Finally! After six long weeks, columnist Tom Atwell’s new Red Astrachan apple tree sapling leafed out, just about the time he thought it was dead. A Japanese maple tree is behind it. Photo by Tom Atwell

The cool, dry spring this year contributed to at least one six-week-long nagging worry for me and slowed the production of some of our early vegetables, but it also had some beautiful benefits.

I’ll start with the nagging worry. This spring, I received a bare-root Red Astrachan apple tree from Fedco. The variety was a favorite of my wife Nancy’s grandmother, and I should have planted one decades ago. Following the instructions that came with the tree, I soaked the roots in warm water for a couple of days and dug a generous planting hole. I planted the tree on April 15 (after all, we need something hopeful on tax deadline day), adding a lot of compost, and then I watered it every day, and waited.

Nothing happened for weeks. The bare-root red chokeberry (Aronia) that we got from Fedco at the same time put out leaves after a couple of weeks. The apple tree that was in our yard when we moved here (no idea what variety) leafed out. When I watered the Astrachan apple, I also bent the twig tips, and they were supple. Also, I trust Fedco, and know the company wouldn’t send me a dead tree. But, to repeat, nothing. I feared the sapling was dead and was wondering how long to wait before pulling it out.

But on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, six long weeks after I planted the tree, I noticed just a bit of swelling in the nodes along the branches. Signs of life from the tree, finally, and a sigh of relief from me. Now, I’m happy to report, the Astrachan seems to be growing happily.

The cool, cloudy spring also slowed vegetable production. For the past two seasons – sparked first by pandemic boredom – I have planted lettuce in a cold frame in mid-March, and harvested lettuce in mid-April. This year, it was well into May before we got any lettuce. Other vegetables were slow, too. We hadn’t harvested carrots or beet greens by July 4. We did have three varieties of edible pea pods in late June, though, and plenty of shelling peas for the holiday.

We picked strawberries in mid-June, and ate a lot of them. We grow the variety Sparkle, and the plants had stopped producing by the Fourth. When I bought strawberries at Alewives Brook Farm, Caitlin Jordan told me their Sparkles had also gone by. I plan to plant a later variety to follow the Sparkles so we can extend the harvest.

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The cool weather also caused problems for the ornamental plants.

I heard from a number of people this spring that their shrubs and perennials died back or were having trouble this year. Some had lost plants, like thyme, that had previously thrived. I asked State Horticulturist Gary Fish about the problem. He said he had a lot of winter kill on a lilac that has always done well in the past. Coincidentally (or maybe not?), one lilac out of a row of six that we planted in 1976 died this year, except for a few small sprouts. It wasn’t just the cold spring, Fish thinks.

“Our winter weather is definitely causing lots of stress in our plants,” he wrote in an email. “So much teasing with overly warm periods followed by cold snaps and a lack of snow in many areas, with more winter ice storms and rain.”

Heads up: I will do some research and write a column before fall about how to protect your plants for what seems to be our new-normal winters.

But right now, I am looking forward to a productive three months or more of this growing season.

The rhododendrons stayed in bloom almost three weeks longer than usual this year. Photo by Tom Atwell

One advantage of the cooler weather is that the flowers are lasting a much longer time. One rhododendron in our garden, which usually finishes blooming in mid-June, was gorgeous on the Fourth of July. Mind you, this isn’t an Independence Day rhododendron, which is meant to bloom on the 4th.

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In past years, I haven’t had good luck growing high-bush blueberries. The dozen or so specimens scattered through our gardens serve mostly an ornamental purpose. But this year, for the first time, all of our bushes have berries! Even the three “Pink Lemonade” blueberries – which, oxymoronically, are supposed to produce pink blueberries – have berries for the first time since we planted them in 2011. If the birds don’t get to the berries before we do –  environmentally speaking, not a bad thing – we could have a good crop.

Or not. When I walked the yard before writing this column, the serviceberry (Amelanchier) was full of not-quite-ripe berries. It also was full of snacking birds. That doesn’t bode well for our blueberries.

We also have a lot of developing tomatoes, potatoes, cucumbers and squash.

All in all, I’m hoping for a bountiful year.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]


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