Defying Winter

My pink-flowering Prunus mume

My pink-flowering Prunus mume

Is it just me, or has this already been the longest winter ever? Oh, sure, we get occasional very brief moments of temperatures in the upper 50s, but they’re usually accompanied by rain. And, yes, I know I’ve had it easy here in the southeastern Piedmont compared to those poor fools folks in New England currently buried under three feet of snow and counting.

Even so, my winter-blooming plants are way behind their normal schedules. The only one currently blooming respectably is the pink flowering apricot in the above photo. My two other apricots — Peggy Clarke Senior and Junior — are only just starting to try to open a few flowers here and there. Often by this time of year, the apricots have been blooming since late December. Ditto for my January Jasmine. If I scrutinize the flower buds, I can see one or two showing peeks of bright yellow, but no open blooms. They didn’t make their namesake blooming month at all this year. The hellebores are also way behind. I can’t even find any flower buds showing yet. The snowdrops are just pushing up out of the soil, and so on and so forth with all my early bloomers. It’s enough to discourage any gardener.

But for the last two days, suddenly my Northern Cardinals are singing again. Since autumn, they’ve been cheeping among themselves at the feeders, but now the bright scarlet males are perching in the treetops bragging about their good looks for all to hear. Their surge in hormonal harmonizing defies winter’s tenacious grip, and reminds me of the sun’s lengthening daily presence. So I decided to take my cue from them and start some vegetable seeds in my greenhouse yesterday during a “warm” spell.

Personally, I am eager for salad season. An array of fresh-picked spring greens lightly dressed and perhaps mixed with a few other veggies, some nuts or berries or cheese — I’m salivating just writing about it. This excitement annually grips me as I survey my seed catalogs, which probably explains the assortment of seed packets I pulled out yesterday.

Can't you just taste the salads?

Can’t you just taste the salads?

Yes, as usual, I’ve probably gone a bit overboard. But that’s why I’ve planted some of each of these in the greenhouse now. I want to prolong salad season as long as I can. You see, the problem with spring gardening in the southeastern Piedmont is that the optimal growing conditions for these veggies can be depressingly short. Sometimes the temperatures leap into the 80s in early April and never look back.

Freshly planted and nestled within the germination chamber.

Freshly planted and nestled within the germination chamber.

My plan is to grow the seedlings in the greenhouse until the nighttime temperatures stop regularly plunging into the teens. When that happens, I’ll transplant them into a garden bed, mulch them well, and cover them with a tent of the heaviest grade of spun garden fabric — the kind designed to protect plants from nighttime temperature drops. It’s a gamble, but the pay-off is totally worth it.

These seeds prefer cool soil temperatures.

These seeds prefer cool soil temperatures.

The lettuce seeds are tucked inside the germination chamber, where the propagation mat warms them from below to raise soil temperatures just enough to enhance germination rates. The spinaches, greens, and beets are sitting in flats on the greenhouse bench beside the germination chamber. They really prefer cooler soil temperatures, so that’s what they’re getting. I’ve never tried sowing beets indoors before, but the seed packet suggested it, and my germination rates from direct sowing have always been unpredictable, so I figured I’d try it this way. Of course, I’ll be sure to let you know the results of the experiment.

All seeds sowed, it's time to close up the greenhouse and let them work on their defiance of winter.

All seeds sowed, it’s time to close up the greenhouse and let them work on their defiance of winter.

I use fresh potting soil for germination operations, and I fill all the cells and water them thoroughly before I start planting. By moistening the soil before sowing, I don’t risk dislodging tiny lettuce and spinach seeds by adding water later. Lettuce seeds especially need to be just barely covered. The only way to achieve the control I want is to slide the seeds in place one at a time into the pre-moistened soil. The green fabric beneath the flats is capillary cloth; this greenhouse staple holds excess water which can be pulled up by the seedlings as they need it. It allows me to maintain more consistent growing conditions inside my little greenhouse.

Sweet dreams, salads to come!

Sweet dreams, salads to come!

The top on the heated germination chamber ensures optimal humidity and warmth for encouraging seedlings to emerge. As soon as they do, I’ll move them to a bench. The enclosed chamber is too humid to keep growing plants happy. Plus, I’ll need the space for the next round of seeds I’ll be planting in a week or two.

Today, the winds are howling again, and nighttime temperatures are predicted to be in the low 20s, which translates to the mid-teens at my house. I confess I feel a bit less frustrated with winter’s tenacity, now that I’ve started my own spring revolution in my greenhouse. I encourage all my fellow Piedmont gardeners to join me in this rebellion.

Let's band together in defiance of winter's tyranny!

Let’s band together in defiance of winter’s tyranny!

NOTE: For those interested in the germination success of the seeds I planted, I’m providing a running account on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. Scroll up and click on the handy link on the right side of this page to get there.

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  1. #1 by Jo on February 6, 2015 - 12:17 am

    I just found your blog! The first one that I read was about what deer eat! Apparently most anything green. I’ve just moved to N. C. from Colorado and found that I have planted all the plants that deer live for…especially daylilies and pansies! Couldn’t have done better if I’d planned to open a stopping place for wandering deer. Your information was helpful. Wish I’d found you months ago. Next time I’ll check in first. Just received my seed packs and am ready to join the rebellion! Winter, it’s time for you to go!

    • #2 by piedmontgardener on February 6, 2015 - 6:20 am

      Welcome, Jo! I suspect gardening conditions in Colorado are quite a bit different from what you’ll find here. I hope you like hot, high summer humidities; we usually get a lot. 🙂

      As for your deer all-you-can-eat buffet, spraying with repellants is probably your best hope.

      And welcome to the rebellion. We’ll have winter outnumbered in no time.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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