Column: Seeds & Stems

On spring fever, and getting prepped for the gardening season
Marianne Rzepka

Marianne Rzepka

Friends don’t ask me how I feel about February. They’ve already heard me say that there’s a reason why the worst month in the year – cold, icy, gray – is the shortest month. And when it’s over, it’s still winter.

So when the first of March rolled around this year – coming in like a lamb, instead of a lion – I was left blinking in the sun and looking like I just crawled out of hibernation. There was sun and steadily rising temperatures, so sue me if I think spring is already here.

But though the temperatures are already in the 50s, these weeks can be the winter of a gardener’s discontent.

We want to get out there, we want to start digging, but we know it’s just too darn early. It’s even too early to set up the grow lights to start my tomato plants from seed. Some stoics will tell you it’s even too early to walk on your lawn!

I know there are things I could be doing to get ready for the growing season. I could be planning my vegetable garden, getting serious about the seed catalogs that are piled up around my reading chair, or sharpening my garden spade.

But these are things I could have done anytime over the past winter months – and I didn’t. Spring fever may get me going on these tasks, but this is the time of year when an array of classes, talks and projects are more apt to get my attention.

If you’d like to ease into the growing season, you can start simply by calling up Dial-A-Garden at 734-971-1129. There are a number of recordings that change monthly, and you can see a list of the topics at online. This month, there are recordings on crabgrass control, testing leftover seeds, starting vegetable seeds and spraying fruit trees.

You also can learn about forcing spring-blooming branches. Some branches – like forsythia and quince – will bloom more easily than others, says Madolyn Kaminski, who oversees the Dial-A-Garden programs. You simply cut some long whips from those bushes and put them in vases in your house. Every day, change the water and snip a little bit off the bottom. In about two weeks, you’ll get some early spring blooms. The closer it is to the time the bush would naturally bloom, the faster you’ll get blooms on your cuttings.

If that’s too much fun for you, it’s also time to spray your rose bushes with sulfur lime, says Kaminski. She swears that you’ll be surprised at how it will reduce the amount of black spot.

Kaminski also is in charge of the Herb Study Group that meets once a month at the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens, 1800 N. Dixboro Road. Members next meet on April 7 to discuss starting herbs from seed. The meeting will start at 7 p.m. in Room 125. If you’re interested, just show up.

“Four to six weeks before they go in the ground is the best time to start your herbs,” says Kaminski, who is successfully raising a 6-foot-tall bay leaf tree at home.

If you’d like to get out of the house, this time of year is good for pruning – just ask the crews in my neighborhood hacking at the trees crossing the power lines. You can prune your own shrubs and trees, and now that there are no leaves to get in the way, you’ll have a clear view to clip out any crossing branches or trim lopsided edges.

Normally, I would recommend stopping by any of the volunteer work days usually held on the second Saturday of the month at UM’s Nichols Arboretum and the third Saturday of the month at Matthaei.

But not this month. This month, there’s too much mud, so volunteer days for both places have been canceled for March, says volunteer coordinator Tara Griffith. If you still have time in April, you can make sure the volunteer days are a go by calling her at 734-647-8528. It’s just for the morning, and you can learn a lot by lopping out invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle with professionals.

Book cover for Easy Edibles

Book cover for "Easy Edibles" by Sheri Repucci.

If that’s too much action for you, settle down with a copy of “Easy Edibles: A Beginner’s Guide to Growing Organic Food in the Lower Great Lakes Region” by Sheri Repucci, who used to be in charge of garden activities and coordination at Project Grow.

The book is aimed at beginners because they are often “overwhelmed” by details when they talk to seasoned gardeners, says Repucci. But the book’s also good for those seasoned gardeners who appreciate a compendium of common sense basics. Besides chapters on setting up a vegetable garden and choosing plants, there are profiles of a number of easily grown vegetables with typical height, sun and soil needs, planting depths and harvest times.

The book – issued by Ann Arbor publishing house Alice Greene & Co. – can be found at Border’s, Downtown Home and Garden, Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room and Hollander’s, as well as at Matthaei and Zingerman’s Roadhouse. Or check the publisher’s website.

I enjoyed the “Challenging Vegetables” section, which included some of the crops – corn, potatoes, eggplant – I grew last summer without much thought. That conforms to my planting philosophy of “just stick it in the ground and see what comes up.”

Repucci, who now lives in Toronto where she’s studying the effects of healing gardens at York University, has more reasoned advice, warning any gardening wanna-be not to mistakenly jumpstart the growing season. “The spring can fool you,” she told me in a recent phone call. “Even experts can be surprised at how fast the weather can turn.”

Too early and an unexpected freeze will turn those tomatoes into limp sticks. Even if the weather isn’t too cold, planting in soil that isn’t warm enough will set your tender plants back, Repucci says.

Just what I don’t need to hear – although it’s something that I know. So instead of going out and urging my daffodils and tulips to hurry up and bloom, I’ll take another piece of Repucci’s advice.

She says her research into the therapeutic qualities of gardens tells her that you don’t have to dig or prune or plant things in the ground to get the benefits.

“You just have to look at it,” Repucci says. “What makes a garden therapeutic is looking at it.”

Guess I’ll just pull a chair up to my kitchen window and watch the rest of the snow melt while I plan a new raised bed.

About the writer: Marianne Rzepka, former reporter for the Ann Arbor News and Detroit Free Press, is a Master Gardener who lives in Ann Arbor and thinks it’s fun to turn the compost pile.


  1. March 13, 2010 at 10:30 am | permalink

    thanks rz! great article.

  2. March 13, 2010 at 10:31 am | permalink

    I have been successful every one year out of two in planting lettuce and spinach around St. Patrick’s day, covered with non-woven row cover. By April 1 I can pull back the row cover to be greeted with seedlings that grow quickly to give me an early salad crop. We’ll need a few dry days in the near future for me to work the soil.

    There is a lot of work being done now with season extension and one of these years I’ll try the mini-hoophouse idea (install hoops over individual rows).

    Meanwhile, I need to start my cole crops now so I can plant those transplants in early April. (They are frost-resistant.)

  3. By jcp2
    March 13, 2010 at 12:08 pm | permalink

    February is time for skiing, skating, sledding, and snow forts. I got my March gardening fix in October, actually. Now I’m waiting to see if the crocuses I put in the lawn will come up. Daffodils and alliums tide me over in April. Would a trellis of snow peas in the front violate the neighborhood association’s rules against vegetable gardens in the front yard? I’ve gotten away with sunflowers and a pumpkin before.

  4. By Donna Estabrook
    March 14, 2010 at 2:58 pm | permalink

    What neighborhood do you live in, JCP2, that does not allow vegetable gardens in the front yard? Perhaps the neighborhood association would do well to learn about the local food movement.

  5. By Lenadams Dorris
    March 14, 2010 at 3:08 pm | permalink

    Sowing seeds of temperate vegetables (almost all the leafy ones, almost all the root ones) on the surface of reasonably open soil once the snow melts allows the seeds to sprout when ready, emulating what their ancestors did in nature.

    Mid-March may be early in some years, but all around me I see natives and weeds already sprouting. Part of being a gardener is flexibility!

    And is there really someplace in Ann Arbor with a Neighborhood Association that would dare outlaw vegetables in the front yard? Wherever it is, it sounds painful in ways I won’t even begin to elucidate.

  6. By Pete Richards
    March 14, 2010 at 5:00 pm | permalink

    Agreed, March is one of my favorite times in Ann Arbor as the sun gets high enough in the sky to truly dispel winter and the day stretches into early evening. How about consolidating February into March, we could call the new month Farch and add the leftover days to Indian Summer.