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Connolly: Grow good roots now for great plants later on

Are you in the mood to move earth? Those bursts of yellow forsythia are calling out more than "spring is here." They mark a calendar milestone that, if I were in charge, would be named "Root Day." It's the day when soil temperatures have reached 50 degrees or more and nature is finally saying it's time to let the shovels fly.

There are a couple of problems with Root Day, though, not least of which is that it's a moveable feast; it arrives at different times even within the boundaries of the same address. The soil around that shady rock outcropping at the back of the property is not in the same growing zone as the fully exposed front lawn. And just because roots are unleashed doesn't mean that leaves are safe. In fact, new leaves are at risk until almost a month from now, after the frost-free date. (If I were in charge, I'd declare it "Leaf Day.") Indeed, these two dates are like bookends around a confusing month when garden energy is high but a bit premature.

Plant, protect or simply wait?

Garden centers made it easy to get started with some color by putting out pansies, violas and a few other familiars over the past week or so. But if you want to supplement those early season purchases with mid-season color and do it less expensively, plant packets of larkspur, bachelor buttons, corn cockles (Agrostemma), bells of Ireland, phlox, corn poppies, and sweet peas right now. Plant nasturtiums around May 1.

In the perennial bed, it's time to divide roots and create more plants. It's also safe to put many potted perennials in the ground with a little mulch or straw cover.

In the shrub border, divide and replant shrubs with suckering stems, such as summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), chokeberries (Aronia family), or dogwood shrubs. It's also a good time to relocate shrubs and small trees.

In the vegetable bed, plant lettuce, spinach, peas, beets, onions, carrots seeds, as well as seed potatoes and onion sets. They'll appear on their own schedule and will, for the most part, survive whatever weather comes our way. (Especially if you use row covers, see below.) Now that we're past April 15, some vegetable bedding plants such as broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, and cabbage are safe to add.

Still on the "wait" list, though, are tender immigrants from southern climes such as the ever-popular tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, and pumpkins. In the ornamental garden, zinnias, coleus and begonias are best delayed until May 15. (We won't have impatiens this year due to that awful downy mildew.)

Simple early season protection

People have probably been jumpstarting their growing seasons for as long we've been growers. The most basic approach is to plant the warmest spots, usually areas that slope gently to the south. Another simple step is to protect plants from wind by planting on the lee side of walls, fences, hedges, and even straw bales. For every foot of "wall" height you obtain about 20 feet of wind protection.

Beyond these steps, the next measures cover a wide gamut of effort and expense. The soda bottle is a thrifty, effective modern season extender. Cut off the bottom, place it over the plant or seed, and remove the lid. The bottle reduces wind and concentrates sun on the soil-both key to early season survival. Bottles are amazingly effective.

Among the somewhat more formal methods of jumpstarting the season, I have found the water-filled teepee (Wall-o-Water) really does help bring in early tomatoes and peppers. Cold frames and plastic tunnels are also effective for almost every food or ornamental crop.

But the fabric row cover gets my top honors for inexpensive, versatile weather protection. (Ask at your garden center.) Row covers don't overheat on warm spring days but they do protect leaves from frost. They allow light and rainfall to reach the plant. They effectively rebuff wind. I have seen all types of annual flowers and vegetables as well as perennials thrive under row covers during this confusing transitional month. When their spring work is done, simply wash the covers and pack them away for fall.

Don't forget that as roots develop this month, they'll be happier if you took the time to improve the soil by spreading compost and fertilizing according to the instructions on soil test results. To get a soil test, visit the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station website ( or call (203) 974-8500.

Strong roots make great plants.



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