Column: Seeds & Stems

"There is some serious garden fever out there"
Marianne Rzepka

Marianne Rzepka

Winter is so over. And what was all that about, anyway?

Gardeners have no time to fret over winter anymore. The time for looking at catalogs and polishing up pruner blades is over. It’s also past time for cruising through garden stores, peering at seed packets and picking through boxes of gladiola bulbs.

It’s time for getting out, for appreciating the early spring flowers (note to self: more crocuses and chinodoxia next year), clearing out the debris of leaves, windblown newspapers and fallen branches, maybe even cleaning out the garage on a warm day. It’s a maddening time of year: One week snow is covering your daffodils; the next temperatures hit 70s. You can’t be fooled by either extreme.

On those cold, wet days, you stay home and swear. On those warm and sunny days, you just have to get outside. In the past few weeks, I’ve been knocking around my yard like an outdoor Roomba, peering at the buds and new leaves on my lilac and redbud tree. I squint along the ground, looking for the first signs of emerging bloodroot and hepatica – the cutest of the cute spring blooms.

“There is some serious garden fever out there,” says LeighAnn Phillips-Knope, the incoming coordinator for garden activities and volunteer services at Project Grow, Ann Arbor’s community garden program.

It’s understandable. After the long, cold winter, “We need our connection with the earth again,” says Phillips-Knope. Landscape gardeners can look at their yards and either appreciate their planning or bewail their mistakes – no more daylilies, thank you – but there are limits to what can be done now. You might be able to transplant a few things, or put in some bushes, but the tender annuals have to wait until May to go outside. If you’ve planted petunias in containers, you’d better cover them on frosty nights.

In many cases, vegetable gardeners can thumb their noses at light morning frosts and ignore the weak spring snows. Several weeks ago, Phillips-Knope planted cold-weather vegetables like lettuce, radishes, beets and kale, as well as potatoes and onions.

Bloodroot, an early sign of spring.

Bloodroot, an early sign of spring.

The first seeds  that Sheri Repucci, Project Grow’s outgoing coordinator, puts in the ground are peas. As soon as you can stick your finger in the soil, you can plant peas, she says. Of course, these are people with home gardens. I’m still waiting to get out into my Project Grow garden as soon as the plots are staked sometime this month. That’s when I can start my own row of peas, onions, spinach and lettuce.

Some vegetables will have to wait until late May, when the threat of frost is over. As usual, I’ve started tomato plants inside under fluorescent lights. Usually, I plant the seeds straight into a seeding mix. This year, inspired by a Project Grow class on tomatoes and peppers, I sprouted some seeds in a wet paper towel. They’re already in their peat pots and seem to be doing well. I plan to put them in the garden come Memorial Day weekend. 

Now is the time to sow a row of lettuce or spinach. If you want to harvest cherry tomatoes in your backyard or on your balcony, keep an eye out for upcoming plant sales – Matthaei Botanical Gardens will have their annual sale May 9 and 10 with annuals, perennials and some vegetables for sale.

Pick a sunny spot, add some compost (it comes in a bag) and make sure whatever you plant gets enough water. The worst you can get is a dead plant, but you just might end up with a tomato.

And if you wish you had some color in your lawn right now, you’re a few months too late. What you can do is write “get bulbs” in your calendar for early September. Get tulips, get daffodils, get hyacinths and plant them in the ground. In a year – gardens are long-term projects – you’ll be glad you did. 

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. April 18, 2009 at 7:20 pm | permalink

    Nice to see you, again. All the best Marianne.

  2. By DT
    April 19, 2009 at 9:53 am | permalink

    My friend the garden editor is back! Yay! (“Seeds & Stems.” Under certain circumstances that title would make you laugh and laugh and laugh… A worthy alternative to Talking Dirty.)

  3. By sal
    April 20, 2009 at 11:42 am | permalink

    I second the emotion – it’s good to see familiar by-lines.

  4. By susan wineberg
    April 20, 2009 at 4:36 pm | permalink

    Every year I make a note to self to plant more crocus and chinodoxa and pushkinia…and there is never enough! Thanks Marianne!

  5. By Judith Cawhorn
    April 22, 2009 at 8:01 am | permalink

    Hi Marianne,

    So nice to see your smiling face. My veggie beds are turned and my peas, spinach, kale, beets, chard, lettuce and potatoes are in the ground. All the early perennials in my shade garden are starting to nudge their way out and the yellow and pink primrose are in bloom. I look forward to your future articles.


  6. By Martha Johnson
    April 27, 2009 at 8:37 pm | permalink

    Hi Marianne,
    Good to see you in print. The peas I sprouted indoors went into the ground two weeks ago. So did the lettuce seedlings. It is fun to get the dirt under the nails sooner rather than later, even if the seedlings don’t seem to grow any faster than the veggies that are direct seeded.