UNITED STATES—Scheduling of gardening chores is as important now as it ever was. We plant warm season vegetables and annuals in time for spring and summer. We plant cool season vegetables and annuals for autumn and winter. We pick flowers as they bloom. We harvest fruits and vegetables as they ripen. We watch the seasons change on our calendars, as well as in the locally specific weather.
Yet, the one scheduling tool that we do not hear as much about as we did when agriculture was more common in the region is the ‘last frost date.’ It refers to the average date of the last potentially damaging frost for a specific region. The last of such frosts might actually be earlier or later, but the last frost date remains a standardized time to plan particular procedures and planting around.
There are likely a few reasons why we do not talk about the last frost date much. The most relevant reason is likely the timing. Around here, the last frost date is sometime in January. It is earlier in some spots, and later in others, but it is sometime between January 1 and 30. It is simply too early to limit much of what we do in the garden in early spring, and is irrelevant to most winter chores.
It might seem to be just as irrelevant now, since the last frost was so long ago. Seed for warm season vegetables and annuals is sown as the weather gets warmer only because it would grow too slowly while the weather is too cool in winter, not because of a threat of frost. There really is quite a bit of time between the last frost and warm spring weather, while the weather is still rather cool.
However, pruning of plants that were damaged by frost should have been delayed at least until after the last frost date, and perhaps as late as spring. Although unsightly, damaged growth shelters inner growth from subsequent frost. Besides, premature pruning stimulates new growth that is more sensitive to subsequent frost. Most of such pruning is delayed until just after the last frost date.
If delayed longer, fresh new growth will show how far back damaged stems must get pruned.
Highlight: leopard plant
As an understory species that naturally grows under forest trees in its native environment in Japan, leopard plant, Farfugium japonicum, can be quite happy in parts of the garden that are too shady for other plants. If it does not get too warm or dry, it can tolerate full sun. It likes rich soil and frequent watering. Fertilizer should be applied moderately, since too much can cause foliar burn.
Cultivars of leopard plant that are variegated with yellow or white spots, blotches, margins or outwardly and irregularly flaring streaks are increasingly popular, although the unvariegated rich dark green cultivars are still the most popular. Individual leaves get about three to six inches wide. Some are wavy or impressively crinkly around the edges, or outfitted with a few bluntly angular teeth.
The mostly unseen rubbery petioles can suspend the glossy evergreen foliage as high as two feet, although most cultivars stay lower. Rhizomes spread slowly. It may take many years before the healthiest of specimens gets big enough to divide. Leopard plant is grown as a foliar plant, but provides a delightful surprise of loose trusses of inch wide yellow daisy flowers in autumn or winter.
Horticulturist Tony Tomeo can be contacted at tonytomeo.com.