Rains give season the green light

Winter RAINS — early and nicely spaced — are responsible for a spectacular spring bloom. Water-hungry plants such as azaleas that do poorly in dry years are blooming heavily, lawns look great and native plants, accustomed to going without rain, are fat and sassy. Gardens have not needed watering for months and probably won't need it for a few more weeks, though new plants, of course, will require your attention. Even natives planted in the fall will need help getting though their first dry spring and summer.

Tomato time You can plant tomatoes in a week or two, though coastal gardeners might wait until May, when it's warmer. Tomatoes will grow in cool weather, but they won't fruit until it's warm. Coastal gardeners should look for warm, sheltered spots out of chilly ocean breezes. No matter where you live, provide enough support, especially for the indeterminate types that grow and grow like Jack's beanstalk. Those short, conical cages that are so prevalent are useless. Make 6-foot-tall cages of welded wire, the kind with 6-inch-by-6-inch openings. A piece slightly longer than 78 inches will make a cage about 2 feet in diameter, big enough for a summer's worth of growing. Tie the cage to stakes to keep it upright. Also, don't forget annual herbs such as basil or cilantro. No point in planting tomatoes without them.

Rose parade The biggest and brightest bloom of the year comes this time of year. As the flowers fade, cut them off to encourage additional rounds of bloom. Make cuts just above a big five-part leaf. All this blooming make roses hungry, so remember to fertilize after each round.

Fertilize this year? Mature gardens do not need much fertilizer, and some have too much present in the soil, thanks to overly powerful chemical fertilizers used too frequently. But heavy rains have pushed many of these nutrients down and out of the root zone, so fertilizing this year may actually help. Watch the garden closely and see how it grows. If it does fine, consider doing nothing. (The rains flushed harmful salts and other stuff out of the soil, and you won't want to add them back.) But if growth or flowering looks below par, fertilize. In general, liquid chemical fertilizers are strongest and work the fastest, granular chemical products slightly less so. Organics work slowly but last longer.

Sow or sod This is a great time to replant bald spots in lawns by applying more seed or by splicing in sod patches. It's an equally fine time to start a lawn from seed or sod. If Bermuda lawns were overseeded with rye in the fall and are beginning to brown, reset mowers to cut grass an inch tall. That will encourage the greening of the low-growing, sun-loving Bermuda grass and phase out the cool- season rye.

Trim bougainvillea If you need to make a bougainvillea smaller or simply tidy one up, it's time to trim or whack it back. The plant will recover quickly in the warming weather and will still bloom heavily in summer because flowers come at the ends of new growth.

Bulbs bow out Spring bulbs have largely finished blooming, and though the conventional advice is to leave the browning foliage, it's generally not necessary. Let daffodils brown completely, but on other bulbs, cut the foliage off with scissors (don't yank) so they are tidier. Remember, tulips won't bloom again in our climate, though they will make leaves each fall. Toss out the bulbs while you can still find them.

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