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Garden column: Beware of shiny objects

Tom Glass
Vail CO, Colorado
Tom Glass
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EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Now that the ground has thawed and can be worked in many areas of the valley, it is a good time to begin thinking about planting. You can even begin to throw a few things in the ground. And, it is more than likely that they’ll survive ” if you pay heed to a few cautionary notes.

Frost and snow are always issues here in May. Actually, frost is always an issue. I wouldn’t go out and buy the lushest tree, shrub, perennial, or annual that I came across, regardless of price. Planting this time of year requires using plants that have been acclimated to this climate. The nurseryman’s term for that is “hardened off.”

Ask your supplier if the plants you desire have been hardened off. Nurseries in alpine areas purchase some stock in the preceding year and over winter it here so that it breaks dormancy in synchrony with the arrival of our late spring. Other plants are brought into the valley and are protected from the harshest weather for 10 days or so until the plant becomes somewhat acclimated to this environment.

However, most of the plant material available now in this valley came from somewhere else, and, as you have probably already guessed, that somewhere else is more than likely several thousand feet below us and several weeks ahead of us in terms of the weather. Be wary of lush green plants in May.

Pansies, snapdragons, and dianthus will take a lot of cold abuse and still look pretty happily green. Nonetheless, pansies, snapdragons, and dianthus grown outside will have a purple tinge on the leaves, and probably a few damaged leaves tucked into the foliage somewhere. Believe it or not, this is likely a good thing. They’ve probably been hardened off. Bedding plant growers at lower elevations are too busy delivering product and re-planting for their customers who are in the throes of spring fever to take the time to harden plants off for us. It’s up to the nursery owners and retailers up here to do that service for you. Or, if you can’t find plants that are hardened off, you can cover nightly the cold-hardy spring annuals that are available now yourself. There are risks associated with hardening plants off, but I suspect that after this winter you’ll be pleased to work in your gardens one way or the other.

Perennial plants that look a little hungry around the edges, drab, lacking deep color, and possessing small but thick and firm leaves that crunch when crushed between your fingers are probably, I repeat probably, better suited to being planted now than the fully-leafed, pliable green wonders priced to sell.

There’s a highly technical nurseryman’s term for that faded, early spring condition in plants ” it’s called winter fur. If you’ve ever seen a coyote or fox that has made it thus far through winter, and is standing on the cusp of shedding their winter coat for warmer weather yet simultaneously hanging onto it for the nights that still bear snow, you’ll instantly recognize that look in plants. They’ve got one eye open for spring, but are ready to remain dormant if it looks like winter is still hanging around. At the present time, it’s desirable for perennials to be a little pale and jaundiced in appearance.

Trees and shrubs in this valley should have swollen buds and maybe leaf buds breaking open. Aspens have begun to flower in parts of the valley, and lilacs and other bushes and shrubs are beginning to mouse ear.

Mouse ear is another technical term pertaining to trees and shrubs. When leaf buds begin to open they look like little green mouse ears. At this stage the mouse-eared leaves will probably tolerate a good frosting. But, if temperatures dip into the mid-teens or below, some damage can result. Most often damage is exhibited by a little burn at the tip of each leaf, and may further show as distortions in the foliage as the leaves continue to expand. However, if a tree or shrub is well into leafing out, there’s a good chance it can still be damaged badly ” killed ” by an unseasonably cold night. Forewarned is fore-armed; be prepared to throw some cover over new plantings for another month, or so.

Planting season is upon us. You can bank on that. Beware of shiny objects. If a plant looks too good to be true to the nature of things here, it might still be a good deal ” and it might not. We had a record-breaking winter. We may have a record breaking spring. I just can’t tell you if it’s going to be record breaking cold or warm, early or late. There’s still time for all of the above.

Tom Glass writes a weekly garden column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments or questions about this column to cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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