Garden Club of McKeesport members gather for weekly session at rose garden

| Friday, March 28, 2014, 3:46 a.m.

With the start of April just days away, this is typically the ideal time to start thinking seriously about the backyard garden.

Members of the Garden Club of McKeesport met for their weekly volunteer session on Wednesday with the group's rose garden and perennial beds on their collective mind — but the weather was not cooperating.

The region woke to a coating of snow Wednesday morning and temperatures hovered around 20 degrees for much of the day.

“Mother Nature, give us a break,” said the garden club's Dorothy Zenkevich, who came to the meeting with a pair of pruners packed in her car. She left the cutting tool in her automobile and, like her fellow club members, settled instead on working inside their heated Renziehausen Park clubhouse.

Zenkevich and a few of her colleagues did venture out to survey some of the beds in the three-acre site, not that there was much in the way of new growth to see. A few of the early bird varieties of flowers like daffodils and hyacinths were a few inches out of the ground but none were yet bursting forth in bloom.

There was some concern among club members that winter's extended cold snaps and lingering snows may have killed off some of the more delicate perennials, but there was general optimism that the club's open-to-the-public rose pruning events, scheduled for April 5 and 12 at 1 p.m., would not be affected by the weather.

Club members said, as a rule, they wait until after the forsythia blooms before they start to prune their rose bushes because cutting back the bushes too early can spur new growth that may be damaged by dipping temperatures.

As tempting as it may be for gardeners to grab their spade at the first sight of improving weather, experts caution against working the soil when it is cold and wet.

“It destroys healthy soil structure and prevents seeds that are planted from establishing good contact with the soil,” said Penn State Extension community-based agriculture program manager Heather Mikulas.

Plants that have trouble accessing water and developing roots tend to be stunted and at greater risk from harmful insects and disease, she said.

St. Patrick's Day traditionally has been a local start date for early growers of cold weather crops like peas, broccoli and cabbage, noted Mikulas. She said the success of those endeavors likely will be delayed or severely reduced because of the past week's freeze.

“In general, what happens in the next week is really going to determine if field planting gets pushed ahead” (farther on the growing calendar), Mikulas said. “If the ground stays frozen, or thaws and refreezes, that will delay field work.”

Mikulas said it's difficult to predict how the hard winter may have affected insect populations. She said there is hope the prolonged subzero temperatures may have turned back insect pests that are approaching from southern climates, but said pests native to the region are pretty well adapted to fierce winters.

AccuWeather senior meteorologist Tom Kines said, given the short-term forecast of continued seasonal average temperatures hitting only the 50s during the day — with the exception of Monday, when the mercury may break the 60-degree mark — “nobody should be thinking about planting anything yet. Typically, the last frost doesn't occur until the second half of April or even early May.”Given the recent cold snap, he said, “I suspect parts of the ground might be frozen.”

Kines said the region should expect “at or below normal temperatures for the next 10 days or two weeks. After that it does look like the pattern is going to change.”

Kines said the latter half of April should have some warm spells and possibly below average precipitation, which should be good news for gardeners.

“The moral of the story is, ‘be patient,'” said Kines, adding the upside of the slow-to-warm spring is, “We don't have to mow the lawn yet.”

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1966, or

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