In the Garden:
New England
April, 2004
Regional Report

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You can enjoy these dahlia beauties earlier in the summer by giving them a head start indoors.

Getting the Jump on Summer

"April comes like an idiot,
babbling and strewing flowers."
-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Our typically wet New England springs can keep April from strewing as she’d like, and they certainly prevent us from planting as soon as we’d like. But well before the soil dries out and warms up you can get flowering and foliage plants ready to pop in the ground and give your container plantings the go-ahead. With a supply of clean pots, sterile potting mix, and good indoor light, you can increase your collection of annuals and tender perennials that you’ve overwintered inside, and start summer-flowering bulbs like dahlias so you can enjoy their flowers sooner and pretend you live in a more hospitable climate.

Annuals
With so many wild and wonderful coleus choices, it would be a shame to have to start over every spring. And there's no need to. Coleus are easy to keep indoors over the winter, as long as they are free of spider mites and aphids when you bring them in. They can be used as mother plants for cuttings in early spring, or you can take cuttings in the fall and toss the older plants. These cuttings root easily in water and will be ready to fill in a bed or container by the time frost-free days have arrived.

Geraniums, fuchsias, and begonias can also be moved indoors in the fall and either allowed to go semidormant or kept in a bright window or under lights over the winter. Take 6- to 8-inch cuttings when the new growth begins in spring, and root them in ½ potting mix, ½ vermiculite or perlite in pots or planters. Then transplant them into patio containers or even removable window boxes if you have enough space indoors. These plants are all tender so wait until any chance of frost has passed before moving them outside.

Perennials
Rosemary commonly doubles as a houseplant during the winter and will provide you with plenty of cuttings to root in spring. Cut the stem tips back by 4 to 5 inches, and root them in sandy soil. My upright and prostrate rosemary plants caught a case of aphids this winter, but with the help of insecticidal soap and the ladybugs that sought refuge indoors this winter, they are surviving. I like to nestle pots of rosemary among perennials and annuals, as well as herbs. They also make fragrant companions to anyone that takes the time to relax on a patio or deck. Oh, not to mention keeping a pot close to the kitchen.

Bulbs
Call me impatient, but there's no way I can wait until later in the summer to see my dahlias bloom. So about 10 weeks before they can safely be planted outside, I plant the tubers in pots indoors. As they grow, I pinch the shoots to promote branching. By late May, the plants are growing well, and after I put them in the ground they bloom all summer.

You also can take cuttings of these potted dahlias to make more plants to fill a bed. When the shoots are about 3 inches high, cut off the shoots below the lowest set of leaves, remove these lower leaves, and dip the cuttings in rooting hormone and then in a pot with perlite/vermiculite/sand mixture (after first poking holes in the mix for the cuttings). Cover the pot with a clear, plastic bag to keep the humidity high, and in a few weeks the cuttings should have rooted and can be transplanted into pots or planters.

If you take cuttings from more than two flushes of growth, the tubers may not grow well afterwards, but if you don't save the tubers from year to year, this won't matter.

Many other tender summer bulbs that you find at garden centers can also be potted up indoors to give them a head start. With a large enough container, you could even try cannas, but they grow so quickly outside it's hardly worth the effort.

Bare-Root Perennials
You can find some good prices on boxed, bare-root perennials in garden centers at this time of year, and the sooner you plant them, the sooner they will make a show in your garden. Plus, the sooner you'll know if they have any life in them! Pot them up inside in wide, shallow containers that only need to house them until you can get into the garden. I've started a wide assortment of perennials this way -- daylilies, bleeding hearts, rudbeckias, and more. Very economical!

The down side of starting all of these plants indoors is the labor of lugging them in and out to harden them off, and the space they take up. My family doesn't even remark anymore at the diminished size of the sunny end of the living room. And my dog has almost lost interest in stealing the plant markers and giving them a chew. Someday, a greenhouse …


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