A GROWING CONCERN: Planting with pizzazz at higher elevations

I WAS IN Safeway this week reflecting on March tasks while talking with April about getting a jump-start on May plantings.

April always (and very politely) lets me know I need to discuss how higher elevations cause a change of timing.

Of course, the month is right so I will address this today.

This column is relevant to everyone, but it will be a real advantage to those who live in the foothills because the cooler temperatures persist longer at higher elevations.

There are many gorgeous flowering plants that thrive in the higher elevations. These plants are called long-day plants. They require 90 days or more of growing before they begin good flower or foliage production.

In most cases, the length of development time by these plants can be greatly extended by cool soil temperatures (less than 60 degrees) and cool air temperatures (less than 64 to 68 degrees).

So when you are in higher elevations this delay can tack on another 20 to 30 days to the blooming cycle, and many of us gardeners only experience their zenith for a few weeks while the rest of you might have a couple of months before autumn’s early frost brings the curtain down.

Moreover, these are some of the best or most exotic plants around for adding pizzazz, color, texture or cutting flowers to your yard.

These plants include, but are not limited to, dahlias (my favorite flowering plants), tuberous begonias, canna lilies, pendulous begonias, caladiums, hanging fuchsias, tuber roses, elephant ears, calla lilies, or plants such as liatris, agapanthus, alstroemeria and holly hock.

Long day plants are lovely specimens even though our spring conditions of cool soil and air temperatures severely suppress production.

So what’s a good gardener to do?

Buy them now, pot and force them indoors for a month in May and transplant them outdoors.

Let me stress that if you don’t provide a bright, sunny and warm location where you will care for and water these potted pretties often, don’t bother.

It will be a complete and utter waste of time because all you will produce is long, nasty, spindly, weak, yellow plants that will produce far worse than if they were planted directly outside in the cold ground.

A sunny, warm and bright location is the No. 1 criteria for successful indoor forcing.

A greenhouse, hothouse, conservatory or even baker’s pie window is preferable over a sunny, flat window sill.

The light coming through an ordinary window is one-sided and your plant will be prone to leaning towards the window, stretching badly.

This, of course, can be corrected and nullified by rotating the plant daily.

After good light condition requirements, there is warmth.

Indoors, the key is to keep soil temperatures above 64 degrees, so air temperature needs to be 67 degrees or more.

This warmth, with bright light, will bring these babies to full fruition.

Soil is our next crucial link, and one should spare no expense in purchasing or mixing up a great batch.

Your potting soil should be very heavy in organics (30 to 50 percent of mix), be light, preferably having perlite and/or vermiculite in it, as well as some sand and black dirt (20 to 30 percent).

After you have the soil mixed, add in some good organic nutrient.

Lime will ensure the proper pH, bone meal will help start new roots, and blood or kelp meals will add a nice slow release of nitrogen. Wood ash is wonderful, as well, as is very decomposed compost manure or leaf molds.

Planting is next and begins with new or cleaned pots. Wash old, plastic pots thoroughly, as diseases can linger in old soil particles.

Dip the pots in a bleach solution of 1 ounce of bleach per 1 gallon of water for 10 to 20 minutes, rinsing off very thoroughly afterwards, sterilizing the pots.

Place an inch or two of soil in the bottom of the pot, place the plant root or tuber in and then gently and loosely scoop the soil around, filing the pot to the lip.

Do not, under any circumstances push down or pack in the soil. Very heavy and successive watering will condense the soil around the plant without harming it.

And that is exactly what you do next, water, water and water again.

To fully settle the soil in and around the bulb, water the pot 7 or 8 times that day, 3 to 5 times the following day, then once a day for a week.

Then water the pot as it begins to dry out.

After your first two heavy days of watering, place that pot in that nice sunny, warm spot and add shovel fulls of lovely care.

As growth develops and shoots get 3 to 4 inches long (except the callas,cannas and elephant ears — you don’t pinch those), finger pinch them back, which is a process of removing just the smallest tip of the shooting, removing at least one full leaf set or node.

This will branch out your planting, causing dozens more flowers to develop over the season.

For spectacular results, double pinch when the new shoots off the original pinch is 3 to 4 inches in length. Again, take off the tip for hundreds or more blooms.

Along with the breathtaking and beautiful crocus’ all out in bloom, and noticing the leaves ready to burst out, I’ve sure have been admiring the arrhythmic croaking of the first frogs.

Signals to the arrival of spring on our beautiful Peninsula .


Andrew May is an ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email [email protected] dailynews.com (subject line: Andrew May).

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