Weather is warmer, but it’s not spring

Editor’s note: Meet Mike in Chantilly Sunday, Feb. 23. Mike will get you ready for spring, answer your garden questions and sign books at noon and 2 p.m. at the Capital Home & Garden Show at the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly. Click here for details.

Warning No. 1: It’s illegal to melt ice with fertilizer

Paul in Severna Park just raised a very important issue. He writes, “You’ve been telling people to use salt carefully when they melt ice so that they don’t endanger their greenery. I was told long ago to use urea fertilizer to melt ice without destroying any greenery. You might want to tell people about this alternative.”

You’re right, Paul. I need to tell them that this old and often-repeated advice is now illegal in Maryland and Virginia. Fertilizer that’s spread during the dormant season isn’t absorbed by plants, and so it all goes straight into waterways. That’s a serious problem that the new lawn care fertilizer laws were created to stop. Using fertilizer as ice melt is specifically prohibited in the new laws. Click here for the Maryland regulations.

So stick with calcium chloride, sand or kitty litter. And pray for spring.

Warning No. 2: Don’t get spring fever on your lawn

In the immortal words of my garden sensei: “Danger, danger! Warning, warning!”

Do not let this warm weekend weather seduce your poor winter-barraged brain into believing that spring has suddenly arrived. It has not. Yes, do get outside and enjoy that bright thing in the sky that I think we used to call the sun, but don’t let your sun-loving-self wander over toward your lawn or garden.

That lawn’s sodden soil is beyond saturated right now, and even walking on it could do quite a bit of damage.

And resist the urge to prune any of your plants to “clean things up.” The new growth your pruning would promote would freeze solid when arctic air returns next week, and your good intentions could wind up killing a poor plant that has survived just fine up until now.

Even seasonally correct pruning, such as trimming big trees, should wait until the cold weather returns.

And, unfortunately, it will.

Orchid care 101

Did you follow my advice and give a Phalaenopsis, or “moth orchid,” on Valentine’s Day? To keep that beauty in bloom as long as possible, follow these easy rules:

  • In nature, moth orchids grow under trees and never receive direct sun, so the best spot for them indoors is in an east- or west-facing window with a sheer curtain softening the light.
  • Daytime temperatures should be warm – 70 degrees or a little warmer – but not hot (another reason to avoid direct sun). Taking the nighttime temps down by around 10 degrees will prolong flowering even more.
  • Don’t overwater. Once a week, place the pot that has drainage holes (which may not be the one you see. Many orchids have the “real” pot hidden inside a decorative pot) in a couple inches of water, let it sit there for an hour and then put it back into place, which shouldn’t be near any kind of heat source, especially forced air.
  • Try to keep the relative humidity in the area around 50 percent. If your indoor air is very dry, give the plant a gentle misting with clean water (filtered, bottled or distilled – not tap water) every morning.

Seed starting: It’s not for the timid

Kristen in Brookeville writes: “I’d like to start some flowers and veggies indoors from seed this year with my kids. I’ve tried this before, but haven’t had any success. Can you give me some tips to ensure that we’ll see a pretty and delicious end to our project? Any specific varieties that work well?”

It’s not the varieties, Kristen. It’s careful attention to overall seed-starting detail that leads to success. That means using real containers as opposed to things such as old egg cartons, soil-free mix instead of outside dirt, and bright artificial light.

In short: Seed starting is a very different art than outdoor growing. Luckily, you don’t want to start until mid-March, so you’ll have plenty of time to acquire what you’ll need to be a seed-starting champ.


  • The right kind of containers. Seeds start best in real containers with good drainage, like the ‘six-packs’ that nurseries and garden centers use. If you don’t have any old ones around, ask a gardening friend

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