Seasonal advice for gardeners: Go slow, make lists, study

Ed MacFarland leans over a snow bank to straighten a damaged climbing Iceberg rose. The fluctuating temperatures have heaved out some perennials that will need replanting.

Tops on Carol Natale's to-do list this spring is something you might not expect. But without it, cleaning up the garden at her Northeast Philadelphia rowhouse could be a painful affair.

"Lay in some ibuprofen," said Natale, who keeps her chiropractor's number handy at this time of year, too.

After months of winter idleness, those first few days of raking and pruning - around now until April, when the soil has lost its sludgelike feel - can be brutal.

Especially this year.

Gardeners can anticipate greater damage to buds on flowering fruit trees, lilacs, magnolias and other spring bloomers due to this winter's wildly fluctuating temperatures. Those freeze-thaw cycles are pushing perennials right out of the ground, too.

"If it stayed cold all the time, this wouldn't be a problem, but when it's 20 degrees one day and 52 the next, that's trouble," said Mary Cummings, of the Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Gloucester County, who recommended pruning the damaged buds and gently replanting the heaved-out perennials.

Such tasks don't faze Natale, 67, a marketing and sales consultant who learned about flowers, vegetables and herbs, container gardening and houseplants from her two Italian grandmothers in South Philly. Nor does the work deter Ed MacFarland, 64, a funeral director at Kirk & Nice in Feasterville, whose most influential teachers, besides his vegetable-growing dad, were also "grand."

"Pop," his Swiss grandfather, grew grapes, apples, and cherries that he made into wine. "Mutti," his German grandmother, cultivated tomatoes, asparagus, beans, peas, kohlrabi, and herbs. MacFarland still remembers her bright flowers, especially the cockscombs, or celosias, which had thick, jewel-toned plumes befitting a musketeer.

MacFarland hated weeding, but as with Natale and countless others of his generation, the lessons imparted by grandparents made a deep, if subconscious, impression. Though neither gardened during the youthful years of first jobs and first loves, both experienced a moment of remembrance, and awakening, as adults.

Natale's moment came at the Philadelphia Flower Show in 1973. "It was overwhelming," she recalled. "I was hooked."

In 2001, Natale became Northeast Philly's first Penn State master gardener. Today, in her 20-by-30-foot garden in the Pennswood neighborhood, Natale grows oleander, Meyer lemon, figs, and pots of sage, oregano, marjoram, and chives. In summer, she adds tomatoes, peppers, annual herbs, and lettuces.

MacFarland's awakening also came in 1973, during a long weekend at Colonial Williamsburg with his wife, Linda, an oncology nurse. "I saw the herb garden there and something just kind of went off," he said. "It floored me."

Today, MacFarland, who has two grown children and two grandchildren, is an herb expert in his own right. He also grows heucheras, hostas, and hydrangeas at his Glenside home, along with scented begonias, bay trees, butterfly bushes, and daffodil and tulip bulbs.

(Lest we insinuate a pattern where none exists, it is pure coincidence that many of MacFarland's favorites begin with the letters "H" and "B." He also has potted clivias inside his home and greenhouse, and roses, witch hazel, and ornamental dogwood and maple trees outside.)

Natale and McFarland do their own spring cleanup and maintenance, although these days she uses foam mats, he a low chair, to deal with temperamental knees and back. "I just make sure nobody's watching when I go to get up," Natale said.

And both are eager to share their knowledge and joy of gardening in any season. With one important caveat - don't jump the gun - here is their advice for spring:

Make a list of chores. Do stuff you didn't get to last fall, like mulching, sharpening tools. Get your gear together, wash containers, buy supplies. Divide hostas and clean out your beds, but tread lightly.

"Don't get all totally crazy with a rake," Natale said. "Tender things like hostas and Solomon's seal are already popping up."

Start pruning roses, grasses, and other perennials, but look this one up, please. You want to get rid of what's dead, diseased or damaged; you do not want to lop off emerging buds.

And study up: Natale loves Margaret Roach's gardening blog,, and among MacFarland's favorite books is Herb Gardening in Five Seasons by Adelma Grenier Simmons.

Finally - here comes the unpleasantness - think about "need" versus "want." "Mark what you want from the catalogs," Natale suggested, "then cut the list by two-thirds."

Natale is the first to admit she's not yet mastered the self-control thing. Back in February, she had already made the rounds to Home Depot and Lowe's to see if they had put their spring plants out for sale.