February! We are one month closer to the growing season. It's been a tough winter so far and I, for one, can't wait for this one to end. I am sure you are with me. Anyhow, the emails keep coming in regardless, so let's pretend we can garden all year long.
First, I am getting lots of demands for something, anything, that can be started indoors now and will be usable in the garden this summer. I fall back on sweet peas. You can start them now and get fabulous flowers very early in the outdoor season with these plants. This advice comes from Renee Shepard ( http://reneesgarden.com ) whose sweet peas have sustained my family for years. Seed racks will be up soon as well.
You can still start sweet peas six weeks before we move outside, but if you start now, you will get many more flowers and much, much earlier. Snip a bit of the outer seed coating and plant in good compost or soak for 24 hours and then plant. If you can find any, try those inoculated with Rhizobia bacteria, nitrogen fixers which will feed your plants. Pinch back the new growth to the next leaf every few weeks or so. The plant will bush out. They have to be given the very best light you have. If you have room under your supplemental lights, put them there.
Yes, you will need to give these plants care from now until late April, but you asked for something to grow for this summer. And, as I think about it, why wouldn't this work on snap peas and snow pod peas? This is surely something worth a try.
Next, a reader writes: "Even though I know you have repeated it almost yearly for 36 years, will you review how to start an amaryllis up again?"
Since amaryllis are the easiest and showiest indoor flowers you can grow, I never mind pushing their use. If you have one that has been dormant at 40-ish degrees for two months, you can bring it out, water it with warm water and expose it to light. It will start growing immediately and, if it was stored long enough, flower in six weeks or so. Do not over water. One hit until green growth starts should be enough.
If you see amaryllis bulbs for sale, grab them. This is the time of year they traditionally are sold. You can't have too many! And, as you can see, they are easy to carry over from year to year, so they are great investments.
Several readers have asked about Easter lilies. Can you force last year's Easter lilies to bloom this year and, if so, how?
So-called Easter lilies, Lilium longiflorum, usually bloom outdoors in June. You can force them to bloom for Easter, but it is not easy. For one thing, the bulbs need to go through "vernalization" or exposure to cold temperatures. They usually require about 1,000 hours of cold treatment. So put a lily in the fridge for a month and a half and then plant it.
Two problems arise at this point. First, when is Easter? It fluctuates from year to year to year by as much as 30 days (editor's note: Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox. In 2012 that will be April 8. Russian Orthodox Easter will be observed on April 15).
The second problem is getting started at the right time. These lilies can bloom over a period of six weeks. This makes the whole venture a crapshoot. You are probably too late this year, anyhow, but who knows. Next year, start the cold treatment in mid-November.
Finally, since people are looking at catalogs, I have been asked umpteen times what gardening zone we are in. Just this week, the USDA issued a new plant hardiness zone map http://planthardiness.ars.usda.gov/PHZMWeb/Default.aspx.
This is an interactive, internet-based map. There are no printed copies, but you can go to the site and find the area in Alaska where you garden. It is based on the average annual minimum temperature. If you are going to order from plant catalogs, a quick study of the map makes sense. One of the advantages of buying locally, however, is that others do all the work for you.
Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at teamingwithmicrobes.com.