There are some years when spring-like weather comes almost too early. Early crocuses and snowdrops blossom, roses break dormancy, and the hard earth turns to mud all at once. For skeptical gardeners (and all gardeners turn into skeptics if they keep at it long enough), it is a source of worry. What if there is a sudden freeze just as everything is leafing out? What if this is as good as it’s going to get for the entire year? Why doesn’t the garden center have any pansies yet?
Then of course, there are years like this one, when Mother Nature teases us with a balmy day now and then in February and early March, just before she hits us with yet another storm. The inconsistent weather gets discouraging, as does the endless sequence of gray days. It is a wonder more gardeners don’t go mad at the end of winter.
I am staving off such madness by keeping busy in the fifteen or twenty minutes of most working days that I try to devote to garden-related activities. Like me, my houseplants all sport the end-of-winter look that comes from months of less-than-optimal light, occasionally inconsistent watering, dry indoor air and a slowed growth cycle. Once a week I bring each one of them into the kitchen, put it in the sink, and drench the soil with water from the sprayer attachment. The leaves get cleaned in the process, which is generally good for the plant, and I know that the roots have been thoroughly hydrated. While the plant is in the sink I trim off any dead leaves and flower stalks. Once the washing and grooming is over, I may insert a slow-release fertilizer plug into the soil. This should be done every six weeks or so. Finally I wash and dry the saucer that sits under the plant, and return it to its original position.
The only species that do not benefit from such a thorough wash-down are fuzzy-leafed creatures such as African violets. Use a watering can to drench the soil of those plants, as their leaves do not respond well to being spattered with water droplets.
While you are involved in this cleaning process, take a cold-hearted look at all your plants. If yours are like mine, some of them are clearly goners. Remember that you cannot resurrect something that is already completely dead, or even 90% dead, and it will not help to put it back on the windowsill for another six weeks. Throw it out and think about all the cheerful specimens that you can buy to fill the empty space. Better yet, if the empty space is in a south-facing window, start some pansies or other seeds. Watching your little seedlings sprout is a lot better for your mood than contemplating a dead plant and feeling guilty about its demise.
Plant grooming time is also a good time to repot and consolidate. Those amaryllis bulbs that have been hanging around and sprouting leaves since Christmas, can be consolidated into one large pot, freeing up space for more colorful things such as the cinerarias that are invading the supermarkets and garden centers right now. Consider consolidating a few of those potted primroses that you may have bought last month. Eventually they can be transplanted to a shady spot in the garden, but that will only work if they are alive and well. It’s always easier to water one big pot rather than two or three little ones. African violets also respond well to being grouped in one large pot. The treatment is especially effective if you have violets whose flowers contrast with each other.
Once all your houseplants are in good shape, consider your catalog pile. In the world of mail order plant merchandising it’s still the pre-season, and the pre-season is a good time to get bargains on plants.
Check your mail order catalogs for any that advertise early bird savings. These vendors like to spread the workload, and it is in your interest and theirs to get orders in early. Sometimes the savings come in the form of discounts if you order before a certain date; other times you get a few extra plants. Either way, there are good deals to be had.
My local garden pottery emporium is also advertising savings on all kinds of pots. Make a few phone calls and check around in your area. If you have always wanted a strawberry jar, birdbath or a fashionable urn, now may be the time to get it.
With a bit of luck, all this purposeful horticultural activity will get you ready for the real gardening season and keep your mind off the sleet coming down outside. By the middle of April you will wish that you had this leisurely (at least from a gardening perspective) time back again.