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Master gardener says pay attention to 'wives' tales'



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May 22, 2013 - By Meg Peters

Review Staff Writer

According to the old wives tale, when the maple tree has fully leafed, the killing frosts are done.

"It's funny, but most of them I have found to be true, particularly the ones I have taught," said master gardener Kathleen Connolly.

The two maples in her yard have never failed her, nor have her striking crop and floral gardens on Lake Shore Drive.

Surrounding her house like a moat to a palace, Connolly grows fig trees, brugmansias, alpine strawberries, corn, peas, beans, lettuce, asparagus, basil, eggplant, fennel, sorrel, sage, tarragon, parsley, shallots, lavender and lemon chives, raspberries, currants, gooseberry bushes and more

She has volunteered her gardening knowledge and efforts for the last seven years as a certified master gardener, taught 'how-to-grow-vegetables classes' at the Orion Senior Center, and was the master-gardener-go-to for the Orion Farmers Market for as long as they've had one on hand.

Currently she is growing exotic cherry tomatoes—such as her favorite 'sweet peas,' chocolate cherries and golden gems— for local restaurant Victoria's Delights up and coming caprese salad. She also tends her daughter Victoria's herb garden behind the restaurant.

She took an interest in the wives tales working at Bordine's, listening to horticulture students recount the pseudo sciences many gardeners follow religiously.

"This is the perfect time to plant right now because I think we're pretty set, except for watching that full moon period, and all you have to do is a quick check for the weather report," she said.

She was referring to another ole' wives tale.

"If the May full moon is late in the month, and if it is a very clear night, you can get a killing frost," she said.

Her advice: watch for that full moon at the end of May, and the subsequent weather forecasts for those nights.

If low temperatures are reported for those coming nights, and you've already planted your garden, Connolly says to cover them up with whatever is handy, even a bed sheet.

As for planting outside, it's a go.

Starters and Seedlings

The trick to knowing whether to start your own seedlings, or buying starters depends on knowing what grows easily, and whether you've started your seeds on time.

For Connolly, her seedling table is also her art table, and the art won out this year. So, she might have to buy a few eggplant starters because hers are not as far along as normal, but "they will catch up. "

Spend a buck on a package of carrots and radish seeds, she said, because they come up really easily. She recommends peas, beans, carrots, radishes and lettuce from seedlings.

Another wives tale: throw your lettuce seeds on top of the snow. If April first comes around and there is still snow on the ground, the seeds will plant themselves when it melts.

"You can probably plant all of those now," she said, as long as you prepare for that full moon. If you start seeds indoors, mid to late march is a good time to plant, normally six to eight weeks before you'd plant them outside.

"You need to either have very sunny, south facing windows, or you need to invest in a grow light," she said.

As far as the mini-plants you see at nurseries, she recommends buying some of the heartier starters: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli and cabbage.

One thing she would like the new gardening community to know, you don't save much money starting your own seedlings, after purchasing the necessary tools (grow light, heat mat). "It's because you love the doing of it," she said, an eggplant starter herself.

When to plant What

Corn, the cucumber family and melons all require a warmer soil, and can be planted mid-May, Connolly said.

Because the weather has been so volatile, everything has been a bit pushed back this year, and she hasn't planted any of those yet.

She has planted her onions, herbs, peas, and lettuce. The exotic cherry tomatoes and eggplants she started as seedlings are keep on a rolling platform, and her eyes kept on the weather. At night she brings them in her garage, along with her fig trees and brugmansia, to slowly transition them to outside elements.

"You have to be careful taking them from their toasty warm inside to the temperature-fluctuating-windy-outside, and you need to allow for about two weeks for what they call hardening off," she said. "You take them out and maybe put them in the garage with the garage door open so they don't get any wind on them, and maybe even if the temperature is dropping into the 40s bring them in to the house for the first couple of nights."

To be sure, double-check the night temperatures. Some plants can survive a frost, depending on the severity. Onions can be planted as soon as the ground thaws, she said. Peas can be planted mid-April, also a frost survivor.

Unless it is an unusually warm spring, Connolly doesn't plant anything before about mid-April.

"The broccoli things can go in early, anything like cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower— those will all survive a frost, I would probably say the last week in April for those."

Then plant peas, lettuce and radish. After it gets a bit warmer, plant your carrots.

"Tomatoes and eggplant are toward the end. The cucumber family, cucumbers and melons are about the last," she said.

Mini-Green-Houses

To side-step the weather right now, Connolly has recently utilized the 'mini-green house.' Those super-size pretzel jars you can get from Costco, she cuts the large bottom off and puts them over her plants.

"So if you get a hot day, you can take the top off and they're not going to cook if they have their own nice little mini-greenhouse," she said. They also work great at night fending off the cooler temperatures.

Lake Orion Effect

Humidity can also play an interesting role in Lake Orion, especially on Lake Shore Drive. You have to look at the micro-climate, she said. Although Lake Orion is a zone 6 climate, temperatures can vary even in your own yard.

"If you live on the lake, we don't warm up quite as early as somebody else because we have 475 acres of ice out there, so that water is really cold and it kind of works on the same principle as an old-fashioned ice box," she said.

The humidity and warmth from the lake affect can also help protect plants come fall. "We get the same benefit in the fall where the water is maybe still 65, 70 degrees and some places are getting a frost, and we don't get it here because of the lake effect," she said.

Whether the weather, or Lake Orion, are playing a large role in this year's lingering cool weather, look to the old sayings to know when to plant. As for Lake Orion the wives tale goes: gardens last longer by the lake.

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