Gardening Tips: Is It Spring Yet?

— Written By and last updated by Chrissy Poole

If you are like me, the warm weather we enjoyed last week has got you itching to get out in the garden. Garden centers and the big box stores have started getting in shipments of trees, shrubs, perennials, annuals, and vegetables and its hard to resist the urge to start planting. Many of these items are safe to plant now, but we are not past the threat of frost, making some things, particularly annuals and vegetables a bit trickier to deal with.
Traditionally, our frost-free date for this area is April 15th, meaning it is very unlikely that we will have a frost after that date. In most years, the threat of frost gradually decreases approaching that date, but in several years we’ve had a hard frost just a day or to before the 15th. With about three weeks to go until April 15th we are not quite ready to plant those geraniums, petunias, and tomatoes just yet.
While I would definitely recommend resisting the urge to plant some of the more tender annuals and vegetables, and instead indulge your spring fever by planting hardy perennials or a tree or shrub, there will be many who choose not to follow my advice. That’s fine, just be prepared to protect your plants, or to buy replacements. Here are a few hints to protect those fragile young plants.
First, before planting them in the garden, try to acclimate them to the cold for a few nights. Many of the annuals and vegetables you see for sale now have been living in greenhouses until very recently. They may be used to getting no colder than 50 degrees at night. Even if the plants have been out of the greenhouse for a week or so, chances are they’ve been protected in some fashion from any really cold weather. You don’t want them to face a frost or even a night of temperatures in the high 30’s or low 40’s for the first time on the day they are transplanted. Wait until after the 15th to plant them, leaving the plants on a porch or a protected area for a few days beforehand, so that they can get acclimated to the cold. This will help toughen up your plants. Even some perennials can benefit from this type of care.
Once you do plant things in the ground, protect them with a thick layer of mulch and start paying attention to the weather report. My rule of thumb from years of frost protecting strawberries is to be prepared whenever the weather report calls for 40 degrees or less. The temperatures always seem to be a little bit colder in an open field or in my backyard that what is predicted for large cities like Raleigh. If it looks like a frost may be coming, you can build up some extra mulch around tender plants or cover them with a blanket or sheet. Taller plants could be covered by something like an empty soda bottle. These materials will keep the plants a few degrees warmer during cold nights; just make sure to uncover them when the sun comes out.
If you’re interested in bees or beekeeping, join us at the Halifax Agricultural Center Monday March 25th at 7 p.m. for our beekeepers association meeting. Young, old, experienced, novice, and first time beekeepers are welcome.
Matthew Stevens is the horticulture extension agent for Halifax County Cooperative Extension. If you have any questions about this article or other aspects of your home gardening, please contact Matthew at 583-5161 or matt_stevens@ncsu.edu.