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Help Mother Nature make most of spring


Beautiful gardens by William Johnson

THE FIRST DAY of spring will soon be here – the new season begins on March 19 at 11:30pm, according to the astronomical definition. From a gardening perspective, the exact timing of “spring” is less precise.
This has been an exceptionally mild winter. That’s not necessarily a hard-science meteorological assessment, just my horticultural opinion.

160302 Gardening – paperwhites at Dickinson LibraryPaperwhites like these outside Dickinson’s public library have been producing bountiful displays of scented flowers since mid January. Looking like white daffodils, they grow from bulbs and also can often be seen growing in abandoned lots. PHOTO CREDIT: William Johnson

This is the first winter when the firebush, or hamelia patens, in my back yard has not suffered any dieback from low temperatures. Firebush will die back to the ground by the end of a typical winter and new leaves emerge from its base when spring arrives. Not so this year, as the bush is already putting out new growth on 14-foot-tall branches.
We should remember that the arrival of spring along the Texas Gulf Coast tends to have a bumpy landing. Mother Nature has been known to deliver a surprise cold snap at this time of year, so here’s a checklist for things to do in the garden as the season approaches.
Annuals: Now’s the time to set out copper plants, ageratum and ornamental amaranth and other annuals.
Trees and shrubs: March is an excellent time to fertilize established trees and shrubs as they come out of their winter dormancy and put out new growth.
It is not necessary to punch holes in the ground to fertilize trees or shrubs or to use fertilizer spikes. Surface application of a granular fertilizer is quite satisfactory and an even better practice.
Vegetables: Many types of vegetable can usually be established in the garden during mid March, including transplants of tomatoes and peppers as well as direct seeding of corn, cucumbers, southern peas and many others.
Be prepared to provide cold-weather protection as needed. It is still too early to plant okra as it does not tolerate cool spells. Wait until mid April before planting your okra seeds.
Perennials: Divide existing clumps of fall-blooming perennials, such as chrysanthemums, autumn asters, Mexican marigold mint and physostegia, or obedient plant.
Separate the clumps into individual plants and set them at least eight to 10 inches apart in groupings of five or more.
Avoid over-planting: Be selective in planting annuals and bedding plants. Set out no more than you can properly care for. For limited garden areas, try using containers on the patio or porch.
Hanging baskets: Late March is an ideal time to set out hanging baskets. The variety of plants that can be used is limited only by your imagination.
There is a host of suitable plants for hanging baskets, including portulaca, ivy, geraniums, airplane plant, bougainvillea, English ivy and begonias.
Houseplants:  This is an excellent time to repot houseplants. Gently knock the plant out of the pot and inspect its root system. If the roots are crowded and matted on the exterior portion of the root ball, put the plant in a larger pot.
Camellias and azaleas: As these plants finish blooming, fertilize them with an azalea-camellia fertilizer according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.
Weed killers and trees: Many trees and shrubs are damaged or killed each year by the careless application of weed killers to lawns, including those found in mixes of weed killers and fertilizers and commonly called “weed and feed”.
Always read and follow all label directions very carefully, including application near the drip line of your trees and shrubs.
Plant of the month: I have received several inquiries about home-landscape plants seen producing bountiful displays of white flowers that look like small daffodils. They are known as paperwhites and are closely related to daffodils.
However, it requires a lot of effort to produce daffodil flowers in our area. The bulbs need to be chilled in the refrigerator for several weeks before planting.
In contrast, paperwhites do not require chill hours. They started blooming across the county in January and many still have an abundance of blooms. They are among the first plants to bloom in any landscape and the last plant to die out when a property has been abandoned.
Paperwhites have been setting blooms since mid January and patches of them can still be seen by alert motorists with a sharp eye. In fact, paperwhites are commonly seen in vacant lots.
William Johnson is a horticulturist with the Galveston County office of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Visit his website at

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