The Washington Post

As cherry blossoms promise an early bloom, some pre-spring gardening tips

Cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin with a cloudy sky on Wednesday, March 30, 2011. See more photos. (Kevin Ambrose)

Of course, everyone wants to know when the cherry blossom bloom will occur and so do I! The National Park Service (NPS) has put together a website where 2012 bloom projections will be posted starting tomorrow (March 1).

Normal peak bloom occurs right around April 1. According to NPS records going back to 1992, the earliest peak (defined as the day on which 70 percent of the blossoms are open) occurred March 17, 2000. The latest peak was April 11, 1993.

Temperatures in 2000 for that earliest peak were 3.5 degrees F above normal in February and a whopping 5 degrees above normal in March. This year, February is coming in 5 degrees above normal and the first two weeks of March look like they could be around 4 degrees above normal. While temperatures are not the only factor, based on this year’s readings alone, it could certainly challenge earliest on record. So get ready to beat the crowds and get out there in mid-March.

However, there is a lot more popping than just cherry blossoms. Early daffodils on the banks of the Rock Creek Parkway and snowdrops on the hills around American University are a wonder to behold. I mentioned this once before and will say again, these are hardy flowers and will stand up to the occasional frost we can still expect. Just keep an eye out if you have planted bulbs to make sure that they are not too heavily covered in mulch so that they don’t have to struggle to get up and going.

As you probably have noticed, February has been a fairly dry month (with the exception of today). This is generally a good thing. With little draw on moisture in the winter, soils can become waterlogged which can lead to a lot of problems for roots. For slow pokes like me, it allows the cleaning up of flower beds without turning the soil into compacted concrete.

Now that new growth is imminent, it is a great time to cut off any ornamental grasses you have left standing during the winter. This can be a particularly difficult task using lawn clippers, but one of my gardening magazines had a handy tip: Tie the grass off about a foot above where you are going to clip it and then use a saw to cut through the stems. This worked like a snap and I have the non-blistered hands to prove it.

Now is also a great time to do judicious pruning on deciduous plants. With no leaves to block the view, you can easily see what you are doing. Get rid of crossing branches and thin out overgrown shrubs. This is a great time to hack back butterfly bush and shrub roses to improve their bloom for the summer.

This is definitely NOT the time to prune azaleas and rhododendrons as you will remove this spring’s blooms. Do that right after they bloom. Here’s a nice run down on pruning times: Good Housekeeping website

Next on my agenda is putting down about 2 to 3” of fresh compost on all my beds next weekend. This is a “green” way to fertilize. There are plenty of farms and quite a few nurseries that will deliver in bulk if you are a crazed gardener like me. For smaller plots, look for bags in the nursery of products like “Leafgro”. Not only does compost provide great nutrients but it also will improve the till of the soil. So whether you have Takoma Park clay or St. Michaels sand, compost will make life much better for your plants. I still apply a slow release fertilizer too but just make sure to not overdo.

So tell me what your gardening projects are now that we are free to get back at it. Any helpful hints you have would be much appreciated.

David Streit grew up on a farm/ranch in Nebraska. Witness to severe weather of all varieties focused his career path. Degrees from the universities of Nebraska and Wisconsin prepared him to be a forecaster for Capital Weather Gang as well as his day job as COO of Commodity Weather Group.


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