Spring Planting for Perennials

One of my co-workers caught me off guard a week ago when she asked me what she could plant in her garden right now.

My mind started running through the early crops, beets, peas, onion sets, lettuce can all go in very early in the spring. Before I could organize a suggestion she asked me about leeks.


Perennial veggies are an excellent addition to a garden. Food that doesn’t have to be replanted years after year appeals to me. I double checked to make sure she meant leeks, and not the ramps that will be available a few weeks from now. Either one can be grown in the garden, but regular garden leeks are probably a little more tolerant of cultivation. Their wikipedia entry suggests that they have been cultivated for at least the last 4,000 years.

Leeks, ramps, scallions, onions and garlic all have a lot in common. They tend to grow best in cool, moist conditions, usually benefit from a fertile soil, and are generally perennial. Top setting for garlic, setting seed for non-garlic plants, or for some onions very cold temperatures might bring an end to the plant. Leeks and ramps can be planted most any time of the year, but right now with cool temperatures and lots of moisture is a great time to get them into the ground.

One of my favorite seed dealers, J.L. Hudson, advertises four varieties of leek seed this year. Hudson is also offering a selection of onion seed, some of which will overwinter nicely here in Pennsylvania. Seed can be planted outdoors in tilled soil, or lay down 8-10 layers of newsprint covered with several inches good fine mulch, and place the seed on top of the mulch. The seed doesn’t need to be covered, or cover it very lightly. Rows 8 inches apart are fine.

Leek plants can also be purchased locally, Pennswoods.net Classifieds lists a number of people selling garden leeks right now. They can be planted right now along with onion sets, and in much the same fashion as onion sets.

In addition to members of the onion family, this is a perfect time to get fruit trees and bushes into the ground. There are lots of local nurseries that carry an abundance of fruiting plants. One of the advantages of shopping at a local nursery is that they tend to stock plants they’ve found to do well in the local area. It doesn’t work well for them to have people bringing them back dead plants over the next couple of months, and so they’ve got a lot of trial and error in offering plants that are likely to do well right out of the gate.

This spring I’ve worked in a number of raspberry bushes, gooseberries, currants, and some edible honeysuckles. As you move further out into lesser known plants, the advantages of mail order nurseries kick in. Where as the local nurseries are going to take pains to offer error-proof options, they are not going to want to expend valuable stock space into plants that will have a limited following. Most nurseries will carry heritage, bristol, and lathram raspberries, but if you want a Fall Gold, Anne’s Gold, or KiwiGold you might have to mail order them. Yellow Delicious apples and D’Anjou pears can be found at most nurseries, but Arkansas Black apples and Korean Giant pear are likely going to be mail order plants.

I planted raspberries for the first time last year, and decided to expand a little this year. I dropped this year’s plants in 10′ away from last year’s row, and put the plants 2′ apart in the row. I hope in a couple of years to have a solid hedgerow of Fall Gold.

Edible honeysuckle can also be known as haskap or honeyberry. Edible honeysuckle, at its best, is said to resemble blueberries. The advantage is that they barely care what sort of soil they grow in, compared to blueberries being fairly particular about a low nutrient, acidic and moist environment. Honeysuckle also tends to be faster fruiting, faster growing, and far more tolerant of shade and competition from other plants.

The down side is that honeysuckle has been bred for ornamental purposes as much or more than for eating, and it can be a gamble getting plants with berries that are tolerable, much less comparable to blueberries. Another gotcha lies in the fact that even eating quality honeysuckle really needs to completely ripen on the plant before harvest. Blueberries picked a day or two early won’t have quite the depth of flavor and sweetness, but honeysuckle berries picked a day or two early are hardly worth eating.

Edible honeysuckle, like blueberries, is not self pollinating and you need to plant at least two varieties for fruit.

I found edible honeysuckle plants labeled as “Lonicera caerulea ‘kamtschatica'” at a local nursery for $50 each. The ‘kamtschatica’ branding only means that the plants may or may not have had their origin in northeastern asia. Online I’ve found St Lawrence nurseries is now carrying several named, patented varieties from the University of Saskatchewan for $15 each, or not-named-but-bred-for-eating plants for $10 each. To me, this is a win for mail order.

St. Larwence requires orders for spring delivery be postmarked no later than April 10, so if you are thinking of ordering, now is the time.

I’ve also put in some hops within the last week. This is another a seasonally available plant. The obvious purpose of hops is for brewing your own beer. However non-brewers might also find interest in hops. The hops are used in crafting for making pillows. They also produce an absolutely amazing vine. Within the first year they are capable of growing up to six feet, making them an excellent privacy screen. The second year if they are properly cared for they can reach up to 20 feet.

For the plants I’ve mentioned, getting them in early in the spring is a key to success. Cool air helps slow top growth while ample spring moisture and bright sun on the soil warms the roots and helps the plant grow into its new location. The later into spring we go, the less time the roots have to dig in before dealing with the stress of providing moisture for early summer’s growth. Early fall can be just as good, with a cool moist fall, and a cool moist spring before summer hits. The disadvantage is that winter sits between the two, and might cull a plant that didn’t grow in quite fast enough.

Most berry bushes will do well to be planted just a little deeper than they were grown, but raspberries and grafted fruit trees need to be planted at the same level or just a touch shallower. Raspberry crown can rot if planted too deeply, and the graft of the fruit tree needs to be above ground. If you don’t know that the tree is not grafted, it is safe to assume that it is grafted. Berry bushes usually need to have any branch older than 4 years pruned, and having the base of the bush below soil level will help encourage it to send up new shoots on a regular basis. Planting a bit on the deeper side also helps encourage their roots to be a little deeper. For berry bushes with their shallow roots, this can be the difference between skating along through a hot dry summer, and producing a bountiful harvest.

Suppressing weed growth is important. Many fruit bearing bushes and trees don’t handle competition well. Two to four inches of mulch over top with either a commercial weed barrier, a layer of cardboard, or 8-10 sheets of newsprint works great. This also helps make sure that the shallow roots of berry bushes don’t dry out. The double ground style mulch is just about perfect for this. Being an aged, finely ground mulch it tends resist wind and stay in place, hold its color well, and it provides both mild nutrition and healthy building soil materials. Call Scotty here at Snyder Excavating and tell him you want to try some of the double ground mulch this season.

Have a Happy Easter!