A batch of rose plants is expected after the middle of February and I have no choice but to cope with them then.
It is much easier to plant them in November, but you cannot always get them then. The roses in question were grown in Texas, where roses are not dormant in November and thus cannot be shipped that early. And they are tea roses, which are doubtfully hardy above Zone 8, and we are in Zone 7.
With marginally hardy plants you want to give them 10 months or so of growing in mild temperatures before they face their first winter, and this means planting them in early spring.
In Washington and in much of America the trick is to get the roses planted before warm weather comes, but not so early that a severe freeze kills them.
Last year, for example, there was a shocking freeze in March that killed outright many roses hardier than teas. It could be fatal this year to plant out the teas in February, when they are already putting out new leaves, and then have them frozen next month.
This is a problem not only with roses but with young plants of clematis, tree peonies and the like. They must go in their permanent places in the garden early, but not so early they may be killed.
Much as I dislike to do it, I have concluded after years of trial and error that the best thing is to get the plants in February, or as soon as they are available (in the case of clematis, say) and pot them in friable light soil. They can be indoors during bitter cold weather and taken outdoors when weather is mild, then brought back in on freezing nights.
This is a great nuisance. It is hard, almost impossible, to give the potted roses as much light as they need if they are indoors. It is harder to adjust the watering when they are in pots too. And there is the drawback that not only have the bushes been dug up in Texas but they will suffer another shock when planted out of their pots into the garden in April.
If all this potting business seems too much trouble, you can always set the plants in their permanent places in February, covering them with bushel baskets or mounding them with earth drawn up about their stems a foot high (removing it gradually as the danger of freezing lessens).
You will notice it is impossible to dig the soil deeply in February to incorporate a bucket of peat moss or other humus for each plant. The soil is still too wet to do a good job of making a crumbly soil. That is why the gardener is urged to do the digging in the fall.
For my tea roses the soil was dug in November and plenty of manure and leaf mold mixed in. While the roses are still indoors in their pots in March, I'll dig their planting site again, making sure the rotted manure and humus are uniformly mixed with the natural clay loam. This is conveniently done about March 15, when it is easier to do a good job of digging than in mid-February. The planting site is then watered and allowed to settle for three weeks, and the potted roses are finally set out about April 5 or 10.
It will be necessary for the potted roses to be hardened off before being planted permanently; that is, they must be exposed to outdoor light an hour a day at first, then gradually for several hours a day until by April they are used to the sun. If they are planted out in April after six weeks indoors, the shock may cause the new leaves to fall, putting a sharp and unnecessary strain on the plants.
All this is bothersome, but not quite as great a chore as it seems when you read about it. Like most gardeners I am perennially distrustful of weather. This year I see that even in February the leaves on a few hybrid tea roses are still fully green, and a noisette climbing rose looks in February just as it looked in October. With this relatively mild winter I expect all the garden roses to leaf out well before the end of February, and I dread the prospect of a temperature drop to 15 degrees in March.
The gardener unfortunately often has a job, wife, kids, dogs and other impedimenta to distract him. He is not always ready and able to race about at night with wheelbarrows of earth to protect the roses, or to cover things with tarpaulins and blankets, removing them as soon as the temperature rises. Instead, much must be left to luck.
Which, I grudgingly admit, is not always bad. Whether the gardener's snowdrops bloom in January (as several have reported) or February or even March depends a good bit on exposure. Mine never bloom before mid-February because they are beneath a large oak and the leaves are thick on the ground. They push through, but it takes them some time to do it. Besides, the oak leaves delay the warming up of the soil.
The same is true of crocuses. My neighbor's 'Dutch Yellow' began blooming Feb. 2, against a low wall facing south. Many of my crocuses are earlier varieties than his but bloom later because of the oak leaves (which they heartily dislike, but you can't tend to everything).
My Asian witch hazel came into full bloom Jan. 25, and while no witch hazel is showy, its flowers of subdued orange and russet are pleasant enough. Any of these early-blooming witch hazels would show up better against a black wall, but in a woodland setting the casual person may not even notice them. Gardeners, needless to say, are rarely casual. This year I see the new leaves on some of the hardy waterlilies are already half-grown in the first week of February. They are still eight inches below the surface and will not be fully grown and floating on the surface for another month or more, but it is always a delight to see them starting. Usually it is the end of February before they are seen, though each spring brings its own surprises. One year there were flowers on the yellow 'Charlene Strawn' early in March, though it is mid-May or late May before it flowers as a rule.