Winter wanes — and gardeners get a head start on spring planting

February 21, 2012

By Ari Cetron

Carole Moklebust plants a container of flowers that could add some early color to gardens. By Ari Cetron

So, winter is finally winding down. The sun doesn’t set until after you’ve left work, and maybe, just maybe, there will be an actual summer this year. If you’re hoping for a summer full of fresh-from-the garden veggies and tree branches laden with fruit, now is a good time to start, but don’t expect to enjoy the fruits of your labor right away.

“Plants need time in the ground to grow, bud, bloom and fruit,” Jane Garrison, a local master gardner wrote in an email. “You need light to grow plants, and we don’t get enough until after March 15. You need heat to grow plants too, and last year we didn’t get enough until August.”

But don’t be discouraged, say gardening experts. There’s plenty you can do now to will give you rewards in the coming months.

“There’s a whole bunch of stuff to put in the ground in February,” said Matt Pommer, general manager at Squak Mountain Nursery.

Some vegetables, for example, do best in the spring and fall, preferring the so-called “shoulder seasons,” Pommer said. In particular, rhubarb, asparagus and horseradish can be planted around now.

Cauliflower and lettuce are other good examples, Pommer said. They like cool weather, not the mid-summer heat, and tend to do well in the early spring.

For those who want a little something sweeter, berries — blueberries, raspberries, marionberries — are all good to plant in February.

Green thumb basics

Master gardeners

You can reach master gardeners through the Center for Urban Horticulture at 206-685-5104 and online at

Fix the damage

Trees and shrubs took a beating during the January storms. And the time to deal with that damage is now, before such plants start their spring growth, said Matt Pommer, general manager at Squak Mt. Greenhouses & Nursery.

Damaged branches can be a point of entry for insects and disease, so removing them quickly is critical to the health of a tree, so it does not have an open wound.

When removing a branch, Pommer said, try to get close to the tree trunk, but not so close as to damage the collar or trunk.

Pommer recommends using a nice, clean pruning cut.

In layman’s terms, that means cutting close to the trunk, but not flush against it. While there should be a bit of branch left, leaving a few inches is probably too much.

When in doubt, or if the tree is particularly valuable, it is probably best to consult with a professional arborist.

Apartment dwellers

People with small yards — or no yards — do not have to be left out of winter gardening.

While some might be eager to jump on hanging plants that will burst with color in late spring, it is probably too early for that, said Matt Pommer, general manager of Squak Mt. Greenhouses & Nursery.

There are plenty of options for container gardening, he said. For those who might want some edible gardening, container-grown lettuce and even potted blueberries can be an option.

For people just looking for a dash of color to brighten the late winter days, there are a variety of flowers, like daffodils or primroses, that can work in containers, too.

Pommer warns, however, that the younger bushes will be less likely to bear fruit. Some three-year-old berry plants may sprout fruit this year, but anything younger will likely need time to mature before you can start making pies from them.

Fruit trees can also go in the ground now, and will also take a few years to bear fruit, Pommer said. Classic Washington fruits like apple and cherry can work, but he said his company is starting to carry other sorts like peaches and pluots (a mixture of plum and apricot).

“We’re doing a few thing off the beaten path,” he said.

While people might conjure up images of a dirt-covered root ball going in a big hole, that isn’t the only option. A lower-cost option is to plant a bare-root tree, Pommer said.

In this case, the 6-foot to 9-foot tree will have a few spindly roots coming off the bottom and, while it will be packed in sawdust and wrapped in a bag at the store, it won’t have any soil attached.

Besides the lower cost, this option is also easier on the back, since the tree won’t be as heavy.

One downside, Pommer cautioned, is that when buying a bare-root tree, residents must be prepared to plant it right away. The tree won’t survive long with just some sawdust on its roots and ideally, should be placed in the ground the same day it comes home from the nursery.

The bare-root option only works this time of year, Pomer said. Once spring comes and the trees break out of their winter dormancy, it will be too late for bare root.

“Once April comes around, that window of opportunity is over,” he said.

Michael Aguilar, lawn and garden manager at The Grange Supply in Issaquah, suggests February is a great time to work on maintaining your existing gardens.

“Right now is a time that you should be pruning fruit trees and your roses,” Aguilar said.

It can also be a good time to coat fruit trees with a “dormant spray.” This spray, which can have organic options, will help protect the trees from diseases and insects later in the year, Aguilar said.

In the case of a vegetable garden, particularly raised beds, Aguilar suggests laying a coat of manure of compost on top of the soil, but don’t mix it in yet. A 3-inch to 4-inch layer should prevent weed growth, and will allow some nutrients to seep into the soil below.

Fertilizing in general is probably wasted at this point, since the ground is too cold and plants won’t be absorbing anything.

Aguilar also offers a word of caution when raking old leaves for compost. Rose leaves, he said, can often have a fungus, and placing them in a compost heap might spread the fungus around. It’s safer to just dispose of the rose leaves and use tree leaves in the compost heap.

Maybe you’re aching for some just-picked tomatoes, or other fruits that grow later in the year. This might be a good time for starting plants indoors. A couple of cheap seed packets and some small pots and soil can be enough to get a jump on growing those plants.

The trick will be knowing when to start them so they are just the right size for transplanting to an outdoor area at the right time.

Some seeds can be sewn now for later transplanting, while others should probably wait a bit longer. Pommer suggested that staff at a garden center or even the seed packet could give the best advice about when to start those plants from seeds.

He noted that even if a plant started indoors is transplanted outside too early, and is damaged or killed by a late frost, it won’t be too much of a loss, since the time and money invested in at that point should be minimal.

February can also be a great time to start on flowering plants.

“If the ground’s not frozen, you can plant trees and shrubs,” Pommer said.

Its too late for early blooming plants like daffodils or forsythia, those should have been planted in the fall for blooms this spring.

But there are a lot of other choices for plants that will give some color in the late winter or early spring.

Garrison suggests flowers like pansies and primroses can be planted now to get some color later in the year.

Winter Daphne, a plant known for its fragrance, can be planted now, Pommer said.

Ornamental trees are also good for planting around now. The key, said Pommer is getting them planted before they break out of their winter dormancy and start new growth.

While the selection at garden stores may not be as extensive this time of year, people who find the right tree shouldn’t be worried about planting it.

“It’s a great time to put a tree in,” Pommer said.

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