The Coastal Gardener: Mother Nature just can't be fooled

It seems that mothers can always tell when their children are telling a fib. Maybe it's the child's mannerisms, their eyes, or the sound of their voice when a child is not being honest and forthcoming. However the method, a mother knows what's true and what's not.

Perhaps gardeners should take a lesson from their maternal relationship. Like the mischievous child, when a gardener tries to fool Mother Nature, they almost always fail. Mother Nature always knows the truth, and, in the end, Mother Nature will always impart her will. Like children, gardeners also needn't attempt to fool mother.

Saturday's sunlight will last 10 hours and 29 minutes, Friday's was one minute less and Sunday's will be one minute more. Saturday's low temperature will be 51 degrees and the soil, six inches beneath the surface where the roots are, will stay at a rather even 61 degrees. At its highest point Saturday, the sun will rise 33 degrees above the horizon.

Day length and temperature statistics are at best a curiosity to humans. However, plants are utterly controlled by such factors. Plants respond to temperature, day length and sunlight in extremely precise and predictable ways. Plants are utterly indifferent to the wants and whims of their landlord gardeners. Instead, the plants in our gardens are ruled in a totalitarian, uncompromising regime of strict codes, reinforced through millennia of experience.

Like a young child who hasn't yet tested their mother's instincts, beginning gardeners may challenge nature's steadfast rules, perhaps by planting at the wrong season or attempting to make a plant behave in a way that only suits the gardener. In battles of nature versus the gardener, Mother Nature will prevail. Understanding nature's signals, then embracing them, rather than denying them, is the sign of a mature, experienced and wise gardener.

February is ripe with opportunity and is an active time for a local gardener. However, understanding a few of nature's timing subtleties will make your experience more successful.

In the vegetable garden it is almost time to set out tomato transplants — but not yet. The soil is still too cool. Tomatoes set out now won't produce fruit any sooner than the same plant set out a month or two from now. Tomatoes don't set fruit until nighttime temperatures stay above 55°f for at least two nights in a row. In the meantime, a crop of lettuce would be a good idea. You'll harvest the lettuce just in time for perfect tomato planting season.

Annual flowers don't set fruit, so night temperatures are less important. Instead, success with these plants is regulated more often by soil and air temperatures. Flowers that should be planted now in our still-cool soil include petunias, pansies and violas, bacopa, nemesia, snapdragons, alyssum, stock, primrose, ageratum, cosmos and most poppies. Don't bother with impatiens, begonias, verbenas, coleus, zinnias, dahlias, marigolds and other warm weather plants; they'll just languish now. Wait until the soil warms and the days lengthen.

Gladiolus, tuberous begonias, dahlias, most lilies and other summer flowering plants grown from bulb-like structures should get into the ground this month or next. The cool air and mild soil temperatures are perfect for their initiation of roots, followed by foliage and flowers.

If we resign ourselves and our gardens to the rules of Mother Nature, then in February we will be planting cilantro, not basil, ceanothus, not bougainvillea, fescue, not bermuda, potatoes, not plumeria, and apricots instead of avocadoes. Those are Mother Nature's desires. Best that we learn her rules, then do our best to abide by them. Mother Nature tells us that it's time to start feeding citrus now. Citrus are heavy users of nitrogen and micronutrients. Micronutrients, like iron, zinc and manganese, are often absent from synthetic fertilizers; another reason why I always recommend organic nutrition. While you're at it, be sure to apply fertilizer to most potted plants. The soil of potted plants will warm considerably earlier than that of the ground, requiring more frequent and earlier applications of nutrition, and resulting in an earlier season of foliage and flowers.

If you've been pinching the tips of your fuchsia over the past two months, as I recommend, keep doing so for another month, then stop. Your pinching diligence is developing a very full plant with lots of tips. These tips are where hundreds of flowers will eventually form.

If you've been considering removing some thirsty plants and replacing them with native plants, hurry. Local native plants are evolved to grow quickly during the cool, wet season, then slow down or stop growing during the hot, dry summer months.

These are just a few of the rules of the game for gardeners. When you're dealing with Mother Nature, you can't cheat her and you can't lie to her. Learn mother's rules, then abide by them and you will have a more successful and rewarding garden experience.

RON VANDERHOFF is the nursery manager at Roger's Gardens, Corona del Mar.

Ask Ron

Question: Do I really need to prune my roses? They still have flowers on them.

Grace

Newport Beach

Answer: Yes. Almost all modern roses bloom on new growth. If you don't prune your roses each winter, this year's growth develops on top of last year's growth, creating a tall, woody and bare-bottomed plant with less flowers and an unattractive appearance.

ASK RON your toughest gardening questions, and the expert nursery staff at Roger's Gardens will come up with an answer. Please include your name, phone number and city, and limit queries to 30 words or fewer. E-mail stumpthegardener@rogersgardens.com, or write to Plant Talk at Roger's Gardens, 2301 San Joaquin Hills Road, Corona del Mar, CA 92625.

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