Winter is officially over in a couple weeks and all over the country fuzzy rodents have predicted an early spring. But avid gardeners know that the true harbingers of warmer weather are the bulbs poking through the ground and buds on trees beginning to bloom.
The warmer weather teases us to come outside and get dirty; however, one master gardener warns not to get too excited about planting flowers.
"Don't get too eager to plant," said Pat Lane, a master gardener since 1997.
"It's really best to wait until April ... our last frost usually doesn't even come until about May 10th or 12th."
Never fear, though, all you sufferers of cabin fever. Now is a great time to get outside and prepare flower beds.
Heavily mulching, fertilizing with a slow-release mix of nitrogen, phosphate and pot ash, and making sure all weeds are up is a good thing to do this time of year, according to Lane.
Some Ohio spring wildflowers
Jack in the pulpit
Pink lady's slipper
Dwarf crested iris
Common blue violet
Plants in USDA hardiness zone 6 common in early spring
Tips for starting seeds inside
Fill pots or flats to within 1/4 inch of the top with your potting mixture and level the surface. It's a good idea to water the soil and allow it to drain thoroughly before sowing the seeds. Make a hole for each seed with your finger or a pencil. Keep in mind that most seeds need to be planted four times as deep as the seed is wide. If your seeds are very fine, cover them with a fine layer of soil.
Moisture and Humidity
Germinating medium should be kept evenly moist but not soaking wet. Too much moisture will cause the seeds to rot. Use a fine sprayer to water newly planted seeds and tiny seedlings or, if possible, water from the bottom. If you can, slip your pots and flats into plastic bags to keep the humidity and moisture even and reduce the frequency of watering.
Some seeds require light to germinate while others prefer total darkness. Your seed packet should tell you what your seed's requirements are. Once germinated, all seedlings need light to develop into strong, healthy plants. Supplement the natural light with fluorescent bulbs if necessary.
The care you give your seedlings in the weeks following germination is critical. Keep it moist, but not dripping. Small pots and flats dry out quickly, so check it often. If your seedlings are growing in a windowsill, turn often to encourage straight stems.
The first two leaves you will see on the plant are not true leaves but food storage cells called cotyledons. Once the first true leaves have developed, it's time to start fertilizing. Choose a good liquid organic fertilizer and use a weak solution once a week.
One week before transplanting your seedlings outdoors, start to harden them off. This process acclimates the soft and tender plants, which have been protected from wind, cool temperatures, and strong sun, to their new environment. Move the plants to a shady outdoor area at first, and bring them indoors for the night if night temperatures are cold. Each day, move them out into the sun for a few hours, increasing the time spent in the sun each day. Keep them well watered during this period, and don't place them directly on the ground if slugs are a problem. Monitor them closely for insect damage since tender young seedlings are a delicacy for insects.
Don't be in a rush to set your plants in the garden. If they won't withstand frost, be sure all danger of frost has passed before setting them out. Plan the garden in advance. Consider companion planting and plant sizes. Make sure your tall plants won't shade low growing neighbors.
"Dig the weeds out - don't spray - because you might spray the root of a perennial that you didn't know was there," she said. "Also be sure to close the hole and walk over it a little."
Planning and deciding what to plant where, drawing a map of flowers you would like, moving things around - all are good ideas of outdoor projects that can be done now.
Gardening and planting has been something Arden McDougal has enjoyed since she was young.
"My mother loved flowers so I guess I got it from her," she said, noting that her yard at her Reno home is often filled with color.
"This is the time of year when you see pansies, spring bulbs, early shrubs and some perennials," she said.
McDougal and Lane agree that the key to planning a flower garden is to pay attention to what the seed packet says.
"It will tell you what the zone guidelines are (we are in zone 6) as far as when you can plant. Just make sure the package year is 2011," said Lane, who added that some cheaper seed packets are often expired and may not produce a plant.
"Seed packets will tell you what height the plant should be," McDougal said. This information comes in handy when you're planning which flowers to plant together.
Clearing debris, trimming dead parts from bushes and shrubs and ordering plants are also things that can be done early on.
Seedlings can also be started inside, using a grow light and making sure not to cover a plant once green has started to show.
Seed catalogs and magazines such as Burpee and Garden Gate often offer inspiration for planning flower beds but for many, a beautiful garden is just the result of trial and error.
"I just choose what I like and, after all these years, I've figured out what works," said McDougal.
"I always say that you learn by doing."