A fake spring is upon us, with forsythias blooming, azaleas budding and hyacinths leafing. Onions show several inches of foliage.
The harsh fact is that there is nothing a gardener can do about all this foolishness but accept Mother Nature's management of the seasons and hope for the best.
It may get worse. If this odd winter continues with another week of e is a sudden severe cold spell, we may not have any crocuses left by March.
But crocuses and other early risers won't die -- those bulbs are tough. They just won't bloom again this year. The same way, pear trees may start budding, only to be bitten by an inevitable frost. And cherry blossoms in January will surely foreshorten the festival in April.
In case of those foolish forsythias, always jumping to conclusions after one mellow winter day, it is a good idea to cut off some branches budding or flowering and bring them inside. The same can be done with azaleas and other flowering bushes, such as Japanese quince, that have started budding or even just swelling. The indoor temperature simulates spring, and the branches will burst into bloom.
The problem is that once a particular bud opens, it will not have time to set again--not for another year.
"There will be a slight reduction of bloom in the spring," says plant pathologist Mark Greenleaf, consumer safety officer with the D.C. Department of Environmental Services. "But I foresee no major problem. The real danger is that buds, once they start opening, can get a severe freeze, which may damage plant tissues, making them more vulnerable to fungus attacks in the spring and the summer. And if winter lags into spring, the cold weather in early spring could affect our cherry blossoms. You never know for sure.
"But there is nothing to do. There is as yet no hormone spray developed for slowing down premature growth. Just leave things alone and don't worry."
At the National Arboretum on New York Avenue NE, Japanese apricots and winter jasmine are blooming, and irises are popping up en masse. "The weather is confusing the plants," says horticulturist Skip March, "and they will have a shock when we get sudden cold weather. But the plants will be all right.
"Irises and other early-spring flowering plants will slow down their growth once cold weather sets in. They are not so far advanced that they can be damaged--all they show is leaves--but if we get 10 more balmy days, that could kill their blooms for this year."
On the other hand, March says, some plants, such as camellias, could use a mild winter this year after the beating they took during the subzero temperatures of previous winters. Rhododendrons and other late-flowering plants are in no danger, he adds.
At Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, tulips, grape hyacinths and crocuses are popping up through the inch-thick bark mulch. "Our past experience suggests that the blooms will not be affected," says horticulturist Suzanne Friis. "As long as the flower buds are not showing, they should be all right. The tips of the leaves may get burned if we get drastic cold temperatures."
The plants most likely to be affected by violent weather changes are those most exposed to sun and wind, Friis cautions, and suggests that they be watered if the mild weather keeps up.
Save your wood ashes for your compost pile. Or add them directly to the soil. Wood ashes are more alkaline than lime, so they must never be used around acid lovers such as azaleas, rhododendrons and blueberries. Also, avoid contact between wood ashes and foliage of any kind.