Patience and knowledge will help your garden in transition time

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 21, 2001

Shorts today, sweaters tomorrow. Run the heater one day, open the windows the next. Top it all off with 16 inches of rain and you have your typical March weather (if such fluctuations can be called typical).

Usually, the last killing frost in our area occurs during the third week of March. The key word in the last sentence being &uot;usually.&uot; Mother nature issues no guarantees.

Annually, it is a ritual with gardeners to &uot;chew the fat&uot; with each other about when the threat of a killing frost has passed. Every year about this time it is the hottest topic among gardeners.

To plant or not to plant. That is the question. I have heard all kinds of &uot;old wives tales&uot; to predict if the threat of a frost has past.

Some include: If the fish are swimming low in the aquarium a frost is still possible. If the door going into my shop doesn’t stick when I try to open it a frost will not occur. If my car is still hard to start in the morning a frost may still occur. If my dog still sleeps under the porch instead of in the yard, a frost is still possible. If the cattle sleep near a tree, a frost is still possible.

Yes, there are more but I will spare you. (these views are not those of the author or The Natchez Democrat, but merely being passed along.)

If I hear another discussion about the seven-day weather forecast, I might just lose it. Let’s get real. I have the utmost respect for meteorology as a profession. But, come on! Usually they can’t predict what is going to happen this afternoon much less in a week.

So what are our options in this period of gardening uncertainty? If you are a vegetable gardener, and your prize is the earliest tomato on the block, you might go ahead and take a chance. If a frost is possible you can cover your plants with a bucket or the like to protect them from frost. After all, gambling on the weather is part of the fun of early season vegetable gardening. Mother Nature just may deal you an ace and a face card.

If you planted your spring garden last fall, you will be enjoying the fruits of your labor tenfold in the upcoming months. Pansies and violas are absolutely gorgeous right now. Snapdragons are just beginning to show good color. Dianthus will be spectacular from now until the start of summer and possibly beyond. Still to come will be the poppies, larkspur, hollyhock, and foxglove. Sit back and enjoy the show!

If you have some containers that need planting, some new beds to get started, or some areas that took it hard this winter, you can still plant them now and have them look great the rest of the spring.

The problem again lies in the weather. It is still to early to plant some of our favorite summer bedding plants and will be for some time. Plants like periwinkle, impatiens, coleus, angelonia, zinnias and hibiscus not only do not like the frost; they don’t like even cool weather. Most important, they don’t like cool wet soil.

Even though the chance for frost may be over, the cool wet soils make these heat-loving plants susceptible to root disease and dysfunction. Most likely you will lose many of these plants if set out right now not to frost but to disease.

Keep in mind that most if not all of these plants will be available at garden centers right now. Just because they are available doesn’t mean they should be planted now. In fact, most horticultural extension specialists recommend that periwinkles not be planted until the end of April in our area. Other varieties may be set out a little earlier.

So what can be planted safely right now? If you planted pansies, dianthus, or snapdragons now it would largely be a waste because they will be in peak bloom shortly.

Luckily, many plants fill this void. Lots of plants that you see advertised on the Home and Garden Channel or in gardening magazines as summer heat-loving plants work well here in the spring and early summer. Keep in mind that these national ads are geared toward our more populated and cooler neighbors north of the Mason-Dixon line.

These plants work easily into our gardens this time of year and fill a void in this uncertain time. Plants like diascia, &uot;million bells,&uot; petunias, brachycome, osteospermum, bacopa, lamium, and linaria grow very quickly and make a nice show during our springtime. However, these plants enjoy the summers here about as much as a native New Yorker. However, they fill our needs well; so don’t be afraid to use them.

If these plants start to look bad when the heat hits, replace them with the vast array of heat-loving plants at that time. Voila! you have successfully come through the spring and transitioned into summer in full color.

Some of our more hardy plants may be set out now. Geraniums, begonias, verbenas, Mexican heather and other hardy annuals may be safely set out now unless we have a killing frost.

So, we are back to the hottest gardening topic of the day. Will we have a killing frost? Before you tune into the Weather Channel, you might be better served to watch your aquarium.

Gardening Miss-Lou Style is a weekly column written by Traci Maier of Natchez. Please send your comments and questions to Gardening Miss-Lou Style, c/o The Natchez Democrat, 503 N. Canal St., Natchez, Miss., 39120 or by e-mail to ratmaier@iamerica.net.