No doubt about it. This year’s wacky weather is uprooting many gardening routines.
Uncovering a fig tree in early April in East Falls (Philadelphia), I was astonished to see plump green figs bigger than golf balls. In years past, the unveilings revealed no hint of fruits and just a glimpse of green on a few buds. In a Center City Philadelphia courtyard garden, red azaleas were appropriately in full bloom. Nearby though, the usual June-flowering roses were pushing buds ready to pop.
My first early March planting of young kale seedlings disappeared overnight. When I complained about slugs, my neighbor said, No way. Too early for them. The next morning, several cups of beer diluted with water showed otherwise. Wee slugs had taken the bait and fallen into the concoction to a happy, drunken death.
All around Philadelphia, irises bloomed almost in synch with rainbows of tulips and some daffodils.
When did you spot your first mosquito this year? Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Sally McCabe noticed their larvae wriggling in water on March 3. Adults were in flight the first week of March, during the Philadelphia International Flower Show. “I’m seeing a lot of aphids but no ladybugs,” she added on April 9.
McCabe bragged about the tomato plant she was protecting with a plastic sleeve. “I put the tomato in March 17 in a Wall O’Water. It has buds!”
April daffodils bloom with May-flowering bearded iris in a Philadelphia garden.
Early variegated hostas fill in before the oak leaf hydrangea fills out in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia.
“It’s weird, the weather,” she puzzled. Irises — reticulate, bearded and Siberian — were in bloom in April. They usually flower in mid-to-late May.
Walking around Meadowbrook Farm near Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, in early April, McCabe posed the wacky weather question to grounds manager Tom Reber. “Everything is early. The whole bloom cycle is compressed and ending early,” Reber observed. “Forsythia and witch hazel bloomed crazy early and were gone quickly. Dogwoods were blooming while magnolias were still going. They usually flower after Passover. Fothergillas were early, exploding. Camellias were off the chart, blooming like crazy. Arum unfolded early to 24 inches tall.”
“Weeds are well ahead, too,” McCabe chimed in. “The garlic mustard bloomed early, So did goutweed.”
“Oh my!” Reber exclaimed. “The pink Camellia japonica ‘Crimson Candle’ is in bloom early. Up a month early at Meadowbrook, were Solomon’s seal, Sanguinaria, Anemonopsis, bleeding heart, double bloodroot, yellow birdfoot violet, columbine and periwinkle. Peonies were a foot tall when they shouldn’t be up yet. All the maples were in full bloom and they blew by the oaks.”
Surprise! Non-Hardy Plants Thriving
“The rice paper plant, marginally hardy, was already breaking ground in late April. It shouldn’t do that until May,” Reber observed. “The hardy banana plant didn’t die back. It was 6 feet tall in April.” Cardoon that usually goes dormant was growing all winter, Reber said. “We mulch the cardoon with salt hay and pine needles.”
McCabe added her oversized find — “A blue, yellow pansy shrub on Reidel Road. The pansies from last year planted in the fall exploded. They are huge!”
INSECTS: More or Less?
Walking through the estate, McCabe spied aphids on tulips and kale. Which made me wonder — without a deep, long, winter freeze to kill off insect eggs and larvae, will we be doomed to a summer swarming with superbugs?
Brian Esenhauser, Cornell University’s Extension Associate for Integrated Pest Management, explained that depends on several things including winter survival rate and summer weather. Insects depend on heat to develop. They stay dormant in cold temperatures. As temperature increases, they do too. Pests that get an early start may reproduce more this season, he said.
Mosquitoes were out early because of early warm weather, Esenhauser observed. “Other insect pests of landscape and garden plants developed earlier than normal. That may allow them time to have additional generations in the longer growing season.”
Agriculture and horticulture professionals use the Growing Degree Day Model to help keep track of when pests are active, Esenhauser noted. The model measures heat units that affect insect and plant growth. “We are well ahead of where we are in most growing seasons at this time of the year,” he said. Translation: there are more insects earlier than in the past.
What’s a Gardener to Do?
Esenhauser urged gardeners “to focus and start monitoring and scouting for pests earlier than they normally would.” Insect infestations will also depend “on weather during the growing season. In more humid, cool conditions there are less pests like mites and aphids. They don’t multiply as fast in those conditions. Also natural fungi can reduce their populations.”
Note well the opposite norm. “In hot, dry conditions when plants are in more stress, we tend to see more of most of those pests,” he said.
Be proactive with a garden hose and water, Esenhauser advised. Spray the plants full-on with a strong, steady stream of water to knock off the aphids. “The water and force help too with mites who can’t stand the moisture.”
Vegetable gardeners take heed. Wet and cool weather are ideal conditions for the tomato late blight that’s killed tomatoes and potatoes since the moist summer two years ago. That’s the same disease that caused the Irish potato famine, he added. The pathogen arrived here on tomato transplants early in 2010. “We know the potential and it can spread quickly.”
Late blight can be arrested through prevention, Esenhauser emphasized. “There is an organic control for late blight. It has to be caught early. Use a fungicide. A copper fungicide of elemental copper will protect the foliage. Spray ahead of time to protect foliage that’s not infected.”
What about our premature-blooming roses, especially those we didn’t have time to prune before they flowered?
No worries, said Michael Marriott, Senior Rosarian of David Austin Roses. “They will most probably make magnificent plants this year, perhaps a bit tall but magnificent.”
Marriott predicted that early flowering “shouldn’t stop bloom later unless it gets very dry. In that case, watering roses as needed should keep them flowering.” He suggested careful summer pruning to encourage bloom and to shape an ungainly plant. “Cut the flowering shoot down after the flowers have finished — to a few inches above the point of origin.”
Marriott practices organic, sustainable rose gardening that controls diseases and promotes “good, solid growth.” His method — feed them well with an organically-based fertilizer and a liquid nutrient, especially one that contains seaweed. Encourage beneficial insects, he added. “I’m not sure how much truth there is in warm winters meaning more pests. It is likely that the beneficial insects will have survived well too. So be sure to look after them in your garden by not spraying or being very careful what and when you spray. Be willing to have a few aphids in your garden as they will be supper for the beneficials.”
(Photos courtesy of Charlotte Kidd.)