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Dirty Fingernails: Plant your perennial seeds now
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Dirty Fingernails: Plant your perennial seeds now

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Perennial garden

Q: I bought some seeds of perennial flowers—columbine and lupine—that I intended to plant last spring, but then I ran out of time. If I save the seeds until next year, will they still grow?

A: They might, but the best time to start perennial seeds is right now. Garden work is a little less time-consuming now that summer is here. Besides, the timing will be perfect for those seeds. Although it is too late to be sprouting seeds for annual flowers, perennials play a whole different game. Perennials will not bloom until next year, even if you had planted their seeds in early spring. If the plants begin growing now, though, they will be big enough to live through the winter outdoors. They will start to grow again as soon as the soil warms in the spring, and they will bloom next summer.

Best of all is that starting seeds now is as easy as it ever gets. The whole process can be done outdoors while temperatures are within the range that seeds like best. No bottom heat is required. No damping off disease will kill them.

Start seeds for perennial flowers with the same equipment used for annual seeds last spring, but set the pots outdoors, in the shade and out of the wind. Zip the pots into a plastic bag, or drape clear plastic over them, or cover them with either the top or bottom half of a two-liter bottle. The clear plastic will help to keep the seeds moist until they sprout, although it pays to check every couple of days, to be sure about soil moisture.

Do not be consumed by anxiety; perennial seeds will take at least a week to sprout, and some need as long as a month. Even if no green leaves appear in that length of time, continue to care for the pots and to keep the soil moist. A few perennials will finally sprout next spring, after spending the winter outdoors.

As soon as the first green shoots appear, remove the cover and move the pots to the place where the plants will live out their lives. If they are sun lovers, those small pots will require frequent watering. Sinking the pots up to their rims in a garden bed will mean that you are not running out with a watering can three times a day, since moisture from the surrounding dirt will find its way into the pots.

By the end of summer, new perennial plants will be big enough to live on their own. Tip each one out of its pot, into its own private hole in a flower bed. Be sure to keep its soil moist until the ground freezes. Also be sure to give it a stake. It will disappear into winter dormancy, and its exact location will be forgotten, even though that seems impossible. I recommend a pile of winter mulch, applied as a Christmas present, on every new perennial. Their root systems are small in their first winter and will appreciate the extra insulation.

Q: Should I thin the growing fruits on my fruit trees or not?

A: If you have apricot or cherry trees, no. They seldom need to be thinned. For apples, pears, plums, peaches, yes. There are several reasons why thinning tree fruit is sensible gardening. The fruit left on the tree will be able to grow to a generous size. If a tree tries to grow more fruit than the leaves can feed, the fruits will range from small to tiny. Without thinning, trees can try to ripen so many fruits that their weight actually will break branches. A grower must rush to make props for fruit-laden branches before they split and create ugly wounds.

Most annoying to a fruit grower is that if fruit is not thinned, trees get into a cycle called “alternate bearing.” The fruit crop is so big one year that it uses all the tree’s stored energy. The next growing season begins with a deficit. The tree recognizes the problem and drops all its fruits while they are still tiny. That year it ripens no fruit at all. Of course, the tree then starts the next season with a surplus, so it can grow a bumper crop of unthinned fruit, which again creates a deficit. Alternate bearing is especially common with apple trees.

The best time to thin tree fruit is after the June drop. That fall of newly formed fruit occurs as the tree attempts to thin its own crop, producing chemicals which cause some of the fruits to separate from the branch. Unfortunately, the June drop is rarely big enough for the tree to support the remaining fruit. It needs the grower’s help.

I like to thin with a pair of scissors. Some people prefer pruning shears, but cutting off the extra fruit, instead of pulling it off, avoids damaging branch tips in the process. Thin apples to leave just one fruit every four to six inches. The same distance is good for pears. Plum trees can support a fruit every three inches. Peach trees need eight inches between fruit. Some peach growers like to cut surplus peaches in half with pruning shears, so that the fruit will drop naturally and leave the shoot uninjured.

Q: Can I move flowering plants at this time of year? I have discovered places in my flower beds which would look better with a different arrangement.

A: Yes, as long as you take a few precautions to assure your plants’ survival. Presumably you are talking about perennial flowers, since annuals can be changed by planting them in different places next year. If you have a choice of which plant to move, select the smaller one. Because less of the root system will be left behind, stress levels will be lower and recovery faster.

Keep plants out of the ground the shortest possible time. That may mean digging the new hole before taking the plant out of its present location. Roots exposed to air begin to die within minutes.

Existing flowers may or may not survive a move because of the stress involved. If blossoms begin to look old, clip them off. That lets the plant concentrate on leaves and roots.

Cover the transplants with pieces of old row cover for a week, so that the sun does not dehydrate them. If you have no row cover scraps, us a board or a piece of cardboard as a beach umbrella.

Water the plants every day for a week, and every other day for the second week after their move. Skip a day only if there is a downpour. The roots have been damaged and need extra water to recover.

After the temporary shade has been removed, start trimming off leaves and branches which are dying. They will not recover, they cannot help the plant, and it will look much better to you.

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