above average winter and spring temperatures. This can be problematic for the plant. If the swelling or opening up of buds occurs prior to a cold snap, it can cause damage to that particular bud. If those buds that were opening up were flower buds, we may lose the flowers on that shrub or tree for the year. However, if those buds were leaf buds, those plants may be set back on their emergence and growth for the year. If leaf buds were damaged, a healthy tree will set new, secondary buds to push growth but it will be later in the season than normal. As long as the tree is healthy it will be fine. But, there is nothing you can do to stop this condition.

Red maple, bugwood

Photo from: Chris Evans, Illinois Wildlife Action Plan, Bugwood.org

This warm up, cool down cycle is stressful to our plants. So, it is a good idea to help keep your plants otherwise healthy. Make sure your trees and shrubs are properly mulched and kept well watered in the absence of rain.

Another issue that we are dealing with this spring with the rapidly changing environment, is the advanced emergence from dormancy of spring bulbs prior to this latest cold snap. There is nothing you can do regarding this issue either. The bulbs that have already begun to bloom may lose their flowers early or have some freeze damage. These bulbs may also experience some leaf dieback. Tulips and daffodils are normally a spring blooming plant, so they are accustomed to normal spring freezes adapting to temperatures as low as the upper 20’s. However, if we see anything lower than that, these plants may exhibit freeze damage on the leaves, showing up as white, limp leaves. Do not cut back the damaged leaves until the foliage dies back on its own.

Finally, we have started to see many of our perennial plants emerging and greening up for the spring already. Much of this growth occurred before the cold snap last week. As for these plants, I would advise you to just leave them alone. If there is a forecast for very low temperatures, it would benefit the plants to add additional mulch or a row cover over them for the overnight hours, pulling that back during the day as the temperatures warm up. If you didn’t remove the plant material last fall, leave it there now until the spring, even as they green up below it. If you expose the crown of the plant that has been covered by the dead plant material all winter long, cold snaps will be more problematic for the plants. The dead plant material and extra mulch the plant has had over the winter months will protect it from freezing and thawing and from very cold temperatures this late in the season. It is best to wait until we are more consistently facing spring weather before removing this plant blanket they have had all winter.

Gardening Tools

garden-tools-blog

January and February are great months to start thinking about gardening again, but don’t get too excited, there is plenty of winter left before we can go out and start cleaning up our gardens. However, we can start thinking about what we can do in our gardens this year and inventory garden tools to determine replacement and new pieces.

Garden Gloves are essential for any gardener. They help keep your hands from getting torn up when pruning roses or other plants with thorns. Garden gloves also keep you from getting dirt caked onto your hands. In my case, my gloves give the pruners something else to hit before cutting my finger, which is why there is a hole in my current pair. I have a very nice pair that are breathable and have a nitrile covering over the palm and fingers to keep my hands protected when working in the garden. I have to have a pair that fits tightly to my hand and that breathes or I will not wear them and then I will have very rough, callused hands with many scratches and wounds. My garden gloves are a must in my garden bag.

gardening-gloves

Every gardener needs a good selection of pruners. Hand pruners work best for pruning small branches on many of our shrubs and to cut back herbaceous perennials. Branches cut with hand pruners should be less than ½ inch or less in width. They also work well for deadheading during the summer months. Bypass pruners are preferred to the anvil type of pruners because they are less damaging to the plant stem when pruning. The anvil type of pruners crushes the stem as it cuts and can harm the plant.

anvil-vs-bypass-pruners-michigan-state-univ

Photo of pruner types is from Michigan State University

Long-handled loppers are great for making pruning cuts on medium-sized branches, those that are ½ – 2 inches in width. There are many choices in your lopper purchases. Some have a standard length and some have telescoping handles, allowing them to be used higher into the tree or deeper into the shrub. Just like with the hand pruners, the bypass loppers are better than the anvil type.

For larger pruning jobs, a handsaw will be necessary. Again, there are many different types of handsaws you can purchase. I prefer the folding type which is safer and easier to transport because it fits nicely in my gardening bag.

A good spade is necessary for gardening. I prefer to keep a hand spade nearby for small jobs like planting vegetables and annuals and a long-handled spade for larger jobs such as planting trees and shrubs and to dig up large plants for removal or to divide. There are 2 main types of spades to use in the garden, the rounded spade and the flat spade. The flat spade is good for edging a garden and to get weedy growth off of bricks and edging each year. The rounded spade is good for digging into hard soil and for planting. I like some of the shorter handled rounded spades with a good point on the end. One particular model I like is the spade with an arrow-shaped head on it. This model moves through the soil much easier than some of the other spades.

One final tool that is very helpful for the avid gardener, would be a garden hoe. I have a hand-held Japanese sickle that I prefer to use. I can swipe it through the garden between my plants and it pulls up and cuts off all the weeds in your garden. You can even use this for weeds growing up through the mulch. You may have to move the mulch back a little after going through for weeds, but it is very quick and easy to use.

weeding-sickle

Japanese Weeding Sickle

So get out your gardening books and find what works best for you and restock your garden tools.

Preparing Summer Gardens

Tilled gardenWe are almost past our frost-free date for 2014. We usually say we are safe to plant all our summer plants on or following Mother’s Day for the year, which is May 11th of this year. This way we are going to be past any fear of frost, in most years, which would injure or kill what we just planted. With that said, we need to make sure that all our gardens are prepared correctly and our plants are planted properly.

