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Get Growing: Watch out for cool weather, hope for rain

Spring arrived in a rush early this May with warm temperatures and sunny skies. But a dry April shortened the length of the flowering season for some shrubs and for many tulips. Then, all of a sudden, showers descended with cool temperatures and even light frost. Spring slowed down.

It was a reminder that every year is different and that the old-timers who never planted tomatoes until Memorial Day often were sensible gardeners. After a hard winter we are oh so eager to “Get Growing” we forget that Mother Nature is fickle. Anyone who planted marigolds or zinnias, tomatoes or peppers before May 15 probably got a rude awakening.

Still, it is obvious to the seasoned gardener that climate change isn’t a figment of anyone’s imagination. For years my ‘Boule de Neige’ rhododendron reliably started to bloom Memorial Day weekend, usually on the Sunday that is Amherst College Commencement. Last year and again this year the first buds opened on Mother’s Day, a full two weeks ahead of the traditional schedule.

Lilacs are no longer available to adorn family graves on Decoration Day, another name for Memorial Day. They bloomed even before Mother’s Day. When I was a school girl I memorized, “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,” that wonderful poem about the death of Abraham Lincoln. But I was always puzzled how lilacs could be blooming in April. Then, I lived in Washington, D.C., where spring arrives weeks ahead of New England. In mid-April the lilacs were in bloom there.

The lessons to be learned from our fickle springs are simple: Stick to the old planting schedules and put the tomatoes in the garden Memorial Day weekend. Even then, we may have a late frost. The other lesson is to be prepared to protect plants set out ahead of the traditional schedules. Floating row covers, sheets draped over tomato cages, lugging containers and hanging planters indoors on frosty nights are all techniques to deal with the reality of unpredictable New England weather.

Vegetables like lettuce, broccoli and leeks aren’t troubled by light frosts but tomatoes and especially eggplants won’t start real growth until the weather is truly warm. Eggplants will be set back dramatically by air temperatures below 40 degrees.

So be prepared for more cool weather. Hope for rain since we are several inches behind schedule for normal years. Heat-loving annuals and vegetables will grow better when the weather warms. Planting them outside early doesn’t gain much and may lose everything.

I’ve noticed that the local farmers markets are just beginning to offer tomato seedlings although lettuce and broccoli have been available for weeks.

And remember that hanging planters dry out quickly and can be severely damaged by cold weather. Bring them inside if frost threatens again, if only for overnight.

PLANT SALES: It seems as if every organization in the Valley sponsors a plant sale in May. You don’t have to drive far to find a good selection of locally-grown plants. Tomorrow is a prime plant-sale day with events in Amherst, Sunderland, Southampton and Williamsburg.

e_SBlt Amherst: The Garden Club of Amherst sale is tomorrow from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on the Town Common under the tent. Perennials, including shade-loving wildflowers, ornamental grasses, shrubs and trees, herbs, houseplants and vegetable starts as well as groundcovers are featured. Many choice cultivars are available. There is also a sale of “Trees in Amherst,” updated recently and Tree Walk brochures.

e_SBlt Sunderland: Friends of the Sunderland Library will hold a sale from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Sunderland Historical Society on North Main Street (Route 47). There will also be a book sale at the library from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

e_SBlt Easthampton: Pascommuck Conservation Trust’s annual sale will be held 8 a.m. to noon in the parking lot of Big E’s Supermarket in downtown Easthampton. Proceeds will help the trust fund’s land preservation efforts in the city. Plant donations should be dropped off by 8 a.m. For more information go to www.pctland.org.

e_SBlt Southampton: The Anita Smith Memorial Plant Sale will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Conant Park, Route 10 in Southampton. Hundreds of locally grown perennials and some annuals will be on sale. All proceeds will benefit the Southampton Woman’s Club Scholarship Fund.

e_SBlt Williamsburg: The Christian Outreach group of the Williamsburg Congregational Church will hold a sale of annuals, hanging baskets and cemetery boxes as well as perennials in front of the Grange Hall on Main Street from 9 a.m. to noon. There will also be a bake sale.

e_SBlt Holyoke: Wistariahurst Museum will hold a plant sale from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 238 Cabot St. Master gardeners will offer soil testing for pH (acidity level) and will answer garden questions.

∎ May 25: Amherst: The Garden Ministry of Grace Episcopal Church will hold a plant sale from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. in front of the church on Boltwood Avenue on the Town Common. Proceeds will be used to landscape the church grounds. There will also be a tag sale.

e_SBlt Leverett: The Leverett Historical Society will hold a plant sale from 9 a.m. to noon at Leverett Town Hall. Students at Leverett Elementary School will share in fundraising for their school greenhouse projects. There will also be a book sale. Contact Dawn, 367-9562, or Julie, 367-2656, to donate plants or books.

∎ June 1: Sunderland: The First Congregational Church of Sunderland will hold a plant and bake sale from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the chapel next to the church at the junction of Routes 47 and 116 in the center of Sunderland.

e_SBlt Hadley: The sale will be held opposite the entrance to Skinner Park on Route 47, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., perennials, shrubs, herbs, rock garden plants and more to benefit the Hockanum Schoolhouse. Free tours of the historic one room schoolhouse, guided by former students will also be held.

SOIL TESTING AND PLANT CLINIC: Volunteers with the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association will test soil for pH (acidity level) at the Amherst Farmers Market from 9 a.m. to noon tomorrow. They are using a new meter system, which is more accurate than past sampling. A $1 donation per sample is requested. They will also answer general gardening questions.

AMHERST ORCHID SOCIETY: The monthly meeting of the Amherst Orchid Society is Sunday at 2 p.m. at Munson Memorial Library in South Amherst. Mustafa of A&P Orchids in Swansea will speak about paphiopedilum orchids, the company’s specialty. There will also be an orchid sale.

PLANT SWAPS: It’s plant swap week in the Valley. Belchertown will have one Tuesday at 6 p.m. at 253 Warren Wright Rd. Soil testing for pH (acidity level) will be available from volunteer master gardeners. A $1 donation per sample is requested. The South Deerfield swap will be Wednesday at 6 p.m. at 2 Hobbie Rd. 665-4039. There is a modest fee to participate in either plants swap.

HADLEY GARDEN CENTER: Long-blooming perennials for western Massachusetts is the topic of the “Learn About” on Wednesday, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., with staff member Dee Dice, former owner of garden center that specialized in long-blooming perennials.

The “Walk About” on Thursday will be at 6 p.m. The topic is “Hydrangeas — So Many Varieties, So Little Time,” with Rich Bartoes of Imperial Nurseries, wholesale growers of hydrangeas and other shrubs. Did you know there are now 50 varieties of hydrangeas? Learn about pruning, soil acidity and choosing the right hydrangea for the right site.

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