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What Can We Do About Out-of-Season Bloom?


Special Note: Organic gardening guru Mike McGrath has moved his Public Radio show You Bet Your Garden from Philadelphia to WLVT in Bethlehem, PA, where 'locals' (the Lehigh Valley, greater Philadelphia area, South Jersey and Delaware) can watch the show on TV every Saturday morning at 10 am—including the famed Gardens Alive Question of the Week! The podcast and online stream can be accessed at www.wlvt.org; and local affiliates around the country can pick up each week's show as usual. (If your affiliate is having trouble accessing the show, please email Mike's staff at YBYG@ptd.net.) And call in with YOUR garden questions at 833-727-9588 and we'll try and arrange for you to be a caller on the show.

What Can We Do About Out-of-Season Bloom?

Q: In an email with the subject line "Accidental late and/or re-flowering of milkweed, lilacs and buckeye", Deb in Troy, Ohio ("just north of Dayton") writes: "We had a heavy rain about a week and a half ago, which somehow shot life back into some of my plants. While they should be dying back, they all of a sudden have new growth in the form of buds (on the trees) and new shoots emerging from the ground (from the butterfly milkweed). Will this harm the plants? What should I do to ensure growth in the spring when this normally would be happening? Or are my plants doomed?

A. If they are, they are joined by a vast chorus of plants both loved and unloved that have been acting wacky over the past several years across many USDA growing zones, displaying a characteristic that trained horticulturists like to professionally call "bat poop crazy". Because, whether due to 'global warming', 'climate change' or an unwanted dimensional opening to The Bizarro World, all bets are off.

In my little town, where the garlic is strong, the tomatoes are good-looking and all the salad greens are well above average, we are now experiencing the third run of Japanese honeysuckle in bloom. Yes—third; and yes, that is two more than normal; but normal seems to have given up and taken a job that shortly will make a fortune selling ice cubes to Eskimos.

Tangent: Yes: I know that I am a horticultural criminal for allowing the alien invasive Japanese honeysuckle to sprawl over a portion of the fence in my backyard. The wonderful scent—that once infused the air for a few weeks in the summer and now makes more comebacks than Cher—is a true joy (now joyS) of the season. And it "shares" a fence with other vines that I attack daily with flame, hands, pruners and The Legion of Friends Who Like Pulling Weeds.

I'm talking poison ivy and Virginia Creeper (which are both invasive but native American plants, so who knows which side of the scorecard they land on) plus wild grape and a Triffid-like vine I call wild wisteria that reaches up into trees and strangles them to death and doesn't even have the decency to bloom. Those not-so-fantastic four I'm on like a dog on a bone, constantly cutting them back and calling them bad names. And yet they persist—stronger by a huge factor than the honeysuckle. Why?

The same reason that Deb's plants are misbehaving in Ohio. Whether we are in the grip of climate change, global warming or just plain bad luck, experts agree that the conditions over the past few decades greatly favor the growth and survival of vining plants over shrubs, trees and non-climbing plants; and they favor mean nasty vines over the good and decent ones.

And that brings us to Spring bloomers being confused in the fall. My lilac—for the first time in its long life—seems to be behaving. (And yes, I know I just threw a Kenahora into the ring, but I really like the flowers—even if they choose to now show up in December.) But my other plants are just as mad-crazy as Deb's. My forsythia is beginning to bloom again and my roses, instead of going dormant like they should, have decided to produce new flowers. In October.

What should we all do when things like this and Deb's new growth occur? The hardest thing for gardeners TO do, and that is nothing. 'Nothing' as in don't look at them; binge watch Antiques Roadshow and all those nostalgic and somewhat historically correct shows about British aristocracy on PBS. Or the baseball playoffs. Or take up woodworking. Because if you mess with these confused plants, things can only get worse.

Let's say you decide that pruning off the new growth will save your plants. News flash: Pruning stimulates new growth, so your plants will have even more lush new growth to suffer winter injury when the temps fall below freezing—which will happen exactly ten days afterwards if you choose to prune.

Fertilizer? Good idea! Let's stimulate even more new growth to freeze and perhaps induce the plant to avoid dormancy until even later in the season—which will, by then, be winter. At least somewhere. (This is not true of cool-season lawns, however—fescue, rye and bluegrass turfs should be fed in the fall; anytime from around September 1st through the end of October. Use corn gluten meal or a gentle natural-and-or-organic fertilizer labeled for use on lawns.)

Otherwise, we need to step back and trust the plants to figure this madness out.

Here's what's happening: It was very warm for a long time and then it got "cold"; which may only mean a twenty-degree or so drop but it lasted long enough that the plants thought it was a shorty winter. Then it warmed up, they think its Spring and we have—as we did when our children were small—things we love that won't go to sleep. Unlike those children we can't claim that the plants are having an allergy attack and give them some Benadryl so that we can get a good night's sleep.

But sleep well you should. I have seen my forsythia in full Elton John bloom in the fall and then flower nicely again in the Spring. This is a Brave New World, gardeners. Sit on your pruners, pack away your fertilizers and hope for the best.

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