Vegetable gardens need to be tilled and the soil needs to be prepared for planting. The time to apply additional organic matter to our gardens would be while we are tilling it up for planting. Spring is the time that we can add compost to our vegetable gardens, don’t apply fresh manure to a garden unless it is done in the fall of the year to allow all the bacteria in the manure to break down. When adding compost to a garden, till through the garden a few times then add compost at a 1-2 inch layer to the soil surface and run the tiller through the garden an additional 2-3 times.

Tilling Garden

After the soil is prepared, and we have come to Mother’s Day weekend or later, you can plant your summer vegetables into that soil. Make sure you follow the spacing recommendations that are on the seeds or labels. If plants are grown too close together they will have a lower vegetable yield and they are more vulnerable to diseases in the environment. Be sure to water all newly planted vegetables and seeds in immediately after they are planted. Granular fertilizers can be applied to the soil when planting to help give the plants a jump-start. A general vegetable garden fertilizer of 10-10-10 or 12-12-12 works very well to help your plants grow well.

Another thing we can do with our gardens this time of year, is cleanup all of our annual and perennial beds and plant our container gardens. If you haven’t already done so, prune back all the dead material on perennials such as coneflowers, lilies, and ornamental grasses. This will allow the new material to grow up and look nice. If there are new perennials you want to plant in your garden, you can plant those now. You can also begin planting annual plants as needed to fill in your flower beds. If you haven’t pruned back roses or butterfly bushes, you can do that now too. Wait to prune back spring blooming shrubs such as forsythia, lilac, and spring blooming spireas until after they have bloomed for the year.

Container Gardens

Container Garden Ideas; Photo from: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/garden/07238.html

Container gardens can also be planted now. Follow these steps for a great container garden.

  • Choose your  container
    • Make sure it has a drainage hole, otherwise most anything can work for a container
  • Fill the container with a potting soil or soil-less mixture
  • If it is a large container, you can fill the bottom third with aluminum cans, plastic bottles, or gravel
  • Plant your container with annuals, perennials, herbs, succulents, or mixtures.
  • Keep your container plants well watered, as they tend to dry out quickly
  • For a visual display, try to plant the container with a thriller, a filler, and a spiller
    • The thriller could be something tall and eye-catching, such as spike grass
    • The spiller could be something that drapes over the side of the container, such as wave petunias
    • The filler could be whatever else you like to put in your container to fill the space, such as gerbera daisy

Preparing for Spring Gardening

Yes, I said ‘Spring Gardening’, it will be here before we know it.  Our seed catalogs have already started appearing!  We can now start to think about gardening outdoors in the nice warm spring weather.  Anything that helps us look toward warmer weather and away from below freezing temperatures, the snow and ice that comes with winter, is a welcomed experience.  It is at this time of year that we can begin to prepare for a summer full of beautiful blooms and delicious gardens.  It is a good time to plan for spring gardening so that by the time we are ready to start our seeds or plant outdoors, we will have everything we need already, especially if you are ordering any portion of your garden plants.

Site Assessment

Photo of a site assessment from the National Junior Horticulture Association

A good indoor activity to do in the late winter months of January and February would be to plan your gardens.

  • Decide where the garden will be located
  • Locate gardens in close proximity to a water supply
  • Locate gardens where it gets the proper amount of light for the vegetables or flowers you plan to grow in that location
  • Make sure there is enough space for all of the plants to grow and they can be spaced apart properly, according to the directions on the seed packet or plant container
    • Plants too close together, can have problems with diseases
    • Air movement through the plants causing them to stay wet, humid, and warm, is the perfect environment for a disease to grow.
  • Locate the garden where the soil has good organic matter, fertility, and a good level of pH so that the garden is not too acidic nor to basic.
    • If you are concerned about the condition of your soil, you can send a sample into the soil diagnostic clinic
    • For information regarding soil samples, please visit your local extension office

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Beyond the location of the garden, you need to decide what types of plants you are going to be planting in your garden.  For vegetable gardens, plant what you like to eat.  Look through your seed catalogs to see if there are some new or different varieties that you would like to try that have different coloration than what you are used to or varieties that grow larger fruits.  Along with the selection of different varieties, select varieties that are resistant to certain diseases.  The disease resistant varieties are great to have because you will still get a crop when the conditions are favorable for a disease to occur.  When selecting these seeds you need to make sure that you are selecting varieties that will survive in our climate.  This is usually given to you as a hardiness zone indication, in southeast Nebraska we are in zone 5b for hardiness, further north in Nebraska is in zone 5a, with portions of the panhandle area being in zone 4b, the dividing line between zones 5b and 5a in Nebraska is roughly Interstate 80.

2013 USDA Hardiness Zone Map

I know that we are all getting excited for spring and would like to begin our seedlings indoors sometime soon, but it is still a little bit early for that.  Seedlings should be started indoors 6-10 weeks prior to transplanting outdoors, which should occur no sooner than Mother’s Day, May 11, 2014.  Stay tuned in late February or early March for my blog to feature tips on starting your seeds indoors.  Now is the time to order your seed so it is here when you are ready to plant it.