Remember that buried treasure of my lasagna bulb bed? It worked! And the effort paid for itself in screeches of joy each evening as we walked in after long, dull, gray April days.
One by one, a new flower poked through the ground. First the pickwick crocus, then some hyacinth nubs, followed by an extended aria of unfolding until full blooms now pack our gateway of untrodden ground. Even though I expected this to be an Easter showing, May Day welcomes its arrival since creeping soil temperatures and nights still well below 50 degrees keep me from transplanting annuals into the beds.
This spring is a great example of total payoff of fall effort. If it weren’t for the colorful tulips, narcissus, and the green horizon of overwintered barley, I’d surely be sulking in a cold corner somewhere. Even the seed trays indoors are behaving badly. Partly a new setup, but mostly, I believe, that even the seeds know it is not time to come out and play. These tiny specs of evolutions of energy realize even amidst keen trickery to emulate natural conditions that is simply is not time to grow.
Whether watching for perennials outdoors or monitoring seedlings inside, a few key factors remain solely at the discretion of Mother Nature to create a fortuitous juncture of conditions for the blessing of spring plants to appear.
There is a very fine line between keeping a seed tray moist and rotting fine seeds due to overwatering. Outdoors, moisture is in the ground until the frost layer thaw, but then we begin to count on spring rains and warming temperatures. The gift of fall bulbs is that they don’t need moisture to appear. Their roots are formed as autumn temperatures cool long before the ground freezes. Their energy to appear in the spring is stored within from the previous year’s bloom.
Generally, if you’ve buried healthy bulbs and the ground freezes solid and stays frozen most of our Illinois winter, your spring bulbs will appear. Finally! A morsel of gratitude for the frozen tundra we called the winter. As a general rule of thumb, let the spring rains calibrate your perennial beds. I begin watering the perennials once temperatures are consistently 80 degrees during the day and well above 60 overnight. And then, usually only when it hasn’t rained for seven days and no rain is on the radar. In the garden, water only soil where you are sowing seeds keeping the beds evenly moist (sometimes twice a day for shallow planted seeds if sunny and windy) then slow watering once seedlings appear to regulate with 1 inch a week watering of the entire garden.
Your watering regimen works in tandem with temperature. The amount of water seems less crucial than the timing. On cloudy days, wet soil has less a chance of being used by the plant. During cooler seasons like we are in now, being sensitive to plant biology may save an entire crop. If you’re not patient enough to wait for the natural warmth, you can account for the respiration and transpiration ideal times and be ahead of the game. Without a discourse in botany, stomata on plants are like pores in our skin where a plant can exchange gases like water vapor and CO2. Rates of exchange vary with temperature and light and the roots respond dependent upon soil health like nutrients and temperature.
How the plant responds to condition and how much sugar it can make gauges the rate of growth and maturing. So if your seeds aren’t germinating, it may just be too darn cold and gloomy!
If you know someone from the Pacific Northwest who is especially unbearable to deal with, forgive them. Rather than a character flaw, it's more likely an environmental side effect of choosing to live in a place with limited sunlight. I mean, really, I’m crabby about this glum!
Thankfully, in the Midwest, there is an end to this lingering gray and those healthy fall bulbs appear regardless of how sunny it is. Photoperiodism is a real thing. It’s a botanical explanation of long days and short days and how much darkness a plant needs in between cycles in order to produce a bloom. And the name is not obvious, since a long day is when the plant actually needs shorter darkness and a short day plant needs longer darkness.
Lettuce, spinach and potatoes are long day plants and so even if you get them in the ground, they are not going to begin their cycles until the day length is 12 hours or more. In the greenhouse, we noticed sweet corn we planted is tassled out at 3 feet tall and still putting on ears, though we highly doubt they’ll be edible. Still, it was worth the exploration for the hope of home grown sweet corn in February!
However, no matter how much we try to trick the heat and water, the plant regulation is also connected to the sun and moon. Short day plants want to flower in the spring or fall. Like raspberries who sometimes thrive during both seasons. Other cool weather crops like turnip, a long day plant, can grow in the spring, but flourishes with a fall planting. Turnips can grow in spring or in the fall, but for a beginner, turnips may bolt in the spring because the day length is too short to fully mature into a tasty crop.
Spinach, beets and artichokes are also long day plants requiring days with 12 hours of daylight or more for the duration of their maturity cycle. One way to plant these types of vegetables in the spring when we are in short days is to select varieties with the least amount of days to maturity. Knowing which varieties to plant largely determines delicious production with very little effort.
Some plants like cabbage, kale, cucumber and tomatoes are day neutral and behave like young children, completely ignoring day length in relationship to fruition.
So if you’re having trouble, remember some seeds and transplants won’t come into their glory until plenty of sunshine is consistently shining to keep them growing. In other words, it’s beyond warmth. Sunshine warms the temperature of the ground and you can trick a seed into germinating by heating up a cell pack of seeding mix, but once the plants are up, if we are still in a short daylight cycle, expect some transmutations from those long day plants unless you supplement the environment with grow lights.
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HOLLY KOSTER is a University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener who resides in Grand Ridge. She can be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org; via Twitter, @gardenmaiden9; or on Facebook, facebook.com/gardenmaiden9.