Jeff Lowenfels: What to do when outdoor plants sprout in January warm spell

Jeff Lowenfels

The hard part of writing a garden column is the introduction, so forgive me if you remember that my grandfather was a very practiced amateur meteorologist. I have all of the thank-you letters my friends wrote him after Grandpa Al came to talk to my third-grade class and demonstrated the workings of recording barometers, special duel recording thermometers and all manner of other weather instruments.

So I have been sitting back thinking about the weather lately. (Who hasn't around here?) What impact on the gardens will the warm spell have? Is there a difference between now and when my grandfather gardened?

How should we react?

In some ways, not much has changed since Grandpa Al came to speak to me and my buddies in third grade, except we have, I hate to admit it, 50 years of additional records and there is simply no question we are in a period where it is getting warmer, despite the extreme cold parts of the earth are "suddenly" experiencing. (This is not the last column of the year, so I won't get into the politics of climate change). Most of us only care about the weather day to day, as did the sailor and gardener in my grandfather.

On the other hand, things have changed. First, we can carry around all the instruments he showed us in our iPhones. And, we know now that there are extreme variations occurring and while they excite weathermen, they are having a bigger impact on you and me.

Let's start with the things that green up at the slightest temptation of a thaw. If they are a native they (still) have the coping skills to survive these extremes. That's why they were here before most of us got here. However, they may lose the ability to survive on one side or the other of these extremes if we get more swings in temperature or they get worse.

Next, spring flowering bulbs. These do just fine in freeze and thaw cycles. They have the ability to generate anti-freeze crystals and stop growth if things freeze after they emerge. So we don't have to worry about them in our yards, yet. In fact, we might even have to start planting more, provided we mulch them properly.

It's the non-native perennials we gardeners all cherish that get into real trouble. They are not used to our quickening days or quickening nights in the first place. Hitting them with unusual thawing springs them to life, follow it by a freeze up and things go haywire. The plant may die outright. It may make it through the winter, but chances are it will show some manifestation of damage or weakness.

Lawns will be fine. Just don't go out and mow yours even though it looks green. Trees should be OK as well, if they are native. It is anyone's guess with a non-native.

Which brings me to two points. Now would be a particularly good time to start noting what plants did green up and what ones did not, so we can compare them with which things are dead this spring and which plants excelled. Make sure you note cultural practices like how you prepared them for the winter, watering and the like.

Second, if you have ever doubted my words, don't doubt this: Mulch is the way to protect your investment, no matter what the weather. When our fourth-grade class went to see Grandpa Al in his garden, he taught us that. Those that mulch will be just fine ... at least through this year's extremes.

Garden calendar

Amaryllis: If you think one would be too trite for a Valentine’s present, think twice. They are for sale. Buy and give. They are the most fun plant to grow. Great for kids.

Spring flowering bulbs: If you are forcing yours, get them out in the light and keep them in cool locations.

Alaska Botanical Garden Spring Conference: The annual conference is just a little over a month away. Do not be disappointed. Sign up now, as there is limited room for this opportunity.


By Jeff Lowenfels