Ron Kujawski | Garden Journal: Aaaaah! Spring has finally arrived!

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How do you spell "relief"? I don't know since spelling was never my forte in school. Fortunately, I am spared much embarrassment by having "spell check" on my computer. However, if I had to spell it aloud, it would be a-a-a-a-a-h. That's aaaaah as in "Aaaaah! Thank goodness spring has finally arrived, though a month late."

Aaaah, yes! Spring is my favorite season, largely because it seems that every day brings a new surprise in our garden. In the vegetable garden, shoots of garlic are now piercing through the straw mulch that blanketed them through the winter. Rhubarb, horseradish and perennial herbs, including chives, oregano and mint, have sprung from the soil, and I am on daily alert for the first signs of asparagus.

In the landscape, Daphne, forsythia, Korean rhododendron, Cornelian cherry dogwood and some star magnolias are blooming. Yet, it is the steady, almost daily, appearance of a new spring flowering bulb or early blooming perennial that attracts much of my attention. Dwarf iris, crocus, species tulips, Chionodoxa luciliae (glory of the snow), Puschkinia libanotica (striped squill), Scilla siberica (Siberian squill) and daffodils are just a few of the spring bulbs putting on a show at this time.

One of my favorites of the early-blooming perennials is hellebore, actually the plural "hellebores" since there are several species of this herbaceous perennial common to gardens in the New England region. The species now flowering in our garden go by the common names Christmas rose and Lenten rose, though they are related to buttercups and not roses. Also, somewhat of a misnomer is the term Christmas rose, since this plant typically blooms in March. Likewise, the Lenten rose may not come into bloom during the Lenten season, as was the case this year. Obviously, whoever came up with these common names never had the "joy" of experiencing a New England winter.

What I like about hellebores is the large cup-shaped flowers that persist for a month or more. And, once the flowers fade, the large leathery leaves of hellebore provide a nice back drop for later flowering herbaceous plants. The leaves are evergreen, but often take a beating in winter. Fortunately, the plants put out new foliage to replace the battered ones. Hellebores prefer shade and thus make a good understory plant beneath trees or in a shrub border. Oh, and thanks to my friend Katie Kilmer for this reminder: Deer don't eat hellebores, most likely because the foliage is poisonous.

This is a good time to be planting hellebores and other herbaceous perennials. Garden centers should be well-stocked with a variety of hellebore species and their hybrids.

SPRING HAS SPRUNG

Aaaah! It is so nice to be outdoors partaking in these labors of love:

- Rake leaves that piled up in flower borders last fall. Don't need to be super clean about it as some of the smaller, partially decomposed, leaf bits make good mulch for the beds. Larger leaves can go onto the compost pile.

- Turn over the compost heap to get it going again after its winter respite. Exposed compost piles tend to compress under the weight of snow or simply from being saturated with moisture. Turning over the pile and adding raked debris from lawns and flower borders will open up pore spaces in the pile, allowing the oxygen-loving bacteria and fungi to begin the process of decomposing the organic matter.

- Make up for lost time by direct sowing seeds of these cold season crops into the vegetable garden: peas, onions, leeks, carrots, beets, radishes and lettuce from seed. For hardy crops, such as cabbage, broccoli, onions, leeks, etc., started indoors, be sure to gradually harden (acclimate) them to the outdoors by moving the seedling flats out for an hour the first day and then increasing the time by a couple of hours over a period of 10 days before transplanting.

- Start seeds of squash, melons and cucumbers indoors by sowing in peat pots. These vine crops do not like their roots disturbed, so sowing seeds in biodegradable peat pots ensures successful transplanting to the garden in early June. If not starting these plants indoors, sow the seeds directly in the garden around Memorial Day.

- Work a starter fertilizer into the soil before seeding bare spots in lawns. A starter fertilizer is one that has a nitrogen to phosphorous ratio of 1:1. Fortunately, you don't have to bring your calculator with you when shopping for such a fertilizer at your local garden center as these products are typically labeled as starter fertilizer. Be sure to read and follow label directions for rates of application.

Aaaaah!

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