23 Aug 2014
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Time, not candy, is what Mother's Day should be about

I wrote this for the Asbury Park Press last year. It's good for any year.

A bouquet of fresh flowers and a box of candy are traditional and appreciated Mother’s Day gifts. But a week later both will be gone. Give Mom a gift that lasts longer, years in some cases, and includes quality time with the woman who, after all, gave you life.

Garden centers now are brimming with annuals, perennials, and vegetables that can handle cooler spring weather. If Mom is a gardener, help her get the growing season started. Your project can be as small as planting around the base of the mailbox to preparing and planting larger beds of flowers or rows of vegetables. If Mom lives in an apartment or condo with a patio or balcony, consider creating a custom-made pot or hanging basket.

Take her with you to stroll through the garden center and select the plants for which you will pay. No argument. And no matter what, rule No. 1 is Mom doesn’t do any of the work. Grab a lawn chair so she can sit, make her favorite drink and talk about whatever as you do all the work. 

Garden centers are packed with flowering perennials, which come back every year. Their blooming time is shorter than annuals, which flower all summer but won’t last through a New Jersey winter. Home Depot is selling creeping and woodland phlox, blue fescue, columbine, forget-me-not, daisies, osteospermum, lillies, dianthus and anemones. Read the labels so you know how much sun or shade they need.

A large swaths of one kind of flower always is impressive, or use specimens to fill in holes in the landscaping. Whatever Mom wants is what she gets.

When buying your plants, consider picking up manure, compost, sand or peat to amend poor soil, plus mulch to fill in around the flowers to retain moisture and keep down the weeds.  (Your local County Extension Service will analyze your soil: $20 for a fertility test, $50 for a soil /plant suitability test. Visit http://njaes.rutgers.edu/county/ for locations.) 

You may choose to use a weed preventer, such as Preen, which also comes in an organic form for fruit, vegetable, herb and flower gardens. The company’s website says it is safe for children and pets. Let’s face it, the older people get the harder it may be to do the prep work to prepare the soil and kneel down to weed.

Pots of all sizes and shapes are available for all kinds of plants, or bring your own. Use one with a drainage hole for excess water to escape. 

Horticulturalist Kelly Austin, the plant buyer for Calgo Gardens, 462 Adelphia Road, Howell, selected a pot shaped like a tulip to hold Bright Lights Swiss chard, Zinfandel oxalis, Lemon sunsatia, Snapshot Orange snapdragon and Outback Sunset lysimachia.

“I like to mix edibles like the Swiss chard with ornamentals,” she said. “And I like unique cutting-edge plants. I don’t want to be typical.”

Mix taller plants with shorter ones, bright with dark, and include at least one that spills over the side, she said. Pick a potting soil that includes slow release fertilizer and a wetting agent, which will retain moisture during the hotter, dryer summer months. If planting a container with succulents or cactus, look for soil made just or them. Austin also adds more fertilizer.

You can’t fertilize your spring container garden enough, even with slow release soil,” she said. “You only have them for a short period of time so you want them to fill out as soon as possible.”

Be prepared to bring the container inside if frost is in the forecast. As the weather gets warmer pop out the cool-weather plants and substitute heat loving ones. Any perennials  can be planted in the garden.

If its vegetables Mom wants to plant, stick with the cool-weather ones like rhubarb, cauliflower, sorrel, lettuce, peas, Brussels sprouts, beats, radishes -- but not tomatoes

Although the traditional time for planting tomatoes is Mother’s Day weekend that’s not a hard-and-fast rule, especially in Morris County with elevations higher than those found at the Shore and central New Jersey, said agricultural agent Peter J. Nitzsche, the Morris County Extension Service department head. 

“You can plant tomatoes in eastern Morris County after May 15 and the western and northern parts after May 20,” he said.  “We still could have a frost so be prepared to protect them with some kind of floating row cover material or you will be buying them again.”

So hold off. Be patient. Mom will probably love to see you in another couple of weeks to help her plant those beef steak and cherry tomatoes.

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