Spring Fever

Twin needs prompt a flurry of March activity in the garden.

Purple bougainvillea growing along a fence

It took a month for the bougainvillea to move. First, we had to find the boundary between the just-leased vacant lot next door and the one adjacent to it. Then my husband set the poles for 70 feet of fence along that line. Once the poles were in, the trellis –– triangular pieces of 10-foot-long treated lumber, 1.5 inches per side, placed one above the other at 6-inch intervals –– rose at the strategic point that would screen the view of our neighbors’ window. With that done, the open wire mesh of the fence itself could be hung, creating a tidy fret that pole beans and cucumbers –– and the bougainvillea –– will use to hoist themselves up.

Finally, on the first of February, the bougainvillea was sprung. We rolled the oversize pot that contained it to the new fence and dug two deep holes. Bougainvilleas love neglect, but they need nutrients to get a foothold. Into each hole, then, went two handfuls of earthworm castings culled from the earthworm farm under the house. The next day, I scratched a cup of slow-release 3-3-3 organic fertilizer in around each transplant. Because the plant’s mottled leaves indicated a lack of magnesium, I dug a tablespoon of Epsom salts into the dirt at the base of each transplant, as well.

This is the time of year when, for me, two bottled-up impulses collide.  The first, born of months of pondering the dormant garden, is the rush to relocate perennials before they put out new springtime growth. The second is the desire to nourish and encourage –– finally –– all of those sleeping plants to wake up and push out all the new leaves and flowers they can. That means I can at last fuss over feeding them, concocting all sorts of sweet treats designed to make them green up and produce.

From November to February, you can feed your winter annuals and vegetables all you want, but adding nitrogen to perennials is a no-no. (Imagine, for instance, the effect of this December’s snowfall on a set of gerbera daisies that had been encouraged to bloom out of season.) By mid-February, however, it’s a pretty safe bet that we won’t see another freeze. Come March, your plants are rapidly awakening from hibernation, and they’re hungry. This is the time to feed them a balanced dose of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, the three building blocks of plant nutrition.

If you’re a conventional gardener, fertilizer choices abound at both big-box stores and local nurseries.

Because conventional fertilizers can burn plants if they’re applied incorrectly, I’d encourage every beginning gardener to seek advice from an established grower or nursery before buying and applying fertilizers for the first time.

As an organic gardener, I get to fool around. Most organic fertilizers are less intense, so they’re less apt to burn. That means I can add blood meal for growth-boosting nitrogen and bone meal for phosphorous to encourage strong roots and then try something else the following weekend. Cottonseed meal and alfalfa meal are other choices for nitrogen, though you’ve got to be careful –– cottonseed adds a lot of acid to the soil, so you might need to check the pH after adding it. Greensand jumps potassium levels and also breaks up clay soils, a concern for plants that, like the bougainvillea, must be well-drained to survive. To cover all bases, I’m fond of Espoma Holly-Tone for Acid-Loving Plants. I’ve run into this product, which is organic but not certified organic, on the shelves of several local nurseries. In addition to the big three of nitrogen- phosphorous-potassium, it contains all sorts of lovely trace minerals that help plants make the most of other nutrients.

It’s a relief to be able to relocate plants that fared ill last summer because of poor placement. The Grand Duke of Tuscany jasmine is much happier now that it’s been taken out of its pot and planted in a well-tilled, sunny spot. The bougainvillea was OK close to the house, but I expect it to open up in its sunny new location. The long-suffering hydrangeas that moved last spring have been overshadowed by sages, and they’ll have to be moved again. Similarly, the Rangoon creeper that survived beneath our construction dump two years ago is suffering because the newly lush pecan tree is blocking its light. Like the bougainvillea, it’s bound for a hot spot beside a stout fence.

The window for relocating all these things is closing quickly, though. Gotta run!

